Can you hear me now?

November 10, 2007|By Karen Hosler

The sleepy silence of a Sunday evening train ride through Ontario, Canada, a few years back was suddenly violated with the arrival of a man traveling alone who took the opportunity to catch up with friends and family by phone.

One after another, he'd call and relate mundane details of unremarkable activities, blathering on in a voice too loud to ignore. Fellow passengers, far politer than he, submitted to this torture until Cell Phone Man got off the train. As soon as he left, the entire train car broke into applause.

Thus, the tantalizing appeal of the jammer, a device that allows victims of such cell phone rudeness to anonymously sabotage the offender's signal.

Jammers are illegal in the United States, so using them would be wrong. But it's easy to imagine how it would feel so right.

As the use of cell phones has become ubiquitous in recent years, so, too, has misuse and abuse of the public space. At the movies, in the doctor's office, aboard airplanes, on elevators. Hands-free devices inspire some people to walk along the street or through the aisles of a grocery store seemingly in deep discussion with themselves.

Eighty-seven percent of Americans told ABC News pollsters last year they at least occasionally encountered the sort of annoyance practiced by the guy on the train - a lengthy conversation carried on in close proximity to others, often in a confined space.

Some guilty parties may be clueless to the offensiveness of their behavior, but others seem to be displaying a weird form of exhibitionism, calling attention to themselves for ego gratification.

This is where the jammer comes in. A discreet push of a button on a gadget the size of a cigarette pack will cause the offending phoner to suddenly lose the call. The signal from the cell tower is cut off, leaving the ostentatious talker sputtering away. "Hello? Hello?" (Hee, hee, hee. Vengeance is ours!)

Secret sabotage is so much more rewarding and certainly less dangerous than confronting a phone offender directly. Little wonder overseas exporters report that demand for the jamming devices in the United States is growing briskly, according to The New York Times.

"It's power, it's stealth, it's the ultimate cool gadget," observed P. M. Forni, director of the Civility Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University. "We all have the desire to zap annoyances out of our lives."

Alas, unpleasant consequences may await those who take etiquette enforcement into their own hands. A first offense can be punished with an $11,000 fine. Plus, there are all sorts of collateral damage. A jammer's influence can't be confined to a single offending instrument, but will block the signals of all phones within its range - at least briefly. Sooner or later, the jammer becomes the offending force.

A better answer, of course, is for everyone to make an effort to be more considerate of others - and when some fail, the rest just have to get over it.

There's evidence that the national tolerance level is rising. After more than a decade or so of living with cell phones, many Americans are becoming inured to the irritation, according to the ABC News poll. Mr. Forni observed that his recent survey of Terrible Ten Rude Behaviors included cell phone violations, but they ranked lower than dangerously aggressive driving, taking credit for another's work and littering.

Citizens of the 21st century are, perhaps, adapting to what sadly may be an ever-increasing technological incursion into privacy. Today, it's cell phones on the belt or in the purse; tomorrow, it may be chips in the brain. Mr. Forni said children born in this era can't imagine life without access to instant communication. More, shall we say, seasoned cell phone users can suddenly feel shut off from the world if the dreaded device accidentally gets left behind.

Making peace with the inevitable, though, doesn't extinguish the impulse to shut down a cell phone blowhard with a blast from a jammer.

Zpppt! (Yes!)

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