Cellular telephones allow people to carry portable phones with them almost wherever they go. They make people more productive by reducing wasted time. But they can also be a negative externality, a hazard and a nuisance to others.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Cellular phones have been recognized as one of the key innovations of the 1990s. The USA has been issuing stamps for a "celebrate the century" series, with stamps showing the key cultural, historical, and scientific landmarks of each decade. The last of the series was issued on May 2, 2000, for the 1990s. One of the stamps shows a man using a cellular phone.
The United States Postal Service press release of April 14, 2000, states: "The popularity of cellular phones skyrocketed as the phones became smaller and cheaper, sound quality improved, and service became more widely available. In 1999, more than 78 million Americans had cellular service."
This new technology comes at a price to society, and it involves land rent. Cell phone users are carrying their talkies into restaurants, coffee shops, concerts, class room, and even church services. When the phone rings, it disrupts the performance or reading or whatever activity in going in that area. Then when the user talks on the cell phone, it is often in a loud voice, with a greater volume than normal in a coffee shop or restaurant.
Users are thus imposing a negative external effect on others, without any compensation. Others have paid to use that space, but are not fully getting the benefits they paid for. The phone user, or abuser, is expropriating these benefits, and the rentals paid by others!
Cell fawners are also driving while talking, and so not fully paying attention to the road. Normally, one can drive and hold a phone, but one never knows when there will be an unexpected object on the road or the car ahead will brake suddenly, requiring the full attention of the driver and the use of both hands.
The remedy needs to involve both governmental and private responses. It would not violate liberty for the traffic laws to prohibit and penalize holding a phone with one hand while driving or using a cell phone at all during hazardous driving conditions.
As to disruptive telephone usage indoors, some firms such as restaurants have already started to prohibit them in the premises. Concerts, churches, and coffee shops can post a notice on the door stating that cell phone usage is not allowed. Those who wish to use them can then join the smokers outside.
Another possibility is to have a cell-phone usage fee. This fee would then compensate others for decreasing the value of the space. It could lower the price of entry or of the goods. You would buy your coffee for 25c less, while the cell phone user pays extra.
Perhaps better technology will eventually solve the externality problem. Virtual reality now mostly involves virtual inputs, but physical outputs. It provides visual inputs via screens and audial inputs via earphones. But if you want to provide output, such as talking to the virtuality machine, everyone else can hear it too. We need a way for people to talk without being heard. It's not the talking that is the problem, but the involuntary hearing.
We need virtual talking - for someone to talk and not be heard. For that, the sound waves will need to be blocked. The technology for hiding or blocking sound as well as light waves is still in the future. If that technology is ever developed, people will be able to make themselves invisible and inaudible.
Meanwhile, for today, we need better policies for sound intrusion. We need for society to recognize that cellular phone sound pollution is a social cost that is paid by somebody. Ideally, the cost of pollution should be paid by the polluter. When it comes to sound waves, so long as hearing is involuntary, air is not free.
-- Fred Foldvary
What is your opinion? Share it with The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?
Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.