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Monday, January 16, 2006

The inescapable network: does the exception prove the rule?

John Stephens is thanking his lucky stars he has a cell phone. When Stephens entered his part time residence on Friday night, someone shot him in the chest. Turning to flee, he was shot again, this time in the back. He managed to make it to a neighbor's house, and when the doctors were done treating him they said that his cell phone had probably saved his life. Not because he called the police with it, but because the bullet hit the phone he carried in his shirt pocket.

But the cell phone news for the rest of us isn't so great. Of course, there's a context. A semi-regular study released at the end of last year revealed that American's personal misery has gone up since the last time the survey was done. The study, “Troubles in America: A Study of Negative Life Events Across Time and Sub-groups,” reveals the following:
Overall, the number of people reporting at least one significant negative life event increased to 92 percent from 88 percent in 1991, the last time the survey was done. Likewise, the total level of troubles grew by 15 percent. Individual problems were not evenly spread among the population, however. Troubles are greatest among those with low income and less education, younger adults, and families with a high child-to-adult dependency ratio (mostly unmarried mothers).
Well, of course, that last bit's hardly surprising. The bad news continues:
* In health care, 17 percent of people reported being a patient in a health care facility, while 14 percent reported being a patient in 1991. Eleven percent reported being unable to afford needed medical care, compared with 7 percent in 1991, and 18 percent said they lacked health insurance, compared with 12 percent in 1991.

* On employment questions, 15 percent said they were unemployed and looking for work for as long as a month in the latest survey, compared with 11 percent in 1991. Sixteen percent said they were being pressured by bill collectors, compared with 13 percent in 1991.
Things don't look good for Americans these days. But what's the connection to cell phones?

Another study published almost exactly at the same time revealed that
...of more than 1,300 people, those who regularly used cell phones or pagers "experienced (an) increase in psychological distress and (a) decrease in family satisfaction" compared to those who used these devices less often, according to study author Noelle Chesley, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Why?
the technology... is somehow facilitating the process" of psychological distress and decreased family satisfaction, adding to the "debate about whether these technologies are causing these problems."
A primary problem was the spillover of work into home life through the phone. While the effects were found amongst both men and women, women took the hardest hit.
"What we found was that it was a negative experience for both men and women, but women had the added problem of home life invading work," Chesley says. For women, the consequences of cell phone access may be increased calls from children or elderly family members, calls that are usually placed because a problem has arisen at home.
The patriarchal organization of the family, disguised behind two incomes, frequently puts a much heavier burden on women, who have to balance responsibilities at work with an unfair division of labor at home. It seems that cell phones may even have aggravated that problem by allowing the terrain of work and home to overlap, causing more, not less exploitation for women.

When it comes to dealing with work and cell phones, workers seem to have a mixed strategy. There's no doubt that having a cell phone can offer some space for self-organization at work that using the company phone may not allow, especially with text messaging. But, still, Tiffany Rector, 25, of Muskogee agrees that there are downsides:
“I have two cell phones, one for work and one personal one. Too many people can get in touch with me.

“It’s hard to hide when you have two cell phones.”
The paradox is obvious. A recent study by Forrester Research revealed that 14% of US youngsters cannot live without their cell phones. We are increasingly, for a variety of reasons, dependent for escape from the system on the very technology that works so hard to suck us in.

An article in the Arizona Daily Star today sheds some light on just how difficult it has been for workers to find a consistent position on the relatively new technology of cell phones. Workers at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO, are fighting a new policy preventing them from "driving while talking on cell phones and from using the phones around work bays or near flammable materials such as jet fuel." The union's position is a mix of defending worker autonomy on the job and mimicking the security rhetoric of the authorities.
The union sees the new rules as a veiled attempt to "eliminate cell-phone use during work time," said John Pennington, president of Local 2924 of the American Federation of Government Employees AFL-CIO, which represents about 500 civilian AMARC workers.

Pennington said he checked with his union headquarters and couldn't find any other case in which a military employer has taken such steps.

AMARC's new rules call for cell phones to be stored inside employee lockers or tool-kit drawers during work hours. That makes things harder for staff members who have children or elderly parents who might need to reach them quickly in case of emergencies, Pennington said.
In a world in which we have less and less control over the minutes and hours of our lives, the 'convenience argument' often carries a lot of weight, even when the downside is centralization, increased monitoring and control. For instance, citizens of the Vogtland region of Germany can now pay for a variety of parking and travel expenses through their cell phones. However, while
[t]he system undoubtedly makes life easier for the user: no need to find a parking ticket machine, no need for small change, and the ticket can even be extended over the phone. Monitoring also becomes easier, which in turn means more money for the municipal coffers.
Participants in the system must register beforehand and apply a sticker to their vehicle identifying them as "mobile parkers." Meter maids patrol with camera phones linked to plate-reading algorithms that verify registration.

But, although resisting the encroachment of cell phones has become very difficult, some resistance is occurring. In a convergence of old and new religions that perhaps shouldn't be surprising,
Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in Afton wants a new steeple. Sprint Nextel wants a new cell-phone tower in the city's Old Village area to provide better coverage to customers.

Church and company officials thought they had reached a solution: Hide the cell-phone tower in a new church steeple, which, when added to the 34-foot bell tower, would rise 75 feet.

But health concerns raised this week by neighbors have sent planners back to the drawing board — while a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official said it is unlikely the agency will approve the tall structure within the federally protected St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
In the typical security language of high technology, where any space not fully integrated into or regulated by the dominant technological system is deemed unsafe or dangerous, some local officials have come out in support of the tower.
Lower St. Croix Valley Fire Chief Kris Peterson said he hopes the matter is resolved soon and the tower is built.

He said cell-phone coverage is especially problematic in the Washington County Road 18 corridor, which runs north-south through the lower St. Croix River Valley.

"I find it absolutely vital for the safety of the citizens of the community that Nextel service in the area is vastly improved," he wrote in a letter supporting the tower.
However, residents of a Staten Island neighborhood in December demanded debate on the issue of cell phone towers near their homes, a significant demand in a society so resistant to mass participation in technological change beyond one rooted in consumerism.
"Nobody even said a word to us," complained Midland Beach resident Michael Gatti Sr. "It's all dollars and cents, but they should have a little consideration for the people who live here."

Gatti and his wife are worried about the long-term effects on their 3-year-old granddaughter, who lives with them.
Protests took place last summer over two cell phone towers in the area last year, but it hasn't been easy. The infamous Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by Clinton, has made building cell phone towers easier than it was before, and the local Buildings Department ruled not long after that cell phone companies had to be afforded the "deference afforded other public utilities."

And, of course, coming soon to a cell phone near you: Porn. With the increasing merging of cell phones and the internet, the number one moneymaker online will certainly be coming to a phone near you.
"Certainly, this is going to make it easier to view porn in more places than ever," says Pamela Paul, author of "Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families."
Predictably, anti-porn activists are pushing for more regulation and censorship, but perhaps no one sums the dilemma up like "porn star Ron Jeremy, who licensed his name to RJ Mobile, which offers adult content in Britain and Holland. He's not sure of the U.S. appetite, though. 'Who wants to watch this stuff on a tiny screen?' he asks."

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