Thinking Tech

Cell phones make us an async nation

Cell phones make us an async nation

Posting in Cancer

asynchronicity. It's just very different. It's the biggest change in human, electronic communication since the phone replaced the telegram, since synchronicity began in other words, over a century ago.

Earlier this week I wrote about inconclusive studies on the health effect of cell phones.

But there are others. (Image from the CDC.) It's not all about the radiation.

Some are described in a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly one-quarter of us now live with no landlines, and we tend to be younger, less wealthy, less insured, and more likely to have serious undiagnosed health problems than those who still have landlines.

You save money going wireless. When my family did it we all got phones and paid less than we had for just a single cell, a landline, and long distance. The savings are compelling, and half those age 24 now go without a standard set. (That's the top line in the graph above.)

But there's a big problem. The rules for wired and wireless are very different. Wireless customers aren't automatically listed in phone directories. And there are limits on calling wireless customers.

Thus we're missed by pollsters, and this can not only skew poll results but lead to our problems not being considered by businesses or policymakers who rely on surveys to make decisions.

But there's another big change which is seldom talked about. Cell phones are making us an Asynchronous Nation.

It's not just having SMS and e-mail in our pockets that limits our synchronous, immediate, back-and-forth communication, leaving us with asynchronous, call-and-response communication.

It's a feature of mobile network design, something done a quarter century ago to save the carriers money.

Cell phone ringtones only last 20 seconds. Then they cut off and go to voicemail.

Landline telephones will, if you let them, ring and ring and ring. They are easy to find, they stay in one place, and easy to answer.

Cellphones aren't like that. They can be tough to find. They don't stay in one place.

Answering isn't a piece of cake either. You have to pick it up and flip it, or find the button-less button and hit it. If, like me, you prefer using a headset, you have wrestle that on, too.

The result is most calls don't get through to me, and I suspect most don't get through to you. A message may be left, and you may call back. If the other caller is also cell-only, chances are they miss you, too, and a long, long game of phone tag ensues.

This is true whether you're home, in the office, or in your car. It's really worse in transit -- all that texting while driving is Asynchronous Nation at work. (The CDC is on it.)

When you give up on calling and just send send a text, you become part of what I call the Asynchronous Nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with asynchronicity. It's just very different. It's the biggest change in human, electronic communication since the phone replaced the telegram, since synchronicity began in other words, over a century ago.

Personally I don't mind. I'm more productive when communication occurs on my schedule. And I find I can do more of it. Certainly the President likes it -- he feels about his Blackberry as kindly as the late Charlton Heston felt toward his rifle.

But it is different. And we are in transition. Some of us have already crossed over while most of us -- you oldsters mostly -- have not.

What I have learned since cutting the phone cord is that the Asynchronous Nation is a different place from the one I lived in last century. How different we don't yet know. How different is it for you?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure