Those Ubiquitous Phones: What Good Are They?


The saga of cell phones: Suddenly, we can't seem to live without them, though we sure wish that everybody else would stop talking so loudly, so often and for so long on them.

With the number of cell-phone subscribers nationwide now approaching 200 million, complaints about their omnipresence in contemporary life have been piling up as well, especially as Americans of all ages grow ever more reliant on the hand-held technology.

But does that mean that people want to revert to a land before wireless communication?

Not a chance.

"About two out of three people have access to a cell phone," said Michael Traugott, a communications professor at the University of Michigan who studies the impact of technology on society. "Most of them think it is an indispensable part of their lives.

"There is a difference between how much people find cell phones useful to them individually, and whether or not they are aggravated with the way other people use them," he continued.

While Americans still lag behind their European and Israeli counterparts in terms of the percentage of the population with actual phones, they are fast developing a "can't live without them" mentality. But the relationship may predominately be one of love-hate.

In a March 2005 study undertaken by Traugott, more than 80 percent of cell-phone users insisted that the device has made their lives easier. But at the same time, 60 percent of respondents reported that public conversations have annoyed them at one time or another.

The idea that the seemingly ubiquitous mobile phone could cause ill in society has found an ultimate pop-culture expression in Stephen King's latest horror novel, The Cell, in which millions of users worldwide are suddenly transformed into killer zombies.

Published on Jan. 24, the book's cover features a cell phone lying on the ground in a pool of blood. King has even lent his voice to a promotional ring tone that announces: "The next call you make may be your last."

Could the bestselling novelist be tapping into some underlying backlash against the mobile phone?

"I think it's a new take on people's fears about new technology," posed Traugott.

Some Life-Saving Technology 
Whatever happened to the idea of the mobile phone as a potentially life-saving piece of technology? After all, they're given to the elderly, to children, even to domestic-abuse victims as a line of communication.

Indeed, the Hebrew word for cell phone – pelephone – literally translates to "miracle phone."

While it may be hard to quantify exactly how many lives cell phones have actually saved, it's clear that their abundance has made calling for help in emergency situations easier than it used to be.

More than 220,000 cellular 9-1-1 calls are made every day, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, better known as CTIA–The Wireless Association. And cell-phone companies now have the capability to include global-positioning devices in phones that would allow 9-1-1 dispatchers to pinpoint an exact location of a caller. But it appears that we may be years away from this becoming standard practice nationwide.

Cell phones are essential in disaster preparedness, according to Russell Jones, director of protective services for Albert Einstein Healthcare Network.

"If we are in an emergency weather situation and the land lines go down, we have cell phones," said Jones. And he said that if a patient becomes combative, security personnel have the combination walkie-talkie/cell phone to drum up quick backup. (Jones said that more studies are showing that the use of phones do not harm hospital equipment.)

Phones have also proven an indispensible tool for anyone trying to escape an abusive home, according to Marilyn Jacob, who runs the case-management program in the Jewish Children and Family Service's Northeast Philadelphia office.

Jacob makes sure that victims of domestic violence who have left an abusive situation can call 9-1-1 in case the person they've left – most likely a husband, a former husband or a boyfriend – tracks them down. The phones also assist domestic-violence victims as a tool in planning to flee an abusive situation, lending a small element of much-needed privacy for those in need.

But Jacob admits she rarely needs to give out cell phones anymore; it seems that most people already own them.

"I haven't had to give out a cell phone in at least six months – maybe a year," she said.

'Piece of Mind' 
A primary reason people get cell phones is to have them handy while driving, just in case something should happen. Last year, AAA Mid-Atlantic recorded that nearly 60 percent of roadside-assistance calls were made from a mobile phone.

"It gives me piece of mind," attested Mollie Kleiman, who didn't panic when her car broke down last year; she simply called her mechanic from the road.

Kleiman, a senior citizen, sat around with friends at the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia and showed off her newest contraption.

But any discussion of cell phones at all sooner or later turns to the bad behavior of drivers.

"The other day, a woman almost hit me. I'm sure she didn't even see me," chimed in 85-year-old Danny Podolsky, also at the senior center, referring to a near run-in with a chattering motorist.

But when push comes to shove, he admitted that he would never give up his own phone.

"I have the cheapest plan you can get," he said. "It's for the times I take my wife to [shop], and there's no place to park." He just sits in the car or circles while she goes for groceries or does other chores.

Connie Feltzer, 68, referred to her phone as a veritable safety net.

"When you really need your kids, they pick up the cell phone much faster," she stated.

Dave Welsh, 86, has owned a cell phone for all of three months. His grandson bought him the device after he showed up late for a few family events.

"They couldn't figure out where I was," he said, before adding that he prides himself on being early.

Everything is working out fine, he said, except that his phone is incompatible with his hearing aid. If he holds the phone close to his ear, a buzzing sound comes from the aid, so he has to wind up using the speaker phone.

He's also inherited someone else's old number; one day, he found more than 50 text messages saved on his phone, a problem he remedied by blocking the text-message option. (Traugott's survey found that 60 percent of users know how to send and receive text messages, and even to download a personalized ring tone – something most people would attest to if they use SEPTA on a regular basis.)

And for 10 years now, Rabbi Shaya Deitsch, religious leader of Lubavitch of Montgomery County, has taken his phone with him virtually everywhere – except on Shabbat, of course.

He doesn't mind one bit being – literally – a rabbi on call.

In fact, recently, he spoke with an upset congregant who just had her dog put to sleep.

"She wanted to talk to me now. She didn't want to leave a message at the office," said Deitsch, speaking – where else? – from his cell phone. "I was able to speak with her and comfort her. I don't have a problem being reached. I want to be able to be reached."

In addition to keeping his wife abreast of his whereabouts as he drives all over the area, Deitsch uses the phone as a radio, listening on his ear piece to Internet-based Torah-learning programs while driving.

Many took to cell phones in the first place after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. From June 2001 to June 2002, the number of cell-phone subscribers rose by 16 million, according to statistics compiled by CTIA. From June 2001 to December 2001, average usage jumped from 320 minutes a month to 384 minutes a month.

Still, Traugott of the University of Michigan said that change was going to happen inevitably, as cell phones eventually followed the course of the personal computer.

No need to tell any of this to Israelis, who are known only to have an out-and-out love affair with cell-phone technology. (Perhaps it doesn't hurt that in Israel – as opposed to here in the United States – users generally aren't charged for incoming calls.)

Cell phones are such a part of everyday life in the Jewish state that it's not uncommon to see very young children holding them to their ears. You might assume this level of ownership is at least partly due to the threat of bombings, terror attacks and incoming Kassam rockets – and hence, the need to get in touch with a loved ones quickly – but according to Uriel Palti, consul general of the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia, this simply isn't the case.

"Not everything in Israel has to do with terrorism," he said. "People just want to stay connected."



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