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The End of Private Time

Marvin R. Shanken, Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Bridges, Sep/Oct 01

We all fear the government's ability to use high-tech devices to spy on us, invade our homes, keep track of our movements and build files on everything about everybody if it wants to. But the technology era is creating other things to worry about, too. You can't find peace and quiet anywhere today. We are constantly being harassed and annoyed by people's high-tech toys.

Imagine the scene of a few months ago on an Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia for a Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers game. It should have been a pleasant ride with some friends, time to quietly chat, relax, even nap. Instead, the ringing of cell phones and the clatter of laptop keyboards with all their beeps and other electronic noises filled the car. It started before we rolled out of Penn Station, and never stopped. The phone conversations were so loud that they drowned out people trying to talk to each other. Arguments broke out when people were told to shut up.

Some days it's even worse on the commuter trains in the New York area. At 6:45 a.m. when all you want to do is read the paper or, in some cases, catch a few more minutes of sleep, someone is taking a call and discussing trades or an upcoming meeting at the top of their lungs. In the evening, the almost constantly ringing phones are usually answered "YEAH! I'M ON THE TRAIN. CAN YOU HEAR ME?" The less important the call, the more important it seems to be to announce to the world how important you are.

Now we hear that Boeing is getting ready to launch high-speed Internet connections on its planes. Soon, you'll be able to plug in and work nonstop on your long flight, your fingers clacking away with all the little noises and beeps. There may even be direct satellite TV beamed aboard, and if that's possible, then cell phone calls are next. Whatever happened to getting on a plane and reading a book? Or just sitting quietly, without having to hear your seatmate's entire business plan?

There are other examples, too. How about in restaurants where suddenly someone is shouting into his phone from the table next to you? Or how often have you heard a cell phone ring in the middle of a symphony? In New York's Avery Fisher Hall, management now projects in six-foot-high letters a request on the front wall of the stage to turn off your phones. It usually doesn't work.

It's the end of common courtesy as we know it. The Good Old Days are gone. Do you remember when getting on a plane or a train meant getting away from it all for a while? The biggest decision was whether to ask for another pillow or watch the in-flight movie. If you wanted to hear the person next to you, you spoke to him. If you didn't, you simply didn't engage him in discourse. Today, we've lost those choices. If you decline conversation, your fellow passenger can find someone on the ground to jabber away to. If you choose to abstain from constant contact with those on the ground, you're doomed to listen to your fellow travelers shouting into their phones. Starts to sound like a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-don't situation.

We have a suggestion. Before this goes any further, the airlines, the trains and every public place need to provide segregated areas for people who want to talk on cell phones or use their computers. Just as smoking sections joined like-minded people in the old days, techy areas will keep together everybody who can't live for a few hours without being connected. Authorities should also create technology-free zones, with a special emphasis placed on restaurants and concert halls.

If steps aren't taken soon, we won't know the meaning of private time. Peace of mind will cease to exist.

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