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The Cell Phone Imbroglio

An interesting thing happened at my local high school on Friday. The senior class organized a school-wide prank: the students programmed their cell phone alarms to go off at 10:30. Because cell phones are supposed to be kept in lockers during class, this would result in a large number of muffled cell phone rings emanating into the hallways during class. It was a fairly harmless prank.

The administration got wind of it. In response, it assembled a team of adults. When the phones went off, they used master keys to open the lockers quickly and turn off the phones. They then confiscated the phones, telling the students who participated in the prank that they could get their cell phones back on Monday.

The fairly harmless prank was met with a fairly benign penalty. (Note: I’m not interested in whether the penalty was appropriate, lawful, or proportionate. I’m merely noting that it was, in the grand scheme of things, benign: 70 hours without one’s cell phone.)

The Rage

But oh my, the reaction from students and parents was extreme. The police were finally called in, after a number of parents started screaming, a few even threatening physical violence. I was talking with a friend of mine who witnessed some of the reactions. He said students and parents could in good faith disagree about whether the punishment was appropriate, but he was stunned by the amount and level of rage he saw.

That’s what got me. The rage . . . over temporary confiscation of a cell phone. Parents were yelling, “My child is going away this weekend! She needs her cell phone!” Or “My mother is having surgery, I need to keep in touch with my teenager by cell phone!” Some parents didn’t even have a particular use in mind: they were just enraged that the cell phone had been confiscated.

Most students didn’t have cell phones just ten years ago. Back in the 1980s when I was in school, nobody had cell phones. When I went to an all-day sporting event, I didn’t talk with my parents until I got home. If my grandmother were to have had surgery, my dad would’ve just called me at home to tell me how it went or, more probably, would’ve just given me the results when he got home. We survived.

But now, the cell phone has apparently reached oxygen level: gotta have it. If your parents see you deprived of oxygen, they’re going to fight like mad to get you some, and you’re going to fight like mad yourself. I asked my 16-year-old son (who goes to school there and saw it all unfold) about the parents’ and students’ rage. I said, “Do you think there would’ve been this kind of severe reaction if the school confiscated iPods?” He said he doubted it. He said kids seem to be uniquely connected to their cell phones.

Better Call the Marshall

This intense cell phone connection is what intrigues me.

Long-time readers of TDE know I like Marshall McLuhan. I don’t think he ever solved anything, but he raised a lot of interesting questions about how certain types of media (inventions, technology) influence our dispositions, attitudes, and lifestyles far beyond their immediate and obvious impact. We know the TV gives us access to great entertainment, but does it also adversely affect our ability to pray and think? That’s the kind of question McLuhan raised.

McLuhan died before the cell phone’s rise, but he had very definite ideas about telephones. I broke down his analysis at TCS Daily back in 2007:

McLuhan had a stark opinion: “The telephone demands complete participation.” He pointed out that some people could scarcely talk to their best friends on the phone without becoming angry, precisely because it’s such a demanding medium.

He said the telephone is extremely hard to resist, asking “Why should we feel compelled to answer a ringing public phone when we know the call cannot concern us? Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension? Why is that tension so very much less for an unanswered phone in a movie scene? The answer to all of these questions is simply that the phone is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity.” . . .

You ever wonder why you have to say “uh-huh” frequently during an otherwise-monopolized phone conversation? How can I explain the phenomenon of a friend’s 102-year-old mother with severe dementia, who can’t hold a coherent conversation, unless it’s on the phone? Have you ever experienced a sense of agitation while on a lengthy telephone call? I have, frequently. I start to feel frustrated for no apparent reason. I need to tell myself that I’m getting “worked up” for no reason and to relax.

The phone is a “demanding medium.” It requires complete participation. When it rings, you want to answer it.

Do you get frustrated when you call someone that should pick up and they don’t? I do. I’ve slowly mellowed with age and most things don’t get me upset anymore, but the unanswered cell phone call still raises my blood pressure (when I know with reasonable certainty that the person should be able to pick up). I know I’m not the only one that gets frustrated at this.

The phone’s demanding nature goes both ways. The person receiving the call feels pressure to pick it up, and when he does, he’ll be engaged in an activity that demands his complete participation. On the other side, the caller really (really) wants the person to pick it up and is ready to give complete participation. When it doesn’t happen (i.e., the person doesn’t pick up), frustration climbs.

Hence, the extreme reaction from the parents whose children had their cell phones confiscated: The parents have grown accustomed to that demanding medium. They’re used to it. Emotionally, they’ve come to rely on it.

I’m Just Cogitatin’

I don’t know any of that with certainty, of course, but those are the intellectual doors I’m knocking on to make sense of the extreme reactions last Friday. I think it’s useful to ask ourselves such questions, even though I don’t expect to come up with definitive answers. I’ll leave that to McLuhan’s academic descendants in the research laboratories.

For now, I’ll leave myself with this half-baked, partial conclusion: The cell phone acts on us emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually in ways we don’t discern.

Maybe not, of course. I’m just speculating. The best way for me to verify my theory is to test it out on myself: What kind of reactions does the cell phone bring out of me? What if my child’s cell phone had been confiscated and he was going out of town that weekend? Would I have grown enraged? It’s hard to say. I don’t think I would have, but then again, I’m not a big cell phone user.

And after what occurred last Friday, I’m thinking I don’t want to become one.


  1. Bruce