"I don't know when I'll get a signal again"
With apologies to Peter, Paul, and of course, Mary, I want to talk about cellphones in the sky. That is, the communications revolution that's sweeping the nation. (No, I'm not drunk, but it's Friday afternoon and it has about the same effect) Despite what some haters may say, cellphones are absolutely remarkable. When I got my first cellphone 3 1/2 years ago (so I'm a dinosaur, so what?), I used to stare at the tiny little piece of molded plastic and think about how amazing it was that I could sit in the middle of a field and make a phone call as easily as if I were in my own living room. Easier, actually, since I didn't get good cellphone service in my house. That I could call anywhere in the world, and more amazingly, that anyone in the world could call me (not that anyone did) and my phone would ring almost anywhere I would go. It's such a revolutionary concept that almost nobody even imagined it 30 years ago. I love the beginning chapter of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" how a character had to choose between purchasing a car phone for his business or a self-aware, intelligent, walking, humanoid robot to play nursemaid for his daughter. He could only afford one - they cost about the same. Of course, the book was written in 1940, but my wife's cellphone, which is smaller than the palm of her hand, has 2 color LCD screens, and is more powerful than any computer imagined in 1940 was free (with a 2-year contract). The walking, intelligent robot? The closest we can come so far is George Bush, except we're still working on intelligent. (It's a joke! Lighten up.)
Anyway, the point is that what we take for granted now was beyond comprehension when our parents were young. Its impact on our lives has been immeasurable. For example, in the old days (1999), if I was meeting friends at an open-air concert, I'd have to be very careful to specify where and when I'd meet them. If someone was late or got lost in the crowd, well, good luck finding everyone else. If you couldn't make it because your car broke down? Your friends might be waiting all night. And as far as the car breaking down goes, we have much better peace of mind that we'll be able to summon help when we need it. In the old days, my mother insisted that if I flew into a city where I had family, I had to give them a call to let them know I was in town, even if I was just connecting to a flight or could otherwise not see them. Phone calls are expensive, you know. Today, it doesn't even make sense (although she still asked me if I called so-and-so when I landed in Boston on my way to Maine). I mean, not only is the call free, I don't even know that when the person picks up, they're still in the same city I am. Imagine, in 1985, calling someone on the phone and asking them, "Where are you?"
There are downsides to this new technology. People blame it for being on call 24 hours a day, for hearing people talking loudly in the grocery store, for people having conversations during a movie. But these rudenesses aren't the phones' fault. They're the fault of people, who seem to forget that certain evil bosses had 24-hour contact policies in the pager days. That there are always rude and thoughtless people in the grocery stores and movie theaters.
In December, the FCC announced that it may relax restrictions on cellphone use on airplanes. They had banned them because of concerns of interference with ground-based communications, as well as airplane communications. Finding that such interference did not exist and that cellphone use may very well have saved the White House from the fate of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the FCC may soon say that airlines will have the right to decide whether their passengers may use the devices.
But wouldn't you know, busybodies are bombarding the FCC, demanding that cellphones remain banned from planes. These may or may not be the same people who keep the FCC on speed dial during the Super Bowl commercials, but their opinion is that since they expect quiet on a plane, they want the government to mandate it. It's a ridiculous argument. If an airline wants to keep phones off their planes, they have the right to demand it. But without any health or safety reason to ban them, how can anyone possibly justify the FCC or FAA doing such a thing? Jay Bookman, an otherwise reasonable columnist, opines, "In other words, we know without a doubt that allowing cellphone use in airline cabins would be a disaster.". A disaster? Sitting on a flying bus with people talking is a disaster? If you ban cellphones merely because they inconvenience some people (while conveniencing others), why not ask the FAA to ban children from flying? Or talking? On my redeye flight home from Vegas this past Monday night, I was trying to sleep and the guy across the aisle had his personal light on so he could read a book. Should I petition the FAA to ban lights on nighttime flights? (hmm, that rhymes...) Smoking - that's a health concern, OK. Fireworks and knives and lighters - those are safety concerns, check. Smacking the flight attendant on the rump - harassment concern, plus the flight attendant is more likely to be a middle-aged gay guy nowadays. Don't ask the government to restrict freedoms for your personal peace of mind, though. This goes for phones on planes, but also for flag-burning, for consensual sex between adults, and for anything else that people are trying to get their government to ban in the name of "Because I Said So".