IT happens every time a plane taxis to a standstill on the tarmac and the seatbelt lights expire with a customary “ping”: There is frantic fumbling in the seats and aisles as cellphones are hurriedly switched on and, like nervous transgressors checking in with their parole officers, the calls begin: “We’ve landed…”, “I’m moving towards the exit…”, “I’ll call you when I have my luggage…”, “I’ll let you know when I arrive at the hotel…” and “We’re about to get on the bus now. I’ll call you again from arrivals.”
For sure, “where are you?” is the world’s most frequently used cellphone phrase, followed closely by “I’m in…”. And every time I overhear this type of call, it occurs to me that cellphones are as much human tracking devices as they are useful tools for communication.
My friend, Ray is a director at a large advertising agency. Despite his many other talents, his aptitude for time management is poor. Accordingly, his assistant, colleagues and family deem it necessary to call him on his cellphone relentlessly, checking on his every move and reminding him repeatedly of approaching appointments.
“It drives me nuts,” he seethes. “As if the meeting reminders that pop up in my e-mail are not enough, the constant cellphone checks slow me down and make me feel incredibly stressed. I have taken to ignoring them and, to avoid them, I often deliberately leave my phone behind when I go out. Certainly, that makes me feel like a child bunking school, but I cannot bear the constant sense of surveillance I get from carrying a cellphone. It is as if I am its prisoner, and at the beck and call of whoever is on the other side of the ring – and that’s before I mention how I feel when my wife asks me to “let me know when you get there” as I leave the house.”
But, potentially, it could get worse: Cellphone technology that incorporates GPS software can geographically pinpoint where you are and, if you make yourself ‘public’, it allows others to see when you are physically in their vicinity.
While this ‘geo-fencing’ has advantages in certain situations – for example, for keeping track of your child in a busy shopping centre – the drawback, says the Stress Clinic’s Dr Cyril Harrisberg, is that “constant tracking or ‘never aloneness’ and accountability is a huge stressor in our modern daily lives”.
“People who are better able to cope with stress are able to ‘switch off’ for certain periods during a busy day,” he says. “If your cellphone is always with you and switched on, you are unable to immerse yourself in periods of ‘down time’. The phone borders on being invasive and this will, at the very least, contribute to potential stress triggers and stress.”
Ray’s rant does not end with the “where are you” calls: “Possibly even more irritating than the surveillance calls, are the cellphone calls that you receive from people who, when they are their way to visit you, call from the car park downstairs to apologise for being two minutes late! Polite? Perhaps. Ridiculous? Certainly. Having successfully imprisoned us, the cellphone is now making complete idiots out of us,” he says, tucking his bleeping and vibrating Sony Ericsson tenderly into his top pocket before scuttling off to his next appointment.
(This article first appeared as the July 2007 edition of my column, If The Hat Fits in the Real Business supplement of Business Day.)