02:00 AM Jan. 18, 2005 PT
We encounter them everywhere -- on the bus, on the street, in restaurants -- always talking to an
invisible companion. They're people gabbing on cell phones,
and they can be obnoxious.
According to U.S. census data, between 1993 and 2003 the number of cell-phone subscribers in the
United States grew more than 300 percent, from 34 million
to 159 million, so maybe it's no surprise that associated gripes have risen as well.
Across the country, the cell phone is on its way to becoming a pervasive and unremarkable medium,
said Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at the University of
Southern California and Japan's Keio University who studies technology and issues pertaining to
children and new media.
Ito studies cell-phone culture primarily in Japan, where she said some issues related to courteous
use have been worked out. But here in the United States
she gets the sense that "it's still a thing that people are trying to work through," she said.
"Once you have people from all demographics using the phone and social norms hopefully stabilizing a
little bit, my guess is these type of concerns will
start to die down or at least be something that's not a topic of widespread concern," she said.
But in the meantime, how does one stop such foes, who seem oblivious to the fact that they're
annoying those around them? And how to avoid becoming one
of them? Some folks have taken creative and sometimes drastic measures to answer these questions.
It's a familiar issue: You're stuck somewhere with a nearby stranger yapping on a cell phone, but
you're unwilling to say anything about it. In December,
designers Jim Coudal of Chicago's
and Aaron Draplin of Portland, Oregon-based
drafted a solution that's been gaining buzz across the blogosphere.
Following an idea initiated by Coudal's wife, Heidi, Coudal and Draplin put together a series of
free, downloadable cards, with messages like, "Just so
you know: Everyone around you is being forced to listen to yer conversation" and "The world is a
noisy place. You aren't helping things." Cards are attributed
to the Society for HandHeld Hushing, or SHHH.
At last check, the
pdf) had been downloaded a quarter of a million times, Coudal said, though he doesn't know of
anybody who has actually passed out the cards. He has, however,
had requests to translate them into French and Japanese, and somebody translated them into Finnish,
"It's one of those things that happened to strike a chord with people," he said.
If downloaders are going to use the cards, Coudal suggests handing one out and then leaving the
"We don't really want to be responsible for a confrontation in the shoe department of Nordstrom's or
anything," he said.
In many cities around the country, restaurants are taking a passive -- but more expensive --
approach to curbing public cell-phone use by installing special
cell-phone booths either inside or outside their establishments. In New York City, Chelsea's
Biltmore Room boasts the city's first such booth, which general
manager Kris Furniss said was installed when the restaurant opened more than a year ago. Located
next to the bar on the former site of a dumbwaiter, the
booth is soundproof and leather-lined.
Currently, about 30 to 40 people use it per night, Furniss said. Often, they'll pick up a ringing
phone and then move into the booth. It reminds people
not to talk around others, he said, and Furniss thinks within the next five to 10 years more such
booths will pop up in businesses and public areas.
Just outside Atlanta, the Brooklyn Cafe also has a cell-phone booth. It's a red, 1,700-pound English
antique, which manager Chad League said several people
use each day.
"People talk about it all the time. They think it's a great idea," he said.
The booth is a way to combat the fact that people seem unable to go anywhere without their phones,
he said, and "it's definitely creative in that you're
not just telling someone they can't use their cell phones."
One elderly Minnesota man tried to do just that, however. Bill Stevenson, 79, got in a physical
tangle with a man at a St. Paul bagel restaurant in summer
He was fed up with a man shouting obscenities to someone on his cell phone, he said. Stevenson said
his friend asked the man to take his phone outside,
but the man wouldn't comply.
Stevenson said he then approached the man from behind and tried to take the phone away. A tug of war
ensued, and eventually the man and phone went flying.
Stevenson ended up with three months of probation and a $50 fine.
He didn't use good judgment in grabbing the man's phone, Stevenson said, but he has received a lot
of support for his action. A local radio station paid
his fine, and he's gotten positive calls and letters.
But despite the support for attempts to rein in annoying cell-phone use, Ito, the anthropologist,
thinks things may get worse before they get better.
She has a simple suggestion for those who want to avoid becoming the object of others' ire: Start
sending text messages.
"I think if people really are concerned about the prevalence of voice, they should start adopting
text as an alternative to it. Because it's a critical-mass
issue -- enough people have to start using it that it becomes an alternative to voice," she said.
Ray T. Mahorney
Do your part for the environment, Drive an SUV!