Shutting up the chatter on cell phones
From criminal courts to airplane cabins to commuter trains, the daily headlines illustrate a tug of war over cell-phone chatter in public that's threatening to force everyone to pick sides.
And unless a miracle scientific breakthrough wins a race with time, everyone might be forced to pick a side -- on or off?
"Off!" scream peace-seekers like John Clifford who, according to the Associated Press, was charged and later acquitted of various misdemeanors after shouting down a fellow New York train commuter who was talking on a cell phone last month.
Joining his ranks is a growing list of cities that have created cell-phone free "Zen zones" or even banned the devices outright on all public transit.
"On!" reply busy, overstressed commuters who depend on their cell phones to catch up on work- and family-related business while traveling.
Joining their ranks this month is Air France, the first airline to test in-flight cell-phone service in planes. News reports said the service performed as we all might expect in its initial test: bad connections, no connections and a lot of "Pouvez-vous m'entendre maintenant?" (French for "Can you hear me now?") at 31,000 feet.
Imagine enduring such repetitive shrieks in a less romantic language on a flight where the booze isn't free.
Perhaps humans simply aren't advanced enough to handle wireless communications. When E.T. phoned home, you might recall, he had the common decency not to do it on a subway.
Regardless, there's no turning back. It's in our DNA now and we can't help ourselves. One bus rider got me so upset with her endless cellular chatting that I caught myself speed-dialing my sister to complain about it.
If tech got us into this mess, tech will have to get us out.
Among the few options available now are portable cell jammers that create a signal-free bubble around their owners. The devices are selling like technically illegal hot cakes, but it's still a relative few who are willing to risk a felony by stealing peace and quiet from the Federal Communications Commission.
But there is a less incriminating light at the end of the research-and-development tunnel. What if people could talk into their cell phones without actually talking into their cell phones?
So-called "subvocal speech" is already in use. Through a neckband that captures neurological signals from the brain en route to the vocal cords, a person with severe disabilities can control a wheelchair's movement by simply thinking about it.
Last month, Michael Callahan, CEO and co-founder of Ambient Corp., demonstrated how this technology could also be used to make voiceless phone calls. At present the Audeo software can only say about 150 words slowly, but the company expects it will soon be able to say anything you want -- slowly.
But less soon, what now looks like a bad ventriloquist act could one day turn us all into smaller-cranium versions of those telepathic Talosians on "Star Trek."
If you're not familiar with that pop-culture reference, give me a call in a few years and let's not talk about it.