What If Cell Phones Stopped Working?

I recently ran across some information that is quite disturbing, to me, and correlates with what I have observed in the real world.

A recent article in Christian Science Monitor noted that a Pew Poll said that 90 percent of Americans have cell phones and 64 percent of them are smartphones.

Can you hear me now? Am I alone in being disturbed by this fact? It’s just a little bit scary that in our modern world we have to be so connected to--well, the world--that 290 million out of 321 million of us have to have a cell phone.

It begs the question: what did we do before cell phones?

Cell phones have not been in popular use all that long, after all. The first mobile phone call was placed in 1973--true, it was one of the very first of those bread box-sized mobile phones--nothing like today's mini-phones.

The earlier mobile phones were used mostly by the wealthy, the business magnates, the rich and powerful--remember in the 70s when you’d see someone in their car, with a phone to their ear? It was sort of a status symbol. I was always tempted to take a home phone handset with the cord dangling and just drive down the road pretending to be talking big business; hey, I was younger then, I’ve outgrown such pettiness--really!

Cell phones didn’t come into popular use by the general population until the 80s. In the United States, the number of cell phone subscribers increased from 340,000 in 1985 to 180 million in 2004, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Today, the number of cell phones in use has exceeded the population!

For some of us, one isn’t enough!

Maybe I’m geezing here, but I remember a time when I could actually walk out my front door and be gone all day with no contact device whatsoever on my person. I had no way of knowing what the rest of my family was doing, nor did they know what I was doing. 

There was a time when teenagers would be gone all day and parents had no way of keeping track of them; how did we do it? Did we worry ourselves to death wondering if everyone else in the family was OK?

I admit I’m as hooked as the rest of the 90 percent. I feel helpless and exposed if I leave the house without my cell phone--it’s like a piece of me is missing. My wife gets upset with me on the rare occasions that I leave the house and forget to strap on my umbilical cord to the world.

I confess that I get equally perturbed when she forgets hers. Has anybody ever dialed up their absent loved one’s phone only to hear it ringing in the next room? Arghhh!!!

It’s like we are now expected to have that phone and be available to whoever wants to call us anytime of the day or night. I have an insecure friend who calls regularly and if it goes to voice mail, next time I see him he’ll say, “Oh, not taking my calls huh?” He makes me feel like I’ve de-friended him if I can’t take each and every call from him.

Of course, in business, if you don’t answer calls from clients or fellow workers you are labeled unreliable; “Oh, he never answers his phone and don’t even bother leaving a voice mail because he won’t listen to it.”

I have no compulsion to answer each and every phone call. As I tell my wife and children, we are in charge of the phone, not the other way around. 

There is an automatic rollover to voice mail if you don’t answer it; it gives us the discretion to determine if it is the right time to answer a call. There is a silencing button so you won’t be disturbed if you so choose. Heck, you can even turn the darned thing off and the message will still there waiting when you turn it back on.

Cell phones can be a distraction--which is why operating one while driving is so dangerous and even against the law now in some places.

Even if you have a “hands-free” system, it is still a distraction. When you take your eyes off the road to push a button, to answer a phone, it’s a distraction. When you are in an animated conversation, you aren’t really paying attention to driving. How many of us remember driving and talking and suddenly realizing you’ve passed your turn off because you weren’t watching the road?

I have to wonder--what would happen if all the cell phones suddenly stopped working?

What if all the satellites and cell towers ceased functioning?

How would we handle that? Could we even leave the house? Could we do our daily commute if not in constant communication with home and friends?

We as a nation and a world have become so dependent on cell phones--whether they’re smart or not--and it would be a blow to our society if we suddenly didn’t have them.

I suppose over time we would adjust back to the no-cell phone society, where we taught our children to go out into the world and trusted them to make the right decisions. If they didn’t, then they learned by experience--sometimes hard experience.

Back to the time when we could have free, quiet time to think and relax without constant interruptions, without the expectation that you would be there for everyone, anytime, anywhere.

Dependency on cell phones has perhaps made us, as a people, a lot less capable of independent thought. Instead of making decisions on our own there’s always somebody you can call to help share the burden, or blame.

I guess this is all rhetorical because, like it or not, cell phones are here to stay and they--or rather the technology that brought them to us--will be great as long as they are working.

But what if they’re not?  

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, AL; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.