Friday, March 11, 2005

Whose air is it anyway

Jonathan Rowe, On the Commons, ponders the questions of increasingly widespread use of illegal mobile phone jamming devices.

"I love tools. I stop at hardware stores sometimes just to look at them. The utter economy of a screwdriver and hammer feels almost cleansing in a society built upon diseconomy and waste.

Technology is another matter. Technology is what happens when the tool becomes the task, rather than just a means of doing the task. Usually it doesn’t so much solve problems as shift them around and create new ones. Cars, televisions, cell phones – we all could make a list.

Did I say cell phones? They are a prime example, but also the cause of a technology that I am rooting for these days. It is cell phone jammers, which, according to the New York Post, “are selling like hotcakes on the streets of New York.” The headline on the story was a tabloid classic: “Shut the Cell Up.”

It’s not just individuals who are buying the jammers. Restaurants and schools are buying them too (Profs are getting fed up with students who tap away on phones during class.) Catholic priests use them to shut up the ringers during mass...

In a rare display of good sense, the Federal Communications Commission has determined it has bigger fish to fry, and no one has been prosecuted to date. Still, the very existence of the law is instructive, especially the premise that underlies it. The government contends that since telecom corporations have paid money for the spectrum over which the cell phone chatter passes, to silence the phones is to rob these corporations of something they own. They own the air, so they get to fill the air which as much yak as they want. More precisely, their customers do.

But there’s air, and then there’s air. Telecom Inc might “own” the cell phone spectrum, but what about the ambient air that Ms. Bigmouth violates when she screams into her cell phone? What about the spillover from Telecom’s air into ours? In the reasoning of the FCC our air doesn’t count. Ms. Bigmouth can emit all the noise into it she wants. But we can’t send an electronic signal into that same air and fill it with quiet. Noise is important; silence isn’t. The boisterous yammering of one person takes priority over the desire of fifty or a hundred others for a little peace.

This premise goes to the core of the fatuous belief in technology and progress. There was a time when space seemed vast and the challenge was to conquer it and fill it. Now, as space fills up, that dynamic is starting to hit the wall. Sooner or later cell phone jammers are going to force the issue, in this small realm at least. The government is going to have to articulate exactly why noise is more important than quiet, and why one person should be able to ruin the common air for everyone else."

As Heidegger said, technology is often just our way of arranging the world so we don't have to experience it... the mobile phone is merely communications barrier between people sharing the same real world space, a room, a train, a bus.

Rowe's thoughts on an honest tricycle driver are also worth a read.

"One day not long ago Darwin Calvario did have a rider of means. He didn’t know it at the time. But later, on the passenger seat, he found a bag with checks and cash worth 296,000 Philippine pesos, which is about half a year’s middle class income in that country. He normally makes about P150 a day, or about three dollars U.S.

For Mr. Calvario there was a more pressing metric. One of his four sons was born without an anal opening (technically an “imperforate anus”). When he was born 3 years ago the family had to scrounge P100,000 for an operation so that he could wear a colostomy bag. Some of the money came from loan sharks. The bags alone cost P70 a day and the now the child is in desperate need of a second operation before it is too late to have a normal life.

The P296,000 in his passenger seat must have seemed a gift from heaven. Calvario might well have thought about the kleptocracy in his own country, and the moral equivalent in the corporate U.S., and thought, “Why not me?” His fellow drivers urged him to keep the money. As reported in the Philippines Inquirer, he went home that day and brooded. That night he hardly slept. The next day, partly at his wife’s urging, he tracked down the passenger and returned the money."

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