Smartphones and the Apocalypse

I think I am now officially old. I think this because I was horrified by this article, from HuffPo:

Movie theaters and entertainment venues have long banned the use of smartphones during performances.

But now one venue just outside Seattle is reversing that etiquette by welcoming cellphone and camera use in the theater, according to The New York Times.

With the newly constructed 2,000 seat theater set to open in 2014, the move is intended to attract younger audiences by cultivating a digital-friendly environment where people can update Facebook and send text messages and tweets throughout the performance.

Truly civilization is crashing down around us.

Personally I have always subscribed to George Carlin's philosophy on this subject:

Many people don't understand what a phone call should be. Ideally, a phone call is the brief exchange of a few vital pieces of information. ... It should not be a two and a half hour harangue from your third cousin describing her mailman's liposuction.

Yes, that ellipsis represents something that is very funny, but which I cannot quote on account of this being a family blog.

But my students sure have entirely different attitudes in this particular area. It seems like as soon as class ends the phones come out and they are instantly deep in conversation with someone or other. Or they're texting away with an impressive level of manual dexterity. Walking across the quad it seems like everyone has a phone glued to his/her ear.

I recently had a discussion with one of my classes about cell phone use. They seemed surprised that I thought there was anything wrong with texting during class. They told me that many professors now state in their syllabus that texting during class is prohibited, but since I had not included such a clause they assumed I was OK with it. Frankly, it had never occurred to me that I needed to say such a thing explicitly. Looks like I'll have to revise my syllabi for next term.

Recently I went to a movie. Someone's cell phone went off. Was she embarrassed? Did she hastily fumble for her phone, apologizing for forgetting to turn it off? Certainly not! She not only took the call, she also said this: “Hello? ... Hi! ... Yeah ... Yeah ... I'm watching a movie.” You know, like she was watching the movie in her living room. Had it been a better movie, I probably would have reacted like this guy:

A man who apparently decided not to silence his cell phone at a movie theater last week was allegedly choked by another moviegoer who was angry over the disruption.

It happened Nov. 21 during the 5 p.m. showing of Tower Heist. The Seattle Police Department redacted the name of the theater in the incident report, but published reports indicate it happened at the Majestic Bay Theaters in Ballard.

According to the responding officer, the victim's cell phone went off a couple of times near the end of the movie. He checked to see who called him, prompting the suspect who was seated in the same row to yell, “Shut it off.”

Minutes later, the phone rang again. The victim apparently said something to himself. The suspect allegedly said, “Better keep your mouth shut.”

At some point, the suspect left the theater twice, brushing past the victim's legs.

When the suspect returned a second time, he allegedly walked past the victim then turned and grabbed the victim's throat.

The victim told police it lasted for about 30 seconds and that he could not breathe.

Obviously I cannot condone violence in any but the most extreme circumstances, But am I the only one who has a problem thinking of the cell phone guy in this story as a “victim&rdquo?

Anyway, skipping ahead in the HuffPo article, it seems that some people, at least, are still talking sense:

Jane Moss, who heads up programming at the Lincoln Center is one artistic director who wants to hold on to that tradition.

Frustrated by digital addiction interrupting the way society experiences art, Moss created The White Light Festival, the classical music showcase designed to help free audiences from the distraction of technology.

“Somebody is going to have to explain to me why you go into a performance at 8 and the first half is over in 45 minutes and you have to check your cellphone again,” Moss told The Huffington Post's Amy Lee last month. “People are less skilled at sitting through a Beethoven symphony with their attention completely on it.”

Amen. I tell ya, it's these kids today. No respect at all...

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It's frightening to think about how cell phones have changed so much in our lives in such a short time with few people even noticing.

By Dr. I. Needtob Athe (not verified) on 30 Nov 2011 #permalink

wait....people talk on smart phones? I thought they were just for surfing and texting?

Seriously. I am always shocked when my phone rings. "What is that?? it a bomb?"

By AbnormalWrench (not verified) on 30 Nov 2011 #permalink

The solution, if we are serious about avoiding the intrusion, is to make all movie theaters, classrooms, and other places where cell phones are not to be tolerated-- to make all such places Faraday cages. I suspect, based on the microwave wave length, that 1 cm hardware cloth would do it.

I have a jammer I bring to theaters. If a phone rings, I switch it on. More often than not, the called party notices no signal and leaves to deal with their problem. Then I switch the jammer off, since it's illegal to use a jammer. And why waste batteries?

I saw a piece about a paint for theaters that will block wireless signals. This presentation was at the annual conference of theater owners. It exists and apparently works quite well.

Use "microwave reflective paint" as a search term in Google and the first few hits have a lot more information. It is expensive and I think legal as it is not a "jammer" which is illegal under FCC rules.

Microcells are now the commonly used way of managing the problem, Jim. With the advantage that, being a cell, they can allow emercency calls in and out.

A faraday cage blocks the signal, no matter the need of it.

I'll start with full disclosure on my age, in case it's a generational thing: I'm 33.

I agree with a few obvious things -- e.g. the white hot rage I feel when somebody takes a call inside a movie theater and proceeds to just chat, right there in their seat, in a normal voice. That's so outside what I think of as acceptable behavior that I'd probably be no more perplexed if somebody opened up her purse, pulled out an octopus, and put it on her head for the duration of the movie.

And of course texting in class or in a movie is right out if the phone makes a sound. That's also completely unacceptable.

Where I'm much softer is on silent texting in class, and to lesser extent, in movies. I confess to having exchanged a text in a theater once -- it was one of the first times we had left our first kid with a babysitter, and we ended up seeing a longer movie than originally planned. I (I think) discreetly sent one text to ping, got the reply on vibrate, and then put my phone away. I don't think something like that is tremendously disruptive, though I would never deign to make a habit of it. And having an ongoing conversation is completely unacceptable, at least in a normal theater.

I'm not entirely opposed to the idea in the article, i.e. having a designated theater where a higher level of disruption is acceptable. I analogize it like this: The local art museum just had a "family day" for one of their new exhibits. It's far less stressful to take my kids on that day, because then if they make a lot of noise or whatever, hey, everybody else is doing it too. What would be rude or disruptive in one context is made okay in an environment when everyone has agreed to tolerate that behavior, since they might be engaging in it themselves.

As to texting in class, well... You have to understand that when I was in college, I really chafed at professors who got all bent out of shape if I was late. I mean, I'm paying for it, I'm the one who suffers if I miss content, as long as I come in quietly and cause a minimum of disruption, what's the damn problem? I feel like at the university level, the relationships should be adult-to-adult, not parental, and in that context, you ought not to be a dick to me if I decided I had a different obligation that trumped being on time to your class. Sorry.

So in that context, I don't see a problem with a moderate amount of silent texting in class. It might potentially even reduce disruption if used appropriately: I know in work meetings, I occasionally need to exchange a brief piece of information with my wife, and IMO it is far less disruptive to just send a couple of texts than it would be for me to get up and leave the meeting.

Which is not to say that it wouldn't piss me off if somebody was having a long conversation via text during class. I think if I were a professor, that's probably the policy I would set out: If you need to send or receive a couple texts, that's fine, just make sure your phone is on vibrate. If you want to have an extended conversation, however, please take it outside.

My verbose $0.02.

It may be worse than you think:

Proof that your smartphone is in fact monitoring your keystrokes, location and received messages may have come from an Android app developer who posted an expose on YouTube.

It's always fascinated me that people find background cell phone conversations so much more annoying than other conversations, eg, in restaurants. (Obviously, movies and lectures are events that during which it is always rude to talk, period.)

I suspect it's because some part of our mind can't help but listen in, and hearing only one side of the talking is jarring, or frustrating, or something like that. Not that I mean to accuse anyone of eavesdropping â I find myself likewise disproportionately bothered, and there must be some cause for that.

Yet another possibility is that in the earlier days of cll phone usage, people (either accurately or not) felt they had to talk louder for the other person to hear, so "guy jabbing on his cell phone" was synonymous with "guy yelling loudly enough for everyone to hear". And since then, the "cell phones are annoying" thing has stuck. (Again, not so much talking about movies, etc.)

People still do talk louder on cellphones. There is an entire field of research on this, from Bell Labs, back in the mid 20th century. The key term is "sidetone," which is the amount of your own voice you hear in your ear while you're speaking, and in any type of telephone is the amount of your own voice that is carried from the transmitter to the receiver.

Conventional landlines use one transmission path to and from the phone, so landline telephones have to be designed with components that reduce the volume of sidetone to an acceptable level. Cellphones, along with ISDN landlines, use two separate transmission paths and conventionally have been allowed to operate with no sidetone.

The problem is that this factor influences the person speaking: When sidetone is high, you hear your own voice loudly in the receiver and you speak quietly. When sidetone is low, you don't hear enough of your own voice in the receiver and you speak more loudly. Thus Bell Labs designed the circuit in the long-time-standard Western Electric type 500 dial phone and type 2500 touchtone phone, to mimic the "natural" sidetone level of in-person conversation (you and another person in a room, not on the phone). But also, the sidetone level in payphones was deliberately reduced to make you speak louder, overcoming ambient background noise.

Long story short, with no sidetone on cellphones, you have a natural tendency to speak louder. It's not an illusion, it's an effect of the technology.


As for why people are so obsessed with these devices:

Just say 9/11. The mentality of "constant contact" arose after the national case of PTSD set in. At first it was overt: staying in touch constantly was a way of overcoming fear (this is hardwired in our tribal ape instincts). Then it became a cultural trend, and then it became a norm. Today it's as common as smoking cigarettes once was as a way to tranquilize oneself, and every bit as annoying to the casual bystander who doesn't partake.

âPeople are less skilled at sitting through a Beethoven symphony with their attention completely on it.â

Yeees, grandpa.

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 01 Dec 2011 #permalink

Lenoxus@#9: Yes, and I think too we experience one-way conversations as the craziness of a person talking to him or herself. I wonder whether our children and grandchildren will react in the same way?

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 02 Dec 2011 #permalink

Shortly after my team was moved to our company's second site I had to have words with a lad who came round from his section to have a loud cellphone conversation, pacing by our desks. I asked him why didn't he take the call at his desk - he said because he wanted privacy. (sure, that's why you were bellowing!)

Admittedly, a few weeks earlier our section had been 'the abandoned area where it's ok to have a chat' but I was still amazed that we were basically invisible to this guy, and that he actually thought he'd be able to come up with a reason why his behaviour was ok.

By Phil Anderson (not verified) on 02 Dec 2011 #permalink

My new iPhone application, inCharge, will be launched in 2 weeks on the appstore and help users reduce iPhone usage during preset sessions.
You are welcome to read about it on my prelaunch website

I would not personally attend a "cell-phone friendly" movie. But I am delighted to think that many others world, removing them from the movie theaters that I attend...

G724: Huh, I had never thought about that before; fascinating stuff. Thanks for the info!

Michael Kremer: Good questionâ¦