FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Woman Busted for Loud Cell Phone Call

Depending on your point of view, this story is bound to make you either cheer or cringe. On Sept. 9, a woman who was five months' pregnant was arrested at a Maryland bus depot for talking too loudly on her cell phone. She was forced to lie on her stomach, though a doctor later confirmed that her unborn child was not harmed in the incident. Police claim that she was initially asked by an officer to keep her voice down, whereupon she became "abusive and uncooperative," prompting the arrest.

Having just returned from a business trip and noting how ubiquitous cell phones have become, I can see how they will continue to be a source of friction when used in public places. In part, this is because we haven't yet agreed upon etiquette for using our cool new devices. Although it sounds quaint and hardly futuristic, etiquette is an important concept in any era.

When the telephone was first introduced in the 1870s, it took several years for basic telephone etiquette to emerge. For instance, people didn't know a proper way to answer a phone at first -- something that even small children today take for granted. People also didn't know when it was proper to initiate a phone call, or whether it was too "forward" for women to call men. The wealthy left the task of telephoning to their servants, believing that using the phone was vulgar. Of course, all this reflected the mores and manners of the time, but they illustrate the challenge that the telephone posed to long-established rules of personal interaction.

Cell phones, along with Caller ID, instant messaging, camera phones and text messaging, continue to change the way we communicate with one another. Cell phones in particular have, in part, instigated a loss in privacy as more folks converse out in the open (in the old days, making a public phone call meant going into a phone booth and closing a door). And along with those changes are bound to be conflicts.

Perhaps a resolution will be much like out approach to smoking, in that we divide our public spaces into "phone-friendly" and "phone-free" areas. Or, more locales may take extreme measures, as with Saudi Arabia, which is enforcing a ban on camera phones. The rise of text messaging (along with encryption standards) may permit a return to more discreet personal communication when one is in a public place. At least, one hopes not to be arrested for "texting" too loudly.