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Saturday, August 26, 2006 - The 21st century Lucky Strike - David Benjamin

Mobile-phone owners mark their turf with talk, much as smokers used to do with cigarettes--but not in Japan

When I observe standard mobile-phone behavior among the natives of most Western nations--from France to Italy to the U.S.A.--I can't help but think of arctic wolves prowling the tundra, peeing on shrubs. On the other hand, in Japan, the creatures that come to mind are prairie dogs ducking into burrows and tabby cats lurking behind the La-Z-Boy.

Typical of Western cell phone anthropology was a recent scene in San Francisco. I was queuing up in a cafe when the man in front of me answered his Motorola. As his conversation heated up and the man sank into the argot of corporate-speak ("the contingencies we have to impact . . . enlarging our footprint vis-à-vis the target demographic . . ."), he flexed his knees and opened his stance. He tossed his hair. With his free hand, he described expressive parabolas, virtually carving out space in the air. His voice rose in volume and force, defining him as an alpha presence among the meek, mute java seekers like me, who backed off warily to cower in the penumbra of his dialogue. "Read More" click link below


Here in Paris, I exercise similar caution when approaching mobile users on the street. Whether facing them or coming up from behind, I allow two feet of passing margin, because these people--without warning--tend to lurch, wobble, veer, drift drunkenly and even strike out in sudden seizures of verbal animation.

While driving, mobile talkers normally require two full lanes and a half-dozen car-lengths--front and back--to accommodate their car, their phone, their life-or-death discussion, their career, their personal importance, their bustling, affluent lifestyle and their total obliviousness to the traffic that careens around them at 75 mph.

Public transportation is safer. But traveling talkers, especially on airplanes, tend to channel Spider John Koerner's immortal rent-party sentry, Loud Lyle. They talk with a lot of VOLUME as they hammer down the details of the Big Contract, order underlings to reschedule the Big Meeting or jolly fellow executives about the hot time they're going to have when they hit the old town tonight. Ideally, mobile talkers on a plane have to be coerced by flight attendants, in the last seconds before takeoff, to hang up. And then, of course, the first blowhard to place a call after landing is acknowledged as the fastest draw in Dodge--which, in a perfect world, would win him a gold-plated handset and a thousand free minutes.

Having read my Robert Ardrey (The Territorial Imperative), I can't help but see all this mobile phonemanship as a form of turf marking. Mobile talkers in the West have a sort of Discovery Channel familiarity. They act out the same territorial impulses common among howler monkeys, polecats, birds of paradise and the meat eaters of the north woods. Talking on the phone has become a way for human beings to vicariously pace the wilderness and mark it out as theirs.

But not everywhere. On a visit to Japan this summer, the politeness seemed shocking--especially considering that Japan has unquestionably the most advanced and pervasive mobile-phone culture in the world. Japanese mobiles are loaded with intricate features that everyone seems to understand. Every phone is busy constantly, their owners thumbing furiously away at tiny keyboards. But in Japan, wherever you go, silence reigns. Years ago, fearing the uproar that might result from 30 million train-riding teenage girls squeaking and giggling simultaneously into phones every day, Japan's railroads quietly conspired to ban cell talk on public transit.

The effect was powerful, extending beyond teenagers and beyond the train, into every phase of public life. On the street, one sees mobile talkers--but they're not mobile, staggering blindly with the rhythm of their conversation. Instead, when Japanese pedestrians get a call, they pull off into a doorway. If they're in a bar or restaurant, they step meekly outside--like smokers in California. On the subway, half the passengers are hunkered over their phones, tapping out text messages. But nobody's talking. Since the advent of the mobile phone, Japan's trains are quieter than they ever were during the entire 20th century. It's a little spooky.

Perhaps the smoking analogy is most relevant to this contrast between the West and Japan. Today, second-hand smoke is recognized as a threat to everyone's health and a form of rudeness. Not long ago, however, smokers dominated every public place. They used cigarettes to mark their territory, through complicated rituals of lighting, puffing, flourishing and posing. Bystanders invariably backed off, deferring to an individual who had contrived to turn a smoldering tube of weeds into a desperate cry for attention in a vast and uncaring world.

So it is with mobile phones, the Lucky Strike of the 21st century. If it's a jungle out there, then my little Nokia is a razor-edged machete. If it's a dog-eat-dog world, my Sony-Ericsson is a smelly wet spot on a tree stump that tells all the other dogs to tuck tail and skedaddle. If society is a melting pot, well then, my Samsung clamshell is the raft that lets me float, unsullied, atop the scum of the earth.

The question is: Will the rest of the world go the way of Japan, expecting people to respect their own privacy and keep their ragged egos out of other people's lives? The odds, I fear, are not good. Now that most people have experienced the visceral, anthropological thrill of screaming from the treetops at the other monkeys, they're not likely to regress to the tedium of common courtesy and quiet dignity.

Unless we can somehow convince them that mobile phones cause lung cancer.

By David Benjamin, a journalist and novelist who lives in Paris and writes occasionally on technology topics for EE Times, usually from the Luddite point of view

All material on this site Copyright © 2006 CMP Media LLC. All rights reserved.
SOURCE: - The 21st century Lucky Strike


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