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Can You Fear Me Now?

Multipurpose cell phones, data-storing pocket knives: Can you fear me now?

InformationWeek Staff

September 7, 2004

3 Min Read

Cell phones are often compared to the Swiss Army Knife, presumably because a cell phone is also a text messaging service, PDA, pager, game station, and fashion accessory. Yes, today's cell phone is a feisty little multitasker, with digital cameras, wireless Web access, GPS, calculators, individualized rings, and vanity mirrors. You can't buff your nails with it yet, but soon.

But the poor Swiss Army Knife doesn't have the ubiquity of the cell phone. You don't see people on the street unfolding Swiss Army Knives, showing off their many features to unwilling strangers. Yet you see cell phone users by the dozens playing games, collecting messages, or talking pointlessly to the people they'll see face to face in three minutes.

I Know Someone...

Yet, despite their popularity, cell phones generate some fear, if the urban legends surrounding them are any indication: Cell phones cause brain damage. Cell phones cause explosions at gas stations....

If these stories aren't true, the cell phone does seem to have a bizarre psychological effect on certain users. According to snopes.com, which tracks the accuracy of urban myths, "... in 1998 a man in Wareham, Massachusetts was arrested in the emergency room of Tobey Hospital after refusing to end his call. Officers twice used pepper spray on him in an effort to relieve him of his phone."

Then there's this, from The New York Times (Ken Belson, "I Want to Be Alone. Please Call Me." June 27, 2004): A woman "...refused repeated requests by flight attendants to turn off her cell phone so the plane could take off. Hanging up on her caller, she said, would be rude. Things got so out of hand that the plane had to return to the terminal, but not before [the passenger] had slapped a federal air marshal. She was handcuffed... and arrested on assault charges."

This pathological inability to hang up a phone is clearly a phenomenon caused by the cell phone itself. Prior to its invention, only preteen girls would linger on the phone for hours at a time, and they seldom had to be subdued with pepper spray. The rest of us, until the invention of the cell phone, regarded the telephone with suspicion — it being the host to terrifying voices from creditors, solicitors, and angry girlfriends.

It has also never been reported that Swiss Army Knife users had to be forcibly restrained from compulsively attacking screws in public with their Phillips attachments. But that may soon change.

Coming Soon

Perhaps tired of cell phones getting all the attention, the Swiss Army Knife has a new version. In addition to the usual blades, it now includes a USB "memory stick," with an LED display. That's right. Now you can store data on your pocketknife. Why you would want to do that is another question. Then again, if the next iPod comes equipped with a toaster, or the next cell phone is also a three-hole punch, there's probably somebody who will go out and buy it.

If the data storage system/knife catches combo on, what will the Swiss do next? Obviously, they're going to include a mobile phone in the package. Those unwilling to terminate conversations will then have an armed advantage against those who cry, "Get off the phone!" How they would use the blades without ungluing the receivers from their ears presents a problem, however. Maybe the Swiss Army Knife people will then offer a hands-free headset with sharp spikes attached, so users can lunge at interlopers like deranged mountain goats, all the while continuing their conversations.

For the rest of us, that will certainly make going to the movies or restaurants even more exciting experiences.

Ian Shoales can be found in San Francisco, eating in and avoiding phone calls.

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