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Chit-Chatting All the Way

By Sarah Jacoby

You see them as you walk through campus. Some of them are dialing as they cruise through the Yard, others briskly chatting as they linger near the steps of Sever. Are these folks so popular that being inaccessible for several hours would be fatal to their social lives? Why all of sudden is our campus studded with cell phone owners?

Cell phones have taken the world and now America by storm. Suburban moms claim safety issues as they zealously brandish their phones at soccer games, drug dealers have needed phones for a long time, and people who are often on the road need to be in touch with their families and friends. But what do college students need mobile phones for?

Some proud cell phone owners list their reasons for being owners of phones. John L. Lester '99 states somewhat dubiously, "This way I don't miss calls from other chicks while I'm out on dates." Waqaas S. Fahmawi '99 says, "I have found it to be a great asset to my social capital." Does everyone have phones just to keep social lives swinging? Or is it just that the Tamagotchi, "the original virtual reality pet," is passe, and now people are lining up for more pocket-sized fun?

Samuel B. Shaw '99, a pioneer among cell phone owners, stresses the toy aspect of having a phone, claiming that his new toy "brings a little light into my life."

But a phone can run from around $100 upward; it is an expensive new toy for so many people to be investing in. There have to be other reasons for there to be bevvies of enthusiastic phone talkers than just because it's a fun new toy.

One of my rationales against phones is that in our enclosed universe one is always near an accessible telephone; from someone's room to a Centrex or a friendly pay phone, it isn't hard to place a call. But for pay phones you need to find 35 cents or remember your calling card number. Always a pain. And Centrexes have the whole privacy issue. Someone calls up and you hear the customary static and background noise. "How are you?" And then you can broadcast your personal business over a rather wide radius. Not so fun. And you can only call Harvard people, a disadvantage if you know people who have more than 5 digits in their phone number. Or already have cell phones.

One of the points of cell phones is that you and your friends probably aren't always in your rooms. Who hasn't tried to coordinate complicated evening plans when lots of people are out on the town? "Look, I'll leave a message on your machine after dinner, and you leave on one mine saying where you guys went, and wait for me until 12, but if we miss each other I'll call Julie, and change her incoming message for me or I'll check my e-mail too, if I can." But somebody forgets a crucial step and plans change and there you are. All alone. What if a few more people had cell phones? The whole thing would be effortless.

Of course, the assumption is that these new toys, even if terribly useful for coordinating social lives and being accessible, are very expensive. But cell phones are practically competitive with the less-than-excellent Harvard phone plan. With Sprint PCS, you can get 700 minutes of calling time a month within a local calling area for $35 a month, and for $50 a month you can get 500 minutes free nationwide. So for the same amount I pay the Harvard Telephone Office, or even less, I can have a spiffy little toy, and Mom can reach me all the time. And Sprint phones include voice mail, caller ID, voice mail, call waiting and call forwarding for no extra cost!!

On top of it all, your phone will vibrate every time you get e-mail, each time someone leaves a message on your machine and, of course, when there is someone at the other end of the line.

So I'm virtually sold. Phones are so tiny and nifty now. They slip discreetly into pockets and purses. A simple route to being over-the-top. I've often considered the possibility of just buying a phone, not getting it connected and cheerfully talking to myself in public with no accusations of insanity. But I still can't really justify the purchase. Sure, sometimes it is a hassle to get all of my whirlwind plans in order, but usually it works itself out. Shaw suggests that one reason phones are popping up all over the place is that it works as a pyramid scheme, just like blue-green algae. If you get someone to sign up on your plan, you get rebates off your bills. He likens it to the spread of a virulent disease. But there are enough cell phone owners for the moment and many more eager perspectives to participate in the frenzy. I'm going to bide my time. And concentrate on learning how to check my messages from outside my room.

There is, of course, the fear that no one will call once I become incredibly accessible. Now I can spend the whole day assuming my machine is bursting with messages and I don't have to be crushed until I arrive home. But if my little phone were lying limp and dead in my pocket, not vibrating, I would have constant reminders of being unloved. To quote the ever-wise Shaw, "The more and more accessible you become, the more you realize that no one is trying to get in touch with you."

Regardless, I'm almost ready. Lovely Lorraine at Sprint can expect my call sooner rather than later. But not while I live on a college campus. I'll just continue to watch all the others chit-chatting their way to class.

Sarah B. Jacoby '99 is a history and science concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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