What is the single most annoying product of modern technology — at least when other people use it? If letters to the editor of this newspaper are any indication, the clear winner is the cell phone. It seems that many, if not most, of us experience a surge of irrational irritation when we see people jabbering away to invisible third parties on trains or buses or the street, as if the very act violated some unspoken rule of public behavior.
We shudder at the cheesy call tones, the “William Tell” overture or “The Mexican Hat Dance” tinkling away in someone’s handbag. Then there’s the annoyance of unsolicited calls. Increasingly, telemarketers with access to our cell phone numbers can — and do — catch us anywhere, anytime. Yes, we all continue to carry phones. Modern life would be unimaginable without them. But hasn’t it been all along a love-hate affair?
Now, though, a story has hit the news wires that puts the ubiquitous little instrument in such a favorable light it could have been crafted by the cell phone companies’ public relations departments. If it wasn’t, it should have been. It’s a fairy tale starring a cell phone and a telemarketer; a potential Disney movie; a fable for a new century that seems to have adopted as its personal motto what the novelist E.M. Forster wrote over 90 years ago: “Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer.”
If you missed it, here’s the plot, as reported by Reuters last week. A mountain climber with the suspiciously filmic name of Leonardo Diaz found himself stranded at almost 4,000 meters in the Andes of South America by a sudden blizzard. That’s higher than Mount Fuji and very cold indeed. The good news: Mr. Diaz had his cell phone with him. The bad news: His prepaid minutes had been used up. He resigned himself to death by freezing.
He had made it through 24 hours, with the help of a small flask of brandy, when he heard the unimaginably welcome sound of his own cheesy call tone. He couldn’t call anyone, but people could certainly call him, and that’s exactly what his phone company’s telemarketer was doing: calling to ask him if he would be interested in buying more minutes. Never in the brief history of telemarketing can an unsolicited caller have been greeted as warmly as Bell South’s Ms. Maria del Pilar Basto was that day.
The rest of the story unfolds to the sound of violins. Bell South’s operators kept Mr. Diaz awake and talking through the seven hours it took for a rescue team to reach him. (In case you’re wondering, he kept his batteries charged by immersing them in the snow every once in a while. No, we didn’t know either that frigid temperatures can recharge batteries. You see, this story has something for everyone.)
Reuters did not report on his condition after the ordeal, but obviously it was much better than it would have been without that faithful little cell phone and diligent telemarketer. If we were Mr. Diaz, we might even consider installing a sculpture of the phone — a 21st-century version of Hachiko — in the nearest public plaza.
In biblical times, it was God whom people tried vainly to flee or outrun. Nowadays, by contrast, the search for solitude and silence is a matter of outrunning the global reach of telecommunications — a different kind of god, but just as omnipresent. People leave their laptops home when they go on vacation. They don’t pick up their e-mail. They guard their private cell phone numbers. The paradises we imagine escaping to feature pristine beaches, oceans or mountains, not hotel rooms equipped with bigger televisions and better phones or some foreign version of Shibuya with its looming screens and giant singing heads.
The more we are exhorted to “only connect,” the more we yearn to break away. It’s impossible, of course. And besides, just like Jonah reconciling himself to God’s all-seeing eye, aren’t we secretly grateful for the cozy security of the vast global communications network?
Mr. Steve Fossett piloted a balloon around the world by himself last month. It doesn’t get any quieter or lonelier than that; and yet with his global positioning satellite equipment and state-of-the-art radio gear, he remained tethered to the rest of us throughout by some very strong threads. It’s the same with all contemporary explorers, from oceanographers and mountaineers to astronauts.
No one really cuts loose any more. Mr. Diaz unintentionally came close, but the modern world he had briefly turned his back on stepped in to gently reattach him. It gave us a great story and a timely reminder: Never be in too much of a hurry to disconnect.
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