The Supreme Court has proclaimed that there is an absolute Right to Privacy hidden in the Constitution, one that apparently went unnoticed during the first two centuries of the Republic. Privacy rights, we are told, insure that such procedures as abortion and gay marriage will be absolutely protected by the Constitution because they are the private affairs of private citizens that no government dare intrude upon.
Americans are so jealous of their personal privacy that when the government attempts to spy on such far from American groups as international terrorists, there is an immediate outcry that even terrorists need to have their privacy protected. Listening in on the private conversations of murderers who would like to exterminate the populations of New York or Boston is said to be an egregious violation of those murderers’ right to make their plans in peace (as it were). And we all know that when some thug is put on trial, he has the absolute right to remain silent during the trial and can never be compelled to say anything against himself.
That is why the public use of cell phones seems a most bizarre turn in the history of personal privacy. It is a common complaint that the use of cell phones in public is an annoying imposition on everyone around the cell-phone user: there is the obnoxious ringing sound, often transfigured into the opening bars of “Fur Elise” or “The 1812 Overture”; the dramatically interrogative “Hello?”, usually pronounced in a way that causes everyone to stop what they are doing and listen; and then the long, often painfully long conversation, articulated in a voice that can be heard by everyone within 20 yards of the cell phone user. There are even cell phones that are also speaker phones, so that one is forced to listen not only to the user’s stentorian voice but also to the tinny, electronically synthesized voice of the person he is speaking to: a double aggression against everyone else.
But what makes cell-phone use not only annoying but downright bizarre is that the user of the phone is, in effect, publicly discussing his affairs — sometimes his most personal affairs — in a way that can be heard by everyone. Someone who would be offended if a neighbor asked him questions that he thought “too personal” will have no problem speaking about his life in a voice that all can hear — friends and foes alike. One who would deeply resent interrogation by the police or a prosecutor will have no compunctions about making statements in public that he would almost certainly object to making if he were forced to. People who are most insistent about their privacy rights seem perfectly happy to jettison those rights as soon as they take out their phones.
What is the reason for this curious new style of self-exposure and self-revelation? Surely the speaker does not really want everyone in the room to be privy to the details of his existence, especially if those details prove to be embarrassing or disgraceful. And one would think that the speaker does not consciously wish to annoy the people around him.
So perhaps the answer is that the use of a cell phone in public makes the user feel that he has been elevated to a higher plane, one on which his quite trivial conversation takes on an importance it would never have if it were done in private. “Yes, dear, I’ll pick up the rump roast” becomes a matter of the gravest urgency when it is articulated in a roomful of defenseless listeners. “How about tonight — like, a flick?” as said by a guy to his girlfriend, can become an invitation whose acceptance the listeners will wind up rooting for. “Mother’s in bad shape — in the hospital?” may elicit from those who hear it a kind of public mourning, with sympathetic noises all around (and then it turns out that the poor woman got there because her car was hit by some idiot talking on a cell phone while driving!).
Perhaps, in the end, using a cell phone in a crowded room is really a question of power, and those who use such annoying, intrusive devices are more than willing to give up their personal privacy in order to impress everyone with the weightiness of their lives. After all, a Hollywood star is not embarrassed to share with the public even the most disgraceful details of her life: the uglier the details and the more often the public wallows in them, the more significant the star is deemed to be. We would all like to be the center of the universe, and a cell phone at least allows us to be the center of attention at a local pub or the big shot on the jet whose hapless passengers are forced to listen as we rid ourselves of our latest flame or acquire an especially lucrative sinking debenture.
Perhaps, in truth, the cell phones of today are like the cigarets of 50 years ago: outward signs of power, coolness, and sophistication whose lethal effects will only be revealed when it is too late for us addicts to break free.