The Return Of Baghdad Bob

Many of us recall “Baghdad Bob,” the Information Minister for Iraq whose press briefings during the Iraq War in 2003, and confident declarations that the Iraqi forces were pulverizing the enemy, were laughably divorced from reality. Baghdad Bob’s willingness to lie to the press, even as invading tanks rolled past behind him, was so complete that the photo of him, above, has become one of the standard internet memes that is used whenever someone is trying to present reality in a way that is contradicted by the obvious truth.

Speaking of Baghdad Bob . . . how is the Russian media presenting the war in Ukraine and the protests that have sprung up in some parts of Russia?

Not surprisingly, it’s been a struggle, and the truth has been hard to find. The tone has been set at the top, where Vladimir Putin has tried to convince the Russian people and Ukrainian military forces that the Ukrainian government consists of a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” And the Russian media has tried to play along and support the Putin regime by broadcasting patriotic programming and attacks on the Ukrainian leaders.

The problem for Russia is that its people have cell phones and computers and multiple ways of communicating without resort to the traditional media, and that decentralized, personal communication technology is changing the way war can be presented on the home front, just as it is changing how war is conducted on the battlefield. Patriotic programming and outright propaganda lose their force if you can flip on your cell phone and see video recorded or forwarded by your contacts of anti-war protests happening across the country and Russian police breaking up spontaneous demonstrations against the war.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll see footage of a Russian spokesman assuring the world that the Russian people are united in their support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while in the background an anti-war protest marches through the streets–and a new “Moscow Mel” meme will be born.

War In The Internet Age

Like everyone else, I have been following the events unfolding in Ukraine, and hoping like crazy that the courageous Ukrainians continue to stand up against the Russians and make them pay for starting a brutal and totally unnecessary war. In the fog of war you never know what is actually happening, but it looks like the Ukrainians, and their President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are putting up a fierce fight–according to some reports, at least, much more fierce than Vladimir Putin and Moscow expected.

I’m also fascinated by the new issues that modern technology are introducing to the harsh realities of war. Two stories in particular are helping to illustrate how the internet is changing the paradigm in ways that Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, General Lee, General Patton, and other experts on war could never have anticipated.

First, consider Ukraine’s President. He has been extraordinarily deft in using modern communications tools to rally his citizens and his troops, using his cell phone and other technology as a kind of tactical device. After the fighting began, President Zelenskiy made a broadcast, using his cell phone, in which he was posed in front of a notable landmark in Kyiv. In the screen shot above, Zelenskiy looks like a guy taking a selfie on a visit, but his broadcast had an important point: refuting Russian propaganda that he had fled the capital. Zelenskiy’s immediate, selfie response exposed the propaganda as fiction, undercutting Russian credibility (to the extent there was any) and fortifying the resolve of Ukrainians who saw with their own eyes that their leader was standing firm. Zelenskiy, who was an entertainer before becoming President, clearly has a command of modern technology and an intuitive understanding of how it can be used to his advantage. His videos make Zelenskiy look like the future and Putin look like a Cold War relic–which he really is.

Second, consider the many reports that, as they invade, sex-starved Russian troops are using the Tinder apps on their cell phones to try to line up liaisons with Ukrainian women. And consider further the contentions by some that, knowing of the Russian practices, Ukrainian intelligence operatives are posing as women on Tinder and other social media apps to gather useful information on where the Russians are, how they are equipped, and where they are heading. Thanks to the lack of discipline of Russian troops and the anonymity of some social media apps, Ukrainians can collect real-time data about troop movements–the kind of information that is extraordinarily valuable in any war.

One admonition in the United States during World War II was: “loose lips sink ships.” The new saying might be “Tinder apps help lay traps.”

Whatever may happen here, war will never be the same.

The Day The Phone Call Died

The other day I had an actual telephone call on my cell phone.  Not an email, not a text, not a robocall from a telemarketer or scammer, not a social media interaction — an actual telephone call, where I spoke to real live person and we had a back-and-forth conversation in real time.  It seemed almost like a red-letter event.

Child talking on the telephoneI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the personal telephone call is dying a long, slow, agonizing death.  (Business calls are another matter, obviously.)  The process began with the decision of many people, Kish and me included, to get rid of our home land line phone because it had become only the source of annoying telemarketing and survey calls during dinner, and we figured we didn’t need it anyway because we had cell phones.  Then, with the advent of texting and email and social media, those became the preferred methods of communication.  Friends who used to touch base by telephone now do so by texting, often in group texts, or by responding to a Facebook post about a new job or new member of the family or new dog or new recipe.  It’s quicker and easier and viewed as less intrusive than placing an actual telephone call.  Others argue that these other forms of communication are more efficient than phone calls, because you can send pictures and attach documents and data.

It’s kind of curious that the number of phone calls are falling while the statistics show that the use of cell phones overall is increasing.  In short, people just aren’t using cell phones anymore for what used to be their principal purpose — i.e., making telephone calls — but instead are glued to their phones to check the news, reactions to social media posts, email traffic, and play games.

Will there be a day when the phone call as a communications tool actually dies?  That would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, but it seems increasingly plausible now.  I hope it doesn’t happen, because I still think phone calls are superior for certain forms of communication — because in a telephone call you can hear the other party’s voice, which through its tone, and pauses, and other non-verbal clues can tell you something about how the other party is doing and how they are reacting to what you’re saying.  Phone calls are a lot more personal than texts or emails, and I hope there is always a role for them.

In Password Hell

Today I went to get a new iPhone.  The battery on the old one was running down at Usain Bolt-like speed, and clearly, it was time.

51yn54juiql._sx569_When I got to the Verizon store, the pleasant young guy who took care of me looked at my phone, chuckled softly, and noted that the phone was more than five years old.  That’s like taking world history back to the Pharaonic period — when cell phone data storage was miniscule, cell phone cameras were crappy, cell phone batteries were tiny . . . and, not incidentally, cell phones were a lot cheaper than they are now.

So, I had to decide how much I wanted to spend for my new phone.   It didn’t take me long to decide that I didn’t need to spend $1500 (which, amazingly to me, is what the Verizon store employee who is probably making not much over minimum wage confessed he had spent on his phone) and would be perfectly happy with the cheapest iPhone 10 they had — which was still incredibly expensive.  Then I had to pick a color (red), and a phone case (a clear Pelican) and then it was iPhone set-up time.  And that’s where the process ran off the rails.

“What’s your Apple password?” he asked pleasantly — and I felt cold, icy fingers of fear clutching my heart.  And then he asked for my iTunes password, and then for my gmail password, and the depths of angst and despair burrowed ever deeper into my soul.  “I’m not sure,” I said uncertainly.  “Well, what do you think it might be?” he asked, slightly baffled and no doubt wondering how could anyone who uses a modern phone wouldn’t have all of their passwords memorized and ready to use at any moment.  So I gave a few half-hearted attempts, using passwords that I know that I’ve used for something or another over the years — but there was no conviction in my efforts.  Sure enough, none of the passwords worked, and I got the accusatory buzzings and beepings that inevitably accompany password failure.  So the pleasant kid had to reset my passwords — passwords that will now promptly be forgotten, and vanish on the wings of the wind down the password memory hole.  It made the new phone process even longer and even more embarrassing.

As I left the store I realized that there is a reason I get a new phone only every five years.

Death At The Grand Canyon

There’s been another death of a tourist at the Grand Canyon National Park.  The National Park Service is reporting that a 70-year-old woman fell about 200 feet from the rim of the canyon.  The incident is the second accidental death at the Grand Canyon National Park this year and the third death by a fall in the area.

gc-north-rim-bright-angel-pt-hiker_dollar_680In an article on the death, Grand Canyon park staff are reported to encourage all visitors “to have a safe visit by staying on designated trails and walkways, always keeping a safe distance from the edge of the rim and staying behind railings and fences at overlooks.”  That’s good advice, but it’s not exactly easy to follow.  The Grand Canyon isn’t fenced in, and the lure of getting close to the edge of the rim, to take in the canyon in all of its dizzying, magnificent vastness, is hard to resist.

When we made our visit to the Grand Canyon some years ago with the boys, I remember inching my way closer and closer until I thought:  “Okay, that’s really close enough.”  I was probably a foot or two from the rim, like the person in the picture shown above, but it felt like I was on the edge of the precipice, and I didn’t feel the need to have my feet touching the edge so I could look directly downward.  I also tried to keep the kids from going right up to the edge.  If you do that, you leave yourself no margin for error, and any stumble or misstep could send you plummeting to your doom.  And, if your attention to where you are carefully placing your feet is distracted because you’re taking a picture with your phone — which apparently is what happened with at least one of the fatal incidents this year — the chances of a horrible mishap are just increased.

If you make a visit to the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower, or other cliffs, canyons, or rocky outcropping sites out west, you immediately notice that there aren’t many fences.  Fencing in the sites would not be feasible because of their sizes and configurations, and would ruin the views, besides.  The National Park Service trusts people to be mindful of their own safety and to avoid taking stupid risks — but of course, the sites were developed in the days before cell phone cameras and people mindlessly moving around, without looking where they are going, to try to get the perfect shot.

Chris Rock’s “Total Blackout”

Last night Kish and I went to see Chris Rock with Mr. and Mrs. Jersey Cavalier.  Rock is on his new, “Total Blackout” tour, and Columbus is one of the first stops.  In fact, he’s got another show here tonight.

chris-rock_12-06-2016-827x620Rock was flat-out hilarious, but if you’re going to the show, let me offer a word to the wise.  Don’t take your cell phone!  Presumably because Rock doesn’t want any pictures taken during the show, or annoying rings from the audience, or recordings of any part of the show, all cell phones are taken and placed into Yondr pouches that are then locked.  People get to keep their bagged and locked phones with them, but they can’t use them until they walk to the unlocking station at the end of the show.  The Virginia Cavalier graciously walked all of our phones back to our office, which is nearby, so we didn’t have to hassle with the locking and unlocking, which expedited our departure from the theater.

This phone-locking process caused two interesting effects.  First, the area outside the Palace Theater was an absolute scrum before the show.  Security did nothing to put people into orderly lines, so you basically had a mob of impatient people who didn’t know why it was taking so long to get into the show, pushing and jostling and hoping the show didn’t start before they got to their seats.  It was a totally unnecessary melee that could have been avoided by some decent planning and security — which presumably will come later on the tour.  For now, my suggestion is to get to the show early.

Second, after the first two warm-up acts, there was a 20-minute intermission before Rock came on.  Imagine — in the modern world, a 20-minute intermission in which people can’t use their cell phones to check emails and text messages, post a selfie to Facebook, and otherwise pass the time!  When the intermission started, people seemed confused by the absence of their cell phone security blankets and unsure of what to do.  Ultimately, they ended up actually talking to each other, or intently watching the backdrop slide show of covers of vintage comedy albums.  The lack of cell phones sure made that 20-minute intermission seem a hell of a lot longer, but by the time it was over everybody was definitely primed for the show.

Comedy Central Night Of Too Many Stars - ShowAs for Rock, he was brilliant.  The topics he addressed were wide-ranging, encompassing racism, the police, guns, his own celebrity status, the Trump era, religion, his daughter’s freshman orientation, the need for bullies, his divorce, men and women, and of course sex — with a lot of other subjects touched in between.  He’s got a knack for looking at the world in a different way and then capturing his observations in hysterical one-liners.  He’s got to be one of the best stand-up comedians to ever grace the stage, period.

A few other points about Rock.  First, he’s the consummate professional.  Those of us, like Kish and me, who sat in the cheap seats in the back of the theatre appreciated his carefully modulated volume and clear delivery, designed to reach every corner of the venue.  He paces back and forth, so everybody can get a good look, and gave the people in the front row high-fives both before and after the show.  How many big stars will do that?

Second, although Rock uses more profanity than any other comedian I’ve seen live — in the barrage of MFs and f-words, you quickly start to not even notice the “shits” — in his performance the obscenities somehow seem less profane.  They’re just part of the act, helping to set up the one-liners, providing segues from one topic to another, and preserving Rock’s urban street cred.  And, in a way, the profanity masks the fact that some of what Rock has to say isn’t in line with the current PC worldview.  He’s the detached observer, skewering both the silly justifications of the pro-gun lobby and the bland reassurance offered by school administered with equal flair.  His willingness to tilt against all sides is one of the things that makes his shows so interesting.

I’ve been to a number of stand-up shows, and the show last night was the funniest I’ve ever seen.  It’s a must-see if you live near one of the towns on the tour.

News Flash: People Who Talk On Cell Phones While Walking Aren’t Cool

Lately I’ve seen more pedestrians walking and talking on their cell phones at the same time.  It bothers me.

It’s not the lack of politeness, necessarily.  Although it is impolite — imposing your side of your inevitably loud cell phone conversation on every hapless person who unfortunately happens to be within earshot — anyone who lives in the modern world has long since learned to endure thoughtless louts who can’t conform to basic social norms in more ways than we can count.

popupNo, what really bothers me is that people talking on their cell phones while walking always act like they think they’re the coolest thing ever.  They’re inevitably walking, the elbow of the arm holding the phone jutting out just so, with the smuggest imaginable look on their faces.  It’s as if they think that getting or making a phone call in a public place is somehow an affirmation that they stand alone at the center of the universe.  “Look at me!,” their demeanor screams, “I’m an incredibly important person!  And I’ve got friends, colleagues, and clients who want to talk to me even when I’m crossing the street in a busy downtown area!”

This must be a carryover from the early days of cell phones, when handhelds were rare and people were curious to see people talking on bulky wireless devices.  But those days ended during the Reagan Administration.  Now cell phones are like opinions and certain body parts — everybody has one.  The difference between the walking talkers and the rest of the world is that the walking talkers don’t have the decency to remove themselves from the public right-of-way, by sitting on a bench or standing off to the side while they complete their call.  Everyone else has the good sense and manners to not inflict their conversations on random passersby.  Unlike the walking talkers, everybody else has the instinct to not act like a churlish buffoon.

So here’s a news flash to the walking cell phoners — you’re not cool, you’re boorish.  Please recognize that, and if you can’t stop talking on your cell phone in public, at least have the decency to wipe that smug look off your face.

The Charging Issue

Should you charge your smartphone overnight, or not?  It’s one of those choices that wasn’t an issue years ago but that is now complicating our modern lives.

20150911171157-iphone-charging-apple-batteryThis article on MSN says:  it depends.  The act of charging is bad for the battery on your phone, even though my iPhone, and Android phones, have chips that prevent them from being overcharged.  That’s because one of the recent smartphone advances is the incorporation of technology that allows phones to accept more current, faster.  As a result, we no longer have to groan because it takes freaking forever! for our phones to charge.  But, that quick-charging technology also causes lithium-ion batteries to corrode more quickly than they would otherwise.  So, if you are charging your phone overnight, you are promoting battery corrosion.

Why is the MSN answer “it depends”?  Because the corrosion process is gradual, and batteries usually don’t start showing signs of wear for two years — which is about the period of time many people use a phone before upgrading to get their hands on the latest model.  So, if you’re the kind of person who plans on getting a new phone whenever your cell phone carrier allows you to do so, charge away, baby!

I’m not one of those people; I keep my cell phone until is goes toes up.  I also charge my phone overnight.  Rationally, I accept the conclusion that by doing so I am contributing to eventual battery performance problems, but emotionally it is hard for me to not start the day with a fully charged phone.  I’ve been caught with a dying phone too many times, and therefore my reflex approach is to charge up when I can — like overnight.  But I defer to science.  I’m going to try a new approach, not begin to charge until I get up, and then stop the process when I hit that 100% charged level.  We’ll see how it goes.  Old habits die hard.

In The Passive-Aggressive Cell-Free Zone

I was in the court clerk’s office the other day and got a chuckle out of this sign on the counter.  Sure, it’s got an obvious passive-aggressive element to it, but if the alternative is dealing with inconsiderate jerks who are having loud cell phone conversations while you are trying to assist them, why not take affirmative action?  It’s interesting, too, that it isn’t a handmade job — which suggests that there are so many people talking on cell phones at counters that there is a market for signs asking them to refrain from doing so.

IMG_0935I laughed at this sign, but I’m fed up with the cellification of our culture and people yakking on their handheld devices everywhere — even public restrooms.  Aside from the library, there really are no quiet zones anywhere anymore.  We now put up with people having noisy conversations in restaurants, on sidewalks, in parks, on public transportation, in airport waiting areas, and on those little buses that take you from the parking zones to the terminal.  Even worse, the cellophiles and blue-toothers make no effort to step away from the rest of the world and find their own little nook where they can continue their gabfest.  No, they think the rest of us just have to put up with their boorish intrusion into our world.

What is it that would make someone take a cell call, or make a cell call, while they are waiting to file or retrieve something at a court clerk’s office — or for that matter in all of the other places that have been invaded by cell phone conversations?  Is it self-importance?  It is trying to give tangible evidence that they are so important or so popular that they have to be on the phone at all times?  Is it that their boredom tipping point is so low that a few quiet moments while walking down the street or riding the bus are unendurable?

I never thought I would say that I enjoy commercial air travel, but at least plane flights involve that quiet period between the cabin doors closing for takeoff and the plane pulling up to the jetway after landing.  Oh, guess what — the FCC is considering new regulations that would allow the airlines to permit cell calls once a plane passes 10,000 feet.  Another quiet zone might be falling by the wayside.  Will the library be next?

I Hate Our New Area Code

Columbus, Ohio has a new area code.  For decades, we’ve been the 614 area code.  It’s snappy.  It’s catchy.  It’s got the traditional lower number in the middle configuration, like the 202 or 212 or 312 area codes that are used by big cities in the country.  Columbus is so associated with its long-standing area code that (614) is the name of one local magazine.

But now Columbus has a new area code, too — 380.  It’s clunky.  It looks like the kind of number that would pop up on your phone when it’s an annoying telemarketing call from India.  And even though most people who live in Columbus couldn’t tell you what the new area code is if you asked, we’ve already grown to hate it.  In fact, “hate” doesn’t even begin to capture the depth of feeling we have for the new area code.  “Despise it with every fiber of our being” comes a bit closer, but still might not even get there.

0gwaf8e946du6_6228Why?  Because 380 is an overlapping area code.  That means that, rather than creating some new area code out in the suburbs defined by a specific geographic region, the 380 phone numbers will be doled out to people who live in the 614 area code territory.

It’s not that we mind 380ers in our midst, like they’re unclean or something.  No, it’s because now we have to dial the area code to make what used to be local calls.  So if I want to call Kish to tell her that I am heading home after the end of the work day, I have to dial three extra digits.  That might not sound like much of a burden, but understand that Kish’s cell phone number is firmly engraved onto every synapse in my brain, right there with the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies.  When I pick up the phone and think “time to call Kish,” the mental reflexes kick in and the finger punches the number automatically — and there’s no 614 area code involved.  The 380 area code is basically requiring me to reverse decades of consistent mental conditioning.

We’re told that we need the new 380 area code because the 614 area code is running out of numbers.  It’s not just new cell phone numbers, either:  we’re told that now vending machines and other devices that take credit cards need phone numbers for “machine-to-machine” communications.

Really?  I need to rewire my brain just so an office worker can use a credit card to buy a Zagnut bar?  Well, I say the vending machines can bite me.  And the 380 area code can, too.

Old Phones For Old Folks

I’ve really come to dislike those T-Mobile commercials.  Filled with quick cuts from one group of happy, dancing twenty-somethings to guitar-playing scruffs to youthful, grinning selfie-snappers, all of whom are precisely dishevelled and wearing kicky scarves and snazzy hats, the T-Mobile commercials are even more specifically focused at an age group than toy commercials on Saturday morning TV.

And it’s an age group that I no longer belong to.

IMG_20150916_060245

I’ve been dimly aware for some time that I’m completely out of it when it comes to phones.  I know this because of the shocked expressions of my younger colleagues when I haul out my cell phone, immediately followed by a bemused expression when I plug it in to charge the battery — again.  It’s the same bemused expression you probably gave your grandparents when you noticed that they spilled food on themselves while eating a recent meal and are walking around with tomato soup on their blouse and breadcrumbs on their cardigan.

I think I’ve got an iPhone 4.  Could a new iPhone do more, if I got one?  Undoubtedly.  But my current phone provides the limited phone/email/internet access/apps I actually use — and, candidly, rather than being moved to ecstatic dancing about getting a new phone, I kind of dread the thought.  I know that when I go to get one the customer service rep will be some precisely dishevelled, phone-arrogant twenty-something who probably plays guitar on breaks who will ask me condescending questions about my phone needs that I don’t fully understand.  It’s nettlesome.  Plus, there’s an obvious risk that, when I get a new phone, the apps I actually use will mysteriously vanish or move or be unworkable.  So I stick to my old, tried-and-true, reliable-if-constantly-leaking-battery-power phone.

When I see those irritating T-Mobile commercials, I feel guilty about my phone backwardness — but then I read a recent survey that shows that a majority of Americans will upgrade their phones only when the phone stops working or becomes obsolete.  That basically means I’m still comfortably in the majority and maybe even a titch ahead of the curve, because my phone still works fine and doesn’t appear to be obsolete — not that I would know.

Ha!  So take that, T-Mobile!  It’s nice to know that there is a Silent Majority of technology-challenged Americans who aren’t data obsessed and sent into paroxyms of dancing joy by the newest cell phone and data service plan.

Now excuse me while I check my shirt for food stains.

Ringtone Deductions

Ringtones are a kind of window into the soul, when you think about it.  If you’re with a person and their cellphone rings, for that brief moment you are getting a glimpse of some personal information about that individual.

IMG_2622For many people, including me, their ringtone is the default option chosen by the phone’s manufacturer.  For my iPhone 4, it’s called the “opening” ringtone — that vaguely Caribbean, quasi-steel drum trill that everyone has heard thousands of times but is so common and generic that people don’t really notice it anymore.  If someone’s cell phone uses the default option, you can reasonably conclude that the owner views the phone as a pesky, purely functional tool and hasn’t done anything to experiment with it or customize it to their tastes.

Then there are people who have rejected the default option, but choose a ringtone from the alternatives offered by the phone manufacturer.  My iPhone offers dozens of options, from dogs barking to ducks quacking to angelic harps to psychedelic snippets.  One of my friends uses the “trill” ringtone, which sounds like the noise Fred Flintstone made when he bowled on tippy-toes.  I asked if he was a big fan of the Man from Bedrock, but he says he chose it because it’s easier for him to hear.  It’s fair to infer that people who have gone beyond the default option but stayed within the manufacturer’s menu are comfortable with technology, intrigued by the different choices, and like playing around with their phones.

What about the people who’ve downloaded ringtones from the internet?  I often notice this in cabs, where I’ve been startled by driver ringtones that are a wild blast of foreign music or sound like a snippet from a sermon in an unknown tongue.  Those cabbies are making a statement — they’re in their taxis all day, they routinely take calls with passengers in the back seat, and there’s not much privacy.  They don’t care if you hear their rings or their conversations, which usually are muttered in another language, anyway.  Their ringtones are a way to stay connected to their native lands or their religions.

And finally there are the folks who have customized their ringtones so that different sounds are associated with different callers.  I was in a meeting recently where another attendee got a call and the ringtone was a portion of a Led Zeppelin song.  He explained that he had a different ringtone for his wife and each of his kids, and that was the one for his daughter.  Interesting, I thought, but I couldn’t imagine spending the time to figure out how to do that, then pick the right song, then download it from the internet into my phone.  Either that guy had a lot of time on his hands — or he got one of his kids to do it for him.

The Relentless March Of Cell Phone Progress

If you want to have a good idea of the relentless march of technology — actually, a sprint is probably more accurate than a march — consider the cell phone.

When first introduced in the ’80s, they were heavy and clunky.  Then the miniaturizing wizards got to work, and phones got smaller and smaller as coverage got better and better.  Then the coolness barons entered the game, and the boring cellphones of the past morphed into cool, Star Trek-like communicators that flipped open and made you feel like you were on the cutting edge of a sci-fi life.  Then the app designers brought their skills to bear, and cell phones went from simple communications devices to cameras, games consoles, and repositories of such vast amounts of personal information that the Supreme Court recently deemed a warrantless search of a cell phone legally analogous to a general search of a home.

We tend to move unconsciously with all of these changes, without pausing to think what it used to be like before the apps and the miniaturization and the styling.  That’s why a hilarious piece like this one, about a 2014 cell phone user trying to use 2004’s coolest phone for an entire month, is not only funny but a useful reminder.  Humans are an adaptable species, and nowhere is that more evident than in our immediate willingness to use and learn the latest technology — and then assume it has always been around.

Smartphone Etiquette

I’m guessing that the advent of the smartphone has created the most etiquette questions since the invention of the soup spoon and salad fork.

If you are in a social gathering, when is it appropriate to accept a call?  If you are in a multi-person business meeting, is it proper to check your email or send a quick text?  I’m not sure what the rules are anymore, and if there are rules they seem to be routinely ignored. Recently I was out at lunch and saw four women at the next table over, all silently texting to other people as they sat together over coffee.  They looked happy enough, but . . . really?

IMG_4780It’s a social issue caused by technological innovation.  During the land-line days of yore, people didn’t have to worry about a phone in their pocket ringing during lunch.  When written communications were limited to letters, you couldn’t just touch an icon on an ever-present electronic device to catch up on your friends’ latest ruminations.

Etiquette is all about establishing rules so that people are comfortable, and not offended, in everyday settings — so I think of how I feel, for example, when I am in a store waiting to check out and the clerk takes a phone call rather than completing my transaction.  I’m there, I’m ready to buy, and I get treated like second-hand news in favor of an unknown phone call?  It’s not a happy feeling that’s likely to make me want to go back to that place.  My baseline rule, therefore, is to try to give undivided attention to the people I’m with, no matter how many beeps and bloops my phone might make while we’re together.  I figure there is plenty of time to check on emails, texts, and updates when the gathering ends.  And if I’m expecting an important call that I can’t miss, I try to explain that possibility up front, so the people I’m with don’t think they are playing second fiddle to any random caller.

Cell phones are handy, but they can be a recipe for rudeness if we’re not careful.

Reasonable Expectations Of Privacy In A Digital Age

Earlier this week the Supreme Court decided an interesting case that begins what will be a long process of determining how the criminal justice protections of the Constitution apply to knotty issues raised by our increasingly linked-in, networked, mobile device-oriented age.

The case raised the question of whether prosecutors could attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track its movements for 28 days without getting a warrant.  The Court ruled, unanimously, that such conduct constituted an unreasonable search and seizure.  However, the Court split on the question of the nature and extent of the constitutional violation.  The majority opinion focused on the fact that prosecutors had physically attached the device to the suspect’s vehicle without consent.  The concurring opinions, however, raised broader questions of how the government may apply electronic surveillance to suspects in an age where people carry cell phones and send unencrypted text messages and cars broadcast their locations.  Do we have as much of a reasonable expectation of privacy in such information as we do in, for example, documents kept in a file folder in a locked desk drawer in our homes?

The Supreme Court’s latest decision is an example of how the law often has to follow, and respond to, technology.  The Fourth Amendment language on searches and seizures and warrants was written in the days of travel on horseback, flintlock pistols, and communication limited to face to face conversations and written letters.  The Supreme Court has had to revisit how the Fourth Amendment applies with the development of the telegraph, the telephone, and the automobile, and now it will need to do so again in our mobile information age.

I’m glad the Court came down, unanimously, against a warrantless attachment of a GPS device on a car — but that seems like a pretty extreme case.  The closer cases will tell the tale.  And one of the fundamental questions is likely to be:  does the prevalence of mobile devices, and the abundance of personal information we routinely carry and communicate to just about everybody, make it more or less reasonable for us to view that information as private?