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Some of us don't want cell phones

The NYT says cell-phone refuseniks are a tiny, shrinking group.

By Karen Datko Oct 23, 2009 5:39PM

My blogging partner Teresa sent me this link to The New York Times. At last, I thought, I've found my people. Just in the nick of time, because we -- the small number who don't want a cell phone -- are disappearing, it seems, from the face of the Earth.


About 15% of U.S. adults don't have cell phones, but the vast majority of them are challenged by the technology or the cost. "These are people who have a bunch of other struggles in their lives and the expense of maintaining technology and mastering it is also pretty significant for them," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, told the NYT.


I’m among the estimated 5% of cell-phone-less folks who simply don't want one.


But I have to wonder: Does our cell-phone-free status inconvenience or, perhaps, irritate those who never go without? Do they see us as odd ducks who resist getting into the water?


NYT writer Claire Cain Miller suggests as much with her description of cell phone "refuseniks": "For a hardy few that choose to ignore cell phones, life is a pocketful of quarters, missed connections and a smug satisfaction of marching to a different ring tone."


Let's dissect that:


We need quarters for pay phones. I can't remember the last time I used one of those. El Jefe's Pay Phone Directory doesn't list any in the town where I live, although I suspect there's still a few. The Montana list is even shorter at The Payphone Project, which now tracks their disappearance around the world. Blogger Mark Thomas writes: "Someone asked me recently, 'Who the heck uses payphones anymore?' My response: Poor people and tourists," particularly those from abroad.


We miss connections. I don't recall doing that either, but maybe it's because I live in a small town. Getting stuck in traffic doesn't happen here.


We're smug. I don't think I’m better than people with cell phones. I just don't want to be reached all the time. But does it make me judgmental that I get slightly annoyed when a friend I've arranged to meet talks on the phone some of the time? That makes the visit not so special.

There's something else I've noticed about people's dependence on cell phones. Bex Huff described it back in 2006 when he wrote that "cell phones are crutches that enable people to be disorganized. What's the point in planning anything? If something goes wrong, you can just call everybody on their cell phones and relay the new 'plan' ...."


But, I have to think, what are we missing? Spontaneous gatherings or discussions come to mind, or help if we were stranded on a highway. (Like Linsey Knerl at Wise Bread, I've considered getting a cheap prepaid phone for that reason.) Plus the coupons, directions, personal-finance apps, mobile banking, and all the other gizmos that make cell phones seem so necessary to so many people.


Are we losing a connection with the rest of the world, or are they the ones who are losing touch? The NYT story quotes the friend of a refusenik who suggests both possibilities: "I don’t have the time and energy to coordinate to the extent it takes with somebody who isn't mobile. It's just not something I'm used to."

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