Telephone Society

This morning on the Metro-North Railroad into New York City, the overhead speaker came on. It played out a reminder that the last car on the train is specified as the “quiet car,” meaning no cellphone conversations were allowed to take place in that car. I was pleasantly surprised at the announcement.

What surprised me was that Metro-North, in all its immanent power, which ultimately stems from their simple ability to decide whether you ride the train or not, had the guts to tell its passengers where they could not use their phones. It’s true that the Metropolitan Transit Authority should have some say on what is allowed on their trains, but this type of enforcement is not your typical “No Smoking” announcement. I believe I was surprised by the regulation because the MTA commuter rail feels enough like a public space, and today most public spaces are loud and certainly not restrictive about cellphone usage. In fact, when you think of it, cellphone conversations are tolerated in mostly every setting, except for a few select locations. The anomalies that come to mind are classrooms, business meetings, and airplanes. Otherwise, you can expect to see someone doing the hang-head-with-cellphone waddle in most corners of your day-to-day environment. Many people even believe it is socially acceptable to jump into their phone conversation in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. I’m sure you have experienced the “Oh, I’m sorry, I have to take this” conversation killer.

Pondering the ubiquity of communication devices urges me to recall the earlier decades of the 20th century when the telephone was just starting to grow into a household necessity. How did those generations react to its onset? The telephone certainly brought efficiency, but it also brought noise. A common solution to this new domestic intrusion was the advent of a “telephone room,” which, as its name suggests, housed the telephone and contained the extraneous banter that was not fit for the rest of the house.

My generation has reversed that view. Most of us deem it necessary to have a phone on our bodies at all times. The prize of efficiency has replaced a common concern for any sense of “peace and quiet” (which feels like an older generation’s jargon as I write it). I am reminded of the words of the author David Foster Wallace: “When you feel like the purpose of your life is to gratify yourself and get things for yourself and go all the time, there’s this other part of you, it’s almost hungry for silence and quiet and thinking about the same thing for maybe a half of an hour instead of thirty seconds that doesn’t get fed at all.” I believe most of my generation has fallen into the habit of constant self-indulgence and, in turn, has lost its patience for extended tranquility and thought. Thus, in a culture in which your cellphone can spare no time or space, I salute MTA for allowing me a little peace and quiet on the last car of the train.




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