Cell Phone Mania

In a recent issue of the International Herald Tribune, the columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about a growing cell phone addiction in the U.S.  [“Are cells the new cigarettes?” Monday, June 28, 2010.]  This is an area where Japan is well ahead of America.  Perhaps what is happening here now provides a glimpse of what the future holds for the American version of cell phone dependency.

Back in 2003, I took up a teaching post at a university here and found that every student in my classroom not only owned a cell phone but used it while class was in session.  I was fighting a losing battle, but I set up a table in a corner of the room and required every student to put his or her cell phone there for the duration of the class.  Many of them did so grudgingly, and one or two even angrily.  Occasionally during class a phone would start to vibrate or hum or even ring, causing its owner to glance at it anxiously until the “crying” stopped.  It was as if both the cell phones and their owners underwent separation anxiety every time I made them deposit the phones in my makeshift “nursery.”  When class was over, they ran to retrieve the phone-babies and immediately checked to see if any messages had come in.

I’ve long since given up trying to part cell phones from their student owners, who claim they cannot live without them.  And they have managed on their own to adapt them to classroom use.  At the beginning of the school year when I divide the students into groups and tell them to exchange contact information, they all get our their cell phones and hold them up in front of them in a kind of circle.  It looks like some kind of alien ritual, as if each student were transferring her thoughts into the high-tech instruments of the others.

The students in one of my current classes find it hard to believe I do not own a cell phone.  “But how do you get emergency calls?” they want to know, and when I answer that I have an answering machine on my home phone, they stare at me uncomprehendingly.  You would think that “emergency calls” were something that one ought to be getting all the time.

The use of cell phones is now so widespread here that people read text messages while riding their bicycles or walking down the street.  They are of course a menace to traffic safety, and can be especially irritating here in crowded Tokyo where the constant uninterrupted flow of traffic is essential to the maintenance of sanity.  When people wait for a train to arrive at a crowded station, they line up in neat rows.  Then after the train arrives and discharges passengers, the neat rows dissolve into a fast forward charge onto the train in an attempt to get a seat or at least a spot to stand in a less crowded part of the car.  But more and more often lately, when it comes time to move forward into the train, I find myself stuck behind someone moving forward at a snail’s pace, and keeping the rest of us from getting on the train in time to get a good spot.  This snail-person is inevitably staring at a cell phone screen.

Cell phones serve all kinds of purposes here:  to read and write novels; to build social networks; to help people find their way to an unknown location; to keep friends and family members constantly aware of one’s whereabouts; even to bully people and drive them to suicide.  The technology is constantly changing, and I cannot keep up with what the latest use might be.  Now there are ads on the trains for new cell phones from au, a service of KDDI.  The ad pictures five young men, each holding a different rose-pink cell phone.  (This is Japan, where men are not ashamed to be associated with the color pink.)  The ad claims that there are now three different “schools” of cell phone users:  those who text by typing one key at a time with separate fingers (43%), those who text by slipping their fingers over the keys (36%), and those who use both hands to text (19%).  (The method of the 2% “other” is left to the imagination.)  So au is now offering phones with a key pad designed for each of these “schools.”

Maybe cell phones in America also feature these “schools” and make different key pads for them, but I suspect there are no rose-pink phones for the men.

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