One of the interesting things about technology is the way that it creates a kind of arms race between those who quickly adopt new technologies and those who feel that it impinges on their own freedom and want to thwart them. We know, for example, that the radar guns used by traffic police have spawned detectors that can tell drivers who like to speed when such devices are in use, leading to more sophisticated devices being developed for police, and so on. In this case, the radar detectors were being used by people who were trying to break the law for their own benefit and increasing the risk to other users of the road.
What we are seeing now is the rise of a kind of guerilla action by ordinary citizens who are not trying to break the law for some narrow interest but are instead reacting to the way their own private spaces are being violated by the use of technology by others.
Take cell-phone jammers. There are now devices that you can apparently purchase that will disrupt all cell phone transmissions within a limited area, ranging from a radius of about 30 feet up to a mile. Using these devices is illegal in the US.
We have all been subjected to involuntarily overhearing the private conversations of others because they insist on talking loudly into their cell phones in public places. At the very least it is annoying and sometimes it is downright uncomfortable. There is something about hearing a one-sided conversation that is very distracting, more so than overhearing a conversation between two real people where you can hear both sides. I wonder whether it is because when we hear only one side, we cannot help but try to figure out, like a puzzle, what the other person is saying in response, and that requires a higher level of mental engagement. I know that when I am trying to read, hearing the voices on a TV screen that I cannot see is more distracting than hearing a radio, and I think that it is because with TV there are information gaps in the audio that are filled by the unseen video and my mind cannot help but try to fill those gaps to make sense of what I am hearing.
(As an aside, I read somewhere that this practice of talking loudly into a cell phone in a public place is peculiar to the US and that in some other countries such as England people speak more softly. I don’t know if this is generally true. I have only one data point. My cousin who lives in England visited the US recently and I called her on her cell phone. She seemed to be whispering into the phone and I asked her if she was losing her voice and she replied that she was speaking softly because she was using her cell phone in a public place. I advised her that since she was in America she should follow the local custom and yell into the phone so that people across the street, or even the next county, could hear what she had to say.)
The fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was considering allowing the use of cell phones on planes was something that struck many with horror because plane rides are already unpleasant experiences. They can be really boring unless you are a person who is comfortable having just your own mind for a companion, and I feared that almost everyone would use that time to chat loudly with others using their cell phones, resulting in a nightmare for people like me who dislike plane rides but at least see them as opportunities to read or write undisturbed. Fortunately, it seems like the FCC has shelved that plan.
The best part of my jury service was that the room where the jury pool waited until we were needed had a ‘quiet room’ which had no TVs and no cell phones were allowed, and people who spoke did so very briefly and quietly. I spent a lot of time there. We need more such spaces in public spaces where people have no choice but to be there.
Another guerilla technology device is one that turns off televisions in public places. TVs are now everywhere where people are forced to wait as advertisers try to grab the attention of captive audiences. I find this really annoying, almost on a par with cell-phone conversations. TV programmers try to grab your attention with rapid switches in sound level, music, and so on, so that you are constantly jarred into acknowledging their presence. I recall having to change planes in Chicago and I wanted a quiet place to read a book but I could not find a place nearby to sit and read that was outside the audio range of a TV monitor. It was infuriating. But there are now devices that you can use to turn off any TV between 20 and 50 feet away. Of course, these are illegal too.
As the use of cell phones and TVs in public places increase, there is bound to be a backlash against this increased noise pollution and the lack of quiet spaces. Already, one sees signs in buildings telling people that they are in a ‘no cell phone zone’. Another possible development might parallel what happened with smoking. Just like restaurants and other public places adopted no-smoking areas, we might soon be asked whether we want to be in a cell-phone/TV or no cell phone/TV area. Even outright bans on cell phones in restaurants have been considered.
For those bothered by the fact that hidden cameras are all over the place recording our every movement, I now read that people can buy or construct a simple infra-red device that makes them unidentifiable by the ubiquitous spycams. (Thanks to The Progressive Review.)
If the issue of the proper level of respect for people’s privacy is not addressed in some way, I predict that there will be an even greater rise in this kind of guerilla technology use, with people deciding that they have to take action themselves, even if illegal, to protect their privacy and their space.
POST SCRIPT: How the mighty are fallen
Last Saturday, a little-known physicist named Bill Foster won the special congressional election to fill former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s seat when the latter abruptly decided to retire. Foster joins fellow physicists Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Vern Ehlers (R-IL) in Congress. Foster made universal health care and praising the European and Canadian models a central feature of his campaign, opposed the plan to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunication companies, and tied his opponent Republican James Oberweis to Bush’s policies.
Sensing an embarrassing defeat in the offing for a high profile seat that had always been considered strongly Republican, the National Republican Congressional Committee poured $1.2 million into this race, almost 20% of their available funds, but their candidate still lost handily 53%-47%.
So the congressional seats of two people (Tom DeLay and Hastert), who as recently as 2006 were seen as really powerful figures in Washington, are now both in Democratic hands.
What alarms Republicans are these signs that the voters are completely disenchanted with them and this might spell disaster for the party in the November elections, in both houses of Congress and the presidency. It is also interesting that Obama made a campaign ad for Foster and McCain made one for Oberweis.