I pick up the ringing phone in my room late one Saturday night, and it’s my friend and fellow Brown student Mike Flaxman.
“Justin, I have one message for you,” he says. “Get a cell phone.” He informs me that I missed some social event or other and he wasn’t able to reach me and tell me about it.
Mike has no common cell phone, but one with a full keyboard for text messaging, and an enlarged screen for the Internet, and it doubles as a day planner and God knows what else. In owning a cell phone, he is like almost every last Brown student nowadays, regardless of class, race, and creed. His late-night call is typical of the flack I get for not owning one. On discovering I don’t have a cell phone, my peers react with shock—often genuine horror. Mike even printed business cards for me with my room phone’s number and an explanation that I didn’t have a cell phone.
I can count on one hand the Brown students I know who don’t have a cell phone. Incidentally, my roommate Jeremy used to be one of these. We had a legitimate standing claim as the only double left on campus with no cell phone—until he got one this year.
Take a walk up Thayer Street or sit on the College Green on a sunny day and you’ll witness at least half a dozen phone conversations. I’ve overheard cell conversations in public restrooms and seen seniors in cap and gown chatting away, oblivious, along the Commencement procession. Perhaps most annoying, cell phones disrupt class regularly. In the large lecture classes I’ve taken, it’s been common for a phone to ring every other class. Many professors are so desensitized to the phenomenon, they take no notice; scolding the culprit would only extend the disruption.
In the Brown Daily Herald last fall, I wrote about a political science professor who warned her class that if a student’s cell phone rang, he or she would have to take the call. The method worked well until the professor’s own phone rang in the middle of class (she didn’t take the call).
I can’t deny that cell phones are convenient. My friends can attest that I’ve occasionally borrowed their phones, though in my defense, this is partly due to the disappearance of public pay phones. I can’t deny that cell phones are just about a social necessity at Brown. I’ve missed parties and lost track of friends on Friday nights with no way to find them. I am one of the few you’ll see awkwardly leaning over the yellow call boxes outside the dorms calling friends to let me in.
So why haven’t I broken down? I’m a bit young to be counted among the few professors emeriti who have resisted computers in favor of their old typewriters. And after all, as one of my professors noted last spring, Tolstoy cursed the locomotive—a piece of technology we now view as downright pastoral—for ruining traditional ways of life in the Russian countryside. But no train packed the psychological punch or was as overwhelmingly ubiquitous as the cell phone.
In short, I don’t have a cell phone because I’m not ready to give up the therapeutic pleasure of an uninterrupted walk up Prospect Street. Joyfully unavailable and alone; no ringing, vibrating, or messages left when I return. Walking down George Street, unable to receive a phone call, with no urge to make one, I can consider without interruption the inscription on the John Carter Brown Library: Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.
I can still remember a Notorious B.I.G. music video from the mid-’90s in which a brick-size cell phone was a status symbol. Mine is the last generation that will collectively remember life without cell phones. I intend to keep that memory alive.