Questioning the cell phone crackdown

Do gadget bans really solve problems?

A Caribbean resort called Palm Island in the Grenadines has banned the use of cell phones, laptops or handhelds anywhere within a half a mile of the beach. The ban is mostly a marketing gimmick to lure travelers to an oasis of tranquility. But real, nonvoluntary bans on the use of gadgets are popping up all over the place, and it's time to question whether they are truly helpful.

Cell phones are increasingly banned, among other places, in theaters, restaurants, schools, hospitals, museums, doctor's offices and airplanes during flight. It's illegal for drivers to use cell phones in dozens of countries and several U.S. states. The California State Assembly passed a bill just this week that makes it illegal for teens under 18 to talk on cell phones (or text on a cell phone, or use a laptop) while driving. If a revised version is re-passed in the Senate and signed by the governor, it will become law next summer.

The stated reasons for the cell phone bans include safety, courtesy to others, anticheating and ensure people pay attention to something other than their conversations. For instance, cell phones are banned in hospitals for many reasons, including possible interference with medical equipment like pace makers. Hospitals also cite privacy concerns -- to protect people from camera phone pictures -- and because some ring tones might sound like medical equipment alarms.

Then, there's the issue of security. Camera phones are increasingly banned in R&D facilities, sensitive military and government sites, locker rooms, and elsewhere to prevent people from taking photos of things that others want to kept secret. Some companies are considering bans on iPods and other USB-based players because secrets can be loaded onto them and carried out of the building. The Israeli government has banned cell phones from cabinet meetings to prevent leaks. (Senior officials have been caught actually calling reporters and letting them listen in on secret meetings.)

The list of bans goes on and on. Most of the bans, however, are imposed because the rule-makers simply want your attention. High schools and colleges are increasingly banning music players and laptops because they're concerned students are playing online poker, surfing the Web or chatting with friends instead of listening to lectures. You can't use gadgets while on jury duty in most states, even while sitting around waiting to be called upon. And "please turn off your cell phone" signs are popping up in retail stores, banks and anywhere else where they want you focused on the business at hand.

So what's so bad about banning gadgets?

Bans add up

I've noticed a lot of support for these kinds of bans. Maybe you like them, too. We've all been annoyed by some rude person loudly yakking away in public. The attitude is: Yeah!! Let's stick it to that guy, call the cops and have him cuffed and taken away! Payback time, sucker!!

The trouble with these creeping bans is the cumulative effect they have on our freedom to use devices that have become central to our businesses, social lives and personal information management.

It reminds me of the more controversial issue of public surveillance cameras. Every camera, considered in isolation, is easily justified as necessary for safety or public order. But do we really want to live in the world created by the cumulative effect of all these cameras, where every move we make is recorded, everything we do is watched and videos can be used for nefarious purposes without our knowledge or consent?

We like this camera or that camera -- and love it when bad guys get busted -- but nobody wants to live in the novel 1984, where "big brother is always watching you."

Likewise with gadget bans. Each ban may be justifiable and desirable. Life will be better if nobody is yammering away on the phone in line at Starbucks about their brother's failing marriage. We enjoy movies more if phones aren't ringing in movie theaters.

People like bans because they think about other people being banned. But do YOU want to be told when and where you can use your laptop? Do you want people constantly telling you to stop listening to your iPod because someone somewhere might be foolish enough to walk in front of a car?

We love our cell phones and other gadgets, don't we? The whole point of a cell phone is that you're available whenever you want to be. We love them because they're about our own power and freedom.

But what happens when we start missing emergency calls because someone is constantly telling us to turn off our phones?

Bans don't get at root causes

The other problem with banning gadgets is that the rules against them rarely address real problems. For instance, people who annoy and disturb others with their phone calls are rude. Take away the cell phone, and you've still got a rude person walking around offending people in other ways.

Drivers unsafely distracted by cell phones are dangerous. But if you take away the cell phone, they're still unsafe drivers. When someone crashes a car, and police find out the driver was on the phone, everybody says, "Aha! Cell phones cause car accidents." But when someone crashes because they were distracted by the radio, their spouse, their own thoughts, or -- mostly likely -- because they're just careless or unskillful behind the wheel, everybody says, "Well, it was an accident."

A lot of people express concern about road safety when the question of banning cell phones comes up, but why aren't we talking about making drivers' tests more stringent? It seems like any reckless, uncoordinated, distracted, ignorant, panicky, unskillful driver can get a driver's license, and nobody seems to mind.

Banning phones and iPods from schools isn't going to make kids suddenly interested in schoolwork or more honest while taking tests. It won't magically transform that bland, inaccurate, written-by-committee textbook into something relevant and engaging.

And, sure, the Israeli government -- and other security-focused organizations -- can try to stop leaks with cell phones. In reality, though, they're just making it slightly less convenient. You can record sound and take pictures nowadays with wristwatches, writing pens, tie clips, glasses and other devices. And you can just remember the facts and tell someone later. You can take away the phone, but you've still got a spy on your hands.

Bans don't solve the core problems

What we really need to do is raise our kids with a sense of courtesy and common sense, and expect the same from people we interact with. We need harder drivers' exams, better curricula and better gadgets (that, for example, can be more quickly and easily silenced). We don't need more rules, laws and arrests.

Also, consider: Is the level of civility in a culture improved or degraded when laws and rules substitute for good manners and respect for others?

Gadget bans almost never address root causes. They're scapegoats, mainly for one very bad reason.

Gadgets are new

People over the age of 25, it seems, are far more supportive of banning gadgets than younger people. The reason is that they remember living without them. Younger people, however, cannot, and are much less likely to want phones and other devices banned.

Is our impulse to ban new technology influenced by that newness? Is that a good reason to curtail freedoms?

Drunken people are far noisier, more common and more obnoxious in restaurants than cell phone talkers. But is anybody talking about bringing Prohibition back? The answer is no, and the reason is that alcohol has been with us for thousands of years and cell phones only for a decade or two.

Car radios distract drivers, too. (Full disclosure: I totaled a car when I was 16 because I was fiddling with the radio.) But is anyone talking about banning music in cars? No, because it's been with us for decades.

I'm not saying cell phones, music players and laptops should never be banned under any circumstances. I'm just suggesting that rules against the use of gadgets should be resisted when possible, carefully considered when necessary and never imposed simply to make us feel better about problems bans can't really solve.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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