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Cell Phone Death

Sean Cole

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I stayed with Aaron Kiely in Brooklyn over New Year's Eve. The fact that he lives in New York is important. This is, of course, a city where everybody, all the time, is transforming their cell phones into yell phones. Even I do it, shrieking vastly important commentary into my Qualcomm 3G CDMA. (E.g., WHAT'S THE NAME OF THIS PLACE?!)

This is a city in which I overheard a little girl complaining to her father about her cell phone problems, a city in which a grown woman walks down Third Avenue bellowing about her plans to buy a bottle of Goldschlagher. Aaron's tired of the noise and he didn't want to be part of it anymore.

"So, just trying to get out of that distraction," he explained, "making all adults like 13-year-old bumble bees who don't know who to talk to next."

There are three other reasons he decided to give up his cell phone.

1) It's expensive, and he and his girlfriend are already paying for a landline.

2) Possible health effects.

3) Gorillas.

"This is what I've read," he said. "Coltan is the metal that is used in making cell phones and it's only mined a few places in the world, or something like that. And one of the main places is the Congo. And the only place to get it is where the gorillas are living in the jungle. So locals are killing gorillas."

That is, destroying their habitat and also shooting and eating them. So after reading that, when Aaron's cell phone company informed him that it was cutting off his service due to non-payment, he just let it go. That was about three months ago, and he says life is a lot better.

"Overall it's been great," he told me, "and it's sort of let me not feel guilty for not being contacted. Now I just walk down street and I'm like Mary Poppins! I'm free as a bird! And I'm allowed to be free as a bird. I'm allowed to be not interrupted."

Meanwhile, I am constantly being interrupted. Maybe it's just because I was working on this story, but it seemed like my cell phone would not stop ringing while I was in New York. Still, I could never give it up. It's just too convenient - or that's what I keep telling myself. Walking to a bar to meet my friend Ben, five days before New Years, I realized I left my cell phone in the car and had to go back and get it. After all, what if he called to change our plans? What if I couldn't find the bar?

I couldn't find the bar. I called.

"WHAT'S THE NAME OF THIS PLACE?!" I yelled. He said something that sounded like "Gainway" (or maybe "Gangway?")

"It's on Second Street," he said.


I didn't find it. Not until he called back and actually described the place to me. Years ago, I would never have left the office without knowing exactly where I was going.

Christine Rosen's cell phone is almost never on. As senior editor of The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society, she observes how mobile communication has changed our behavior and relationships. Three years ago, she wrote an article for the journal called "Our Cell Phones, Our Selves," which began with Jean Paul Sartre's famous quote "Hell is other people." She was pretty impressed with Aaron's resolve.

"When everybody is either without cell phones or everybody is with cell phones the norm shifts occur with a little less friction," she said, talking to me on her cell phone. "But when you're the odd man out I mean it's like the kids who don't join Facebook. They're pariahs on college campuses. They almost don't exist in the same way because they're not connected in the same way.

"And we haven't really even had this technology that long," she continued, "but it's been so powerfully and enthusiastically adopted by our culture that to say 'no' to it is really dramatic."

Aaron can attest to this.

"People are sort of shocked," he said, "A look comes over their face like, 'Wow!' Like you dropped a limb that you use all the time."

Or a kind of psychic leash. Aaron's girlfriend Kish, who's has never had a cell phone and who wanted him to get rid of his, found herself having little jealous worries when he was out of the house. She's not even a jealous person, but because she couldn't call him, and he didn't call her, she got to wondering who he was with. Aaron's mom Sheryl told me she's going to try to talk him into getting another cell phone.

"What do you think you'll say?" I asked her.

"Oh I'll use all of the family ploys," she said "'What if I needed you? What if you needed me?'"

"So you're gonna guilt him basically?"


But most of the complaints come from someone else.

"Who gives you the most shit?" I asked Aaron.

"Ian," he said. Ian Bascetta is another Brooklynite friend of ours.

Ian was aghast. "He said I give him shit about it?!" He told me he's only joking when he hassles Aaron.

"But you don't mean it?" I asked.

"No," he said, "Okay wait I should take that back. Do I mean it? Yeah. I mean it a little bit. Like when he can't meet up I'm like 'why don't you have a freakin' cell phone?' I have given him shit, yeah."

And for good reason.

"Okay here's something weird," Ian said. "I have a cell phone. I have to use my cell phone." He pauses for dramatic effect. "He asks to borrow my cell phone! That's huge! That really pisses me off."

He's not the only one.

While I was working on this story, Aaron called to ask if I could borrow his cell phone. Something important came up and he needed to be mobile and in touch. My phone rang as I was talking to my colleague Alisa Roth about her recurring nightmare involving cell phones.

"I'm dialing and dialing and I either mis-dial or it doesn't go through," she said.

"Are you on the plane when this is happening?" I asked.

"No, I'm watching the plane crash," she said. "And I want to call and report it and I can't."

The text on the cell phone screen said that "RESTRICTED" was calling. I figured it was Aaron calling from a pay phone. But it wasn't. It was Aaron calling from the lobby of Alisa's office building.

When I handed him my cell phone he said, "I'll let you know when I'm done."

"Wait," I said, suddenly looking at the phone like it was my child. "How are you going to get a hold of me?"

Aaron said that borrowing other people's phones is like renting a car for him.

"You know maybe we can minimize how much we need them," he said.

"Or it's like saying cigarettes are so bad for you. I would never buy them, but let me have one of yours."

"Sure," he said, "but still it's using it less than I would if I had one and that's good for something in the world."

Of course, those of us who know Aaron just find his chutzpah endearing. The trickiest parts of his cell phone-free life are things that used to be so easy before we all had cell phones - like going out to dinner, which he and Ian had planned to do at Cafe Orlin in the East Village sometime before Christmas.

Ian was late. Aaron went outside to call him on a payphone. Ian said he was stuck in traffic. Aaron went back inside to wait some more. An hour passed. Aaron went back out to the payphone.

Aaron called and called. Ian didn't pick up.

Ian called information, asking for the number of the cafe. Aaron went back into the cafe, angry but concerned. Ian tried calling the pay phone. Silence. Aaron went back out to the pay phone 20 minutes later. Ian finally picked up. Aaron asked where he was.

"I just got pulled over for running a red light because I was on my cell phone," Ian said.

As harrowing as that night was, Ian says he felt a little spark of delight too, having to rely on himself instead of his phone.

"I had to get there now," he says. "I had to make the effort to actually go there. I was just gonna give up and say 'Forget this! This is insane!" But I thought, "No. I gotta go meet him. No matter what."

Ian told me that he's even started thinking about giving up his own cell phone. Of course, he's also thinking about getting an iPhone.

"I'm continuing to be fairly pessimistic about how we've integrated these devices into our lives," said Christine Rosen.

"So what can we do?" I asked

"Take a break," she said "Even if it's just for a weekend put the cell phone down and see what life is like without it for a weekend. But more importantly I think it's about teaching kids how to deal with this technology. They now market cell phones to ten year olds. If we think it's bad now, just wait until hundreds of thousands of young children have cell phones."




"Hello? Hello?"

The call had dropped. I am not joking. I lost her.

And every morning I kind of lose Aaron too, briefly, in between home and work when he's out walking around. It's like I'm the Wicked Witch of the West, looking at him in my crystal ball. I can see him, but I can't reach him. He says he sometimes feels the same way.

"Just today," he told me. "I wanted to call you. There was some joke I wanted to tell you about or something and I couldn't do it -"

"What was it?" I interrupted.

"I forget, but--"

"See you forgot!"

"But it's a joke!" he said. "Do I need to kill a gorilla to tell you a joke?!"

"No!" I said. "But you don't know what it is now! What if it wasn't a joke what if it's something more important?"

"I do want to be in contact if there's some sort of emergency," Aaron said. "But with my life I don't need that. I'd like to be part of a culture where there's a bunch of people who don't have cell phones, and there's a bunch of people who do, who really need them. It's good for one of every troop to just say hey, 'I didn't grow a long beard and become a caveman because I threw away my cell phone.'"

When I think about it, we've actually been more in touch since he stopped using the phone. Plus, this month, after seven years in New York, he's moving back to Boston, where I'll get to see him all the time.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Tom Verlaine
    CD: Around (Thrill Jockey)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Nathanael Johnson

    From SF, CA, 09/17/2008

    Sean Cole is hilarious. "Do I have to kill a gorilla to tell you a joke?"

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