Sunday, November 04, 2007

Who Gets to Be the Bigger Jerk?

From today's New York Times: "Devices Enforce Cellular Silence, Sweet but Illegal" by Matt Richtel:

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 2 — One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante. He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.

“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”

Read the whole thing here:

Here is another instance where my superhuman ability to see things from multiple angles simultaneously is a curse. On the one hand, I share Andrew's annoyance--not so much that the woman next to him was "blabbing away" on her phone (all else being equal, I would rather that the person next to me on a plane or train do anything but talk to me but because, in my experience if not Andrew's, people using cellular phones in public places always seem to be yelling into them. On the other hand, I can see the young woman's point of view, too: Presumably, she bought the phone and the overpriced plan with its lifetime contract so that she could talk to her friends! It doesn't sound like she was in a phone-free car on the train; it sounds like she was within her rights to be using the phone where she was--Andrew's big objections seem to be (a) she was "blabbing away" and (b) she kept using the word "like"--but Andrew didn't want her to be on her phone, so he took it upon himself to jam her.

Conclusion: Both Andrew and the woman sitting next to him were being jerks, but Andrew went the extra mile and emerged the bigger jerk. Indeed, it's hard to conclude that Andrew is anything but a control-freak prick.

More evidence from the article's concluding paragraphs:

Andrew, the San Francisco-area architect, said using his jammer was initially fun, and then became a practical way to get some quiet on the train. Now he uses it more judiciously.

“At this point, just knowing I have the power to cut somebody off is satisfaction enough,” he said.

And there you have it--it's the passive-aggressive power trip. Someone is doing something I don't like. Never mind that they're well within their rights: I don't like it. And I need to do something about it. Nothing overt, because (a) they're not actually doing anything wrong and (b) that would require me to have some testosterone in my system. No, I need to do something sneaky, something that no one else even knows I'm doing, and then I can just sit here in my happy space and get my little buzz from knowing that I am the master manipulator of what others may or may not do in my presence. I want you to stop talking: click, I flip a switch and you do. Power!

Seems to me I saw an episode of Twilight Zone like that. It ended badly. One hopes for the same fate for the likes of Andrew--that he'll have an important call to make on a day when someone nearby decides he doesn't like all these people using their cellphones and jams them all. For one of the downsides of the phone jammers is that they immobilize all phone within a given radius, thus inconveniencing innocent bystanders as well as the "offenders."

As is pointed out in the article, such a device could be a real boon to robbers, terrorists, and others who would have a vested interest in thwarting people's attempts to call for help.

The article quotes James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University, rightly opining: “If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people. The cellphone talker thinks his rights go above that of people around him, and the jammer thinks his are the more important rights.”

That's probably not true: My observation of Life in These United States is that people don't think that their rights are more important than others people's; people think that they are the only ones who have any rights in the first place.

And I think Katz is charitably overlooking the thousands upon thousands of impotent jerks who are bound up in an insatiable need to ride roughshod over other people: I don't like this TV show, it should be taken off the air so no one else watches it; I don't like this columnist, the newspaper should drop him so no one else reads him; I don't approve of that artwork, it should be banned so no one else can enjoy it.

I'm reminded of George Carlin's riff on the oddity that is the flame-thrower: "At some point, some person said to himself, 'Gee, I sure would like to set those people on fire over there. But I'm way to far away to get the job done. If only I had something that would throw flame on them."

I suppose we should be thankful that Andrew didn't have a flame-thrower with him on the train.

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