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Culture of Control
Cell Shocked

She's gotta have it

It was Rousseau who, in one of his occasional moments of lucidity, said: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is chained to a cell phone.” But should it take a cell phone to raise a child? The laws of marketing, our truest predators, answer the question without hesitation. The adult cell phone market is close to saturation (assuming that the poor, who represent more risk than value to most companies, need not have cell phones). The teen market is roaring. What’s left? Pre-teens, that group of eight to twelve year olds marketers creepily call “tweens.” From the Times:

Some 6.6 million of the 20 million American children in that age range had cellphones by the end of 2006, according to an analysis by the Yankee Group, a technology consulting firm in Boston, which projects there will be 10.5 million preteen cellphone users by 2010. The number of 8-year-olds with phones, Yankee Group estimates, more than doubled to 506,000 over the past four years while the number of 9-year-olds jumped to 1.25 million from 501,000.

The Times piece opens with the story of an eight year old hounding her parents for a phone since age six. The parents, whose names are Anne and Neville Chamberlain, finally give in in exchange for their daughter not beating up on her younger sister… for thirty days. Well, why not, right? For one, because cell phones, for all their convenience, warp time and space, intrude on the personal and to some extent the private, in ways an adult may (but generally doesn’t) manage, but children can’t. A decade ago I used to wonder at the sight of children, teens, sitting in the passenger seat of a car, their mom or dad at the wheel, a walkman in their ears. No need to engage the person sitting next to you, no need to learn, let alone make, conversation. The walkman effectively segregated childhood from parenthood more distinctly than those two worlds already are. Ipods and cell phones are the natural devolution, claiming the time and space of increasingly younger children on the ridiculous assumption that it makes them safer, keeping them in contact with their parents. In reality, and ironically, it chains them more to their parents just when they ought have a break from them—a child should have every opportunity to be his own Columbus without the nags of Ferdinands and Isabellas. The security issue is pure paranoia, another one of those symptoms of an age when security has become a dogma rather than a precaution. And when are children out of sight of adult supervision?

There’s the predatory cost, too. My wife and I spend less than $100 for two phones with virtually unlimited chat time nationally. The kids’ phones? $49.99 to buy, $15 an hour of talk time, or $99 and $25 for 100 prepaid minutes, or Disney (always the subtlest predator) offering a range of phones with “call plans” starting at $24.99 for 200 minutes. International call rates are cheaper. But kids want them for precisely the wrong reasons. Status. Coolness. The alleged security blanket. To be in constant touch with friends, as if that, too, was a virtue. The boundaries between the private and the public keep getting blurred and busted in the smog of technology, and we don’t see the connection between those submissions to the claims of convenience and our more widespread submission to the same gadgets’ graduated versions—the culture of surveillance, the psychology of compulsive, obsessive security, the reign of controls in every aspect of our lives down to kindergarten.

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