Wednesday, September 27, 2006

If Cell Phones Could Talk

Eighty-two percent of Americans say they have been annoyed by the cell phone use of others in public places, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But for demographers and others who love to track the trends, cell phones are more than an annoyance. They are an astonishing technological marvel that has revealed one of our deepest needs.

Before the cell phone, who knew Homo sapiens wanted to talk so much? Our prehistoric ancestors might have known, since they were the last to be within shouting distance of everyone they knew almost all the time. The African savannahs might have been humming with conversation as ancient humans discussed the latest hunt and gather. Then, as our species populated and migrated to distant lands without any means of communication with those left behind, we were forced to repress our need to stay in touch. Perhaps out of this melancholy longing art was born. We told stories, wrote ballads and poems, and drew pictures to mourn our loss of communication with loved ones far away. Finally, we invented the snail mail system to maintain some vestige of contact, however inadequate.

It has been thousands of years since we could strike up a conversation at will with any friend or family member. Only in the past ten years, as cell phones proliferated and the cost of using them dropped to pennies in our pocket, have we rediscovered our addiction to continuous communication with those we care about.

The cell phone's evolution over the past decade, from clunky and expensive accessory to sleek and cheap necessity, has revealed talk to be one of our most powerful urges. What we say is far less interesting than the act of saying it, all the time: "Where are you?" "What are you doing?" "Where should we meet?" "How about this for a plan?"

The cell phone's overarching importance is revealed not just by anecdotes, but in the spending statistics collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in its annual Consumer Expenditure Survey. In the past decade, the cell phone's significance has grown more than any other household item. In 1997, only 10 percent of households spent on cell phone service. In that year, in a ranking of items on which the average household spends the most, cell phone service was lost in the crowd at 112th place. In 2004 (the latest data available), 46 percent of households spent on cell phone service, boosting it to a lofty 28th place. Cell phone service now ranks higher in our spending priorities than prescription drugs and is not far below cable TV and alcoholic beverages.

Interestingly, while 82 percent of the public has gotten annoyed with someone else's cell phone use, only 8 percent of cell phone users say they have annoyed others with their cell phone calls. They must have been too busy talking to notice.

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