What are phone jammers trying to tell us?

Cellphone jammers are illegal. So why do people keep using them? (Hint: because tech moves too slowly.)


Cellphone jammers prevent phones from working. They're being used in cars, public places and exam halls.

Jammers aren't new -- they've been around for years -- and they're illegal in many countries, including in the U.S., but use of jammers is growing fast.

But are phones really the problem? And are jammers really the solution?

I think cellphone jammers are being used as a Band-Aid, as the wrong solution to solve three societal problems that should be solved by much better technology.

Here are the three biggest problems cellphone jammers are trying, and failing, to solve, and what I think are the better solutions.

1. The 'phones-are-dangerous' problem

A Florida man named Jason R. Humphreys wanted to save lives by preventing people along his daily commute from using their phones while driving. So Humphreys installed a cellphone jammer in the back of the passenger seat of his SUV. The scheme worked for two years, as far as Humphreys knew. But the police, whose own communications were occasionally disrupted by his jammer, were less than thrilled. So they tracked him down and caught him two years ago. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission fined him $48,000 for breaking U.S. laws against the use of jammers.

As I've expressed in this space before, I think that drivers distracted with smartphones would be distracted by something else without smartphones. In other words, smartphones don't cause accidents, humans do.

The horrible reality is that human drivers kill around 1.24 million people a year worldwide. That's a far higher annual rate than the number of people who die in wars.

Humphreys' misguided action was the wrong solution to the problem. What we really need is to transition to self-driving cars as quickly as possible. The sooner we do it, the more lives will be spared.

2. The 'phones-are-annoying' problem

A Chicago man named Dennis Nicholl was arrested recently for allegedly using a cellphone jammer on a commuter train. Police were tipped off when photos of the man with his jammer started circulating online. After other commuters started talking on their smartphones, Nicholl pulled out a jammer, flipped a switch, and all the phones went silent. Nicholl's attorney said his client only wanted a little peace and quiet.

Comedian Dave Chappelle recently used a product from a company called Yondr to silence calls during 13 of his comedy gigs in Chicago. Yondr makes a lockable, radio-proof bag -- a kind of Faraday cage. As they entered the venue, Chappelle fans were required, as a condition of admission, to put their smartphones inside a Yondr bag, which was then locked. They were allowed to keep possession of the bags, but those who wanted to use their phones had to leave the no-phone zone and have someone unlock the Yondr bag as they exited.

The problem that Nicholl and Chappelle are trying to solve is that other people's smartphone use is annoying and distracting, respectively.

Silencing all the phones is the wrong way to go. The better solution is the coming age of hearable computing, which I wrote about last year. This new generation of wearable processes all of the sounds coming into your ears before letting you hear them. By using a smartphone app, you can adjust and customize what you hear and what you don't. When these smart earbuds hit the market for real, Nicholl will be able to produce his own peace and quiet, and Chappelle -- and his audience, for that matter -- can choose to hear only his own brilliant humor, plus the sounds of laughter and applause, regardless of whether someone in the audience is rudely chatting on the phone.

3. The 'phones-let-you-cheat' problem

Cheating is a massive problem worldwide, especially for entrance exams for colleges, universities, professional training and the military.

India's northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir, is tackling the problem of cheating by installing 800 cellphone jammers at testing centers statewide.

One recent high-visibility case illustrates the problem: A student in India named Wasim Ahmed at Nawab Shah engineering college was caught cheating. He kept a smartphone in his underwear with a microphone in his shirt and a Bluetooth receiver in his ear. He whispered the questions to a confederate on the phone, who gave him the answers.

Behavior like Ahmed's is repeated around the world, though the specifics may vary.

Earlier this month, a scandal erupted at Thailand's Rangsit University medical college when four students were caught cheating on entrance exams. Two of them wore glasses with built-in cameras, and three wore smartwatches. The glasses captured photos of the exam questions. On a break, the test-takers handed the glasses to someone who took them and sent the photos to confederates at an ad-hoc "command center" located elsewhere. The accomplices researched the questions and texted answers back to the test-takers, who could see the SMS messages on their smartwatches. The good news is that they were caught. (These aren't the kind of people you want controlling your general anesthesia during surgery.)

The problem of using Internet-connected devices to cheat is so bad that Iraq actually turns off much of the nation's Internet to prevent sixth graders from cheating.

Internet-assisted cheating appears to be a major problem. But the real problem is that most exams are built around an antiquated concept of learning. If cheaters can cheat by getting data from the Internet, there's no reason to memorize that information in the first place.

We're all becoming information cyborgs, with instant, real-time information and communication, artificial intelligence bots, and all the world's knowledge at our fingertips at all times.

Meanwhile, our most advanced computers are no match for the human brain, and may never be, despite what the futurists are always telling us. Everyone will be far better off, and cheating will be obsolete, when we teach and test human creativity instead of human memorization.

Or, better yet, all exams should be "open smartphone" exams, where one's ability to use a smartphone to look up facts, details and answers is part of what's being tested. Because that's how the world works now. The students taking exams today will never live in a world without the mobile Internet.

When people use cellphone jammers, they're almost always trying to solve a problem that's different and much larger than the one they think they're solving.

The reality is that smartphones exist. Wireless communication exists. Access to the Internet from anywhere exists. And smartphones and wireless gadgets are quickly becoming universal and ubiquitous. The best solution to whatever societal problems these realities appear to create is rarely to simply block the phones.

The best solution to the problems created by technology is always better technology.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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