'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 05, 2007

The War on Wireless 

I had heard of this before, but this article from yesterday's New York Times reminded me:

One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante. He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was “blabbing away” into her phone.

“She was using the word ‘like’ all the time. She sounded like a Valley Girl,” said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

Andrew reached into his shirt pocket and pushed a button on a black device the size of a cigarette pack. It sent out a powerful radio signal that cut off the chatterer’s cellphone transmission — and any others in a 30-foot radius.

“She kept talking into her phone for about 30 seconds before she realized there was no one listening on the other end,” he said. His reaction when he first discovered he could wield such power? “Oh, holy moly! Deliverance.”

As cellphone use has skyrocketed, making it hard to avoid hearing half a conversation in many public places, a small but growing band of rebels is turning to a blunt countermeasure: the cellphone jammer, a gadget that renders nearby mobile devices impotent.

Typically, the writer of the article, Matt Richtel, leads with that great stereotypical romantic figure, The Man With No Name, a figure who, in this instance, makes skillful use of forbidden technology to stealthily achieve his ends. Who among us is not, by turns, seduced (when we imagine ourselves with such power) and frightened (when we imagine it to be in the possession of unknown others)?

Predictably, the victim (does the 20-something woman qualify? or is she such a villain that she is the legitmate target of a vigilante jammer?) is not very sympathetic. She chatters incessantly on the BART? the MUNI? as if the entire passenger car has been providentially provided for her personal use, along with a cast of extras, the other passengers, including the architect, to serve as an impromptu entourage. She brings to mind the vain, the slutty, the cruel, the victims of Michael Myers in that 1978 classic Halloween.

In other words, Richtel has placed the problem of the abuse of wireless technology within the context of misogynistic slasher films. Women trivialize the wonders of the cellphone as yet another expression of their inherent, annoying narcissism, while men, like "Andrew", prowl public venues like transit systems, restaurants and medical facilities to exact their revenge, as a sort of contemporary Witchfinder General.

All very interesting, these direct action efforts by people to purify a public sphere contaminated by the invasive, cacophonous world of wireless communication, a task as impossible as Matthew Hopkins' mission to root out sin in 17th Century England, because aren't injudicious speech and sin inextricably interwoven, and hence, equally impossible to eradicate? Turns out that there are more materialistic concerns as well. Consider:

Gary, a therapist in Ohio who also declined to give his last name, citing the illegality of the devices, says jamming is necessary to do his job effectively. He runs group therapy sessions for sufferers of eating disorders. In one session, a woman’s confession was rudely interrupted.

“She was talking about sexual abuse,” Gary said. “Someone’s cellphone went off and they carried on a conversation.”

“There’s no etiquette,” he said. “It’s a pandemic.”

Gary said phone calls interrupted therapy all the time, despite a no-phones policy. Four months ago, he paid $200 for a jammer, which he placed surreptitiously on one side of the room. He tells patients that if they are expecting an emergency call, they should give out the front desk’s number. He has not told them about the jammer.

Ponder this one for a moment. Most likely, "Gary" either owns or leases the location where he conducts his therapy sessions. He possesses all of the rights of control over the property associated with either ownership or a leasehold. Yet he is legally prohibited from installing a device that prevents his patients, and any other visitors, from receiving wireless telephonic communications. Richtel also describes a restaurant owner who has otherwise been unable to prevent customers from using cell phones.

Predictably, Richtel blandly observes that cellphone carriers purchase the right to broadcast their signal, suggesting that they have paid for the right to broadcast anywhere, even within the confines of our homes or our businesses. In effect, the federal government is collecting money from corporations in return for giving them an easement, a right of access, into all private property, punishable by Federal Communication Commission fines if it is impaired.

Arguably, there is nothing new about this, after all, electric and gas utilities, as well as phone companies, have been given easements to bring the service to property and maintain it. But, isn't there something qualitatively different about requiring people to have their use of their property for their enjoyment seriously compromised by the random, yet ubiquitous speech of others, no matter how puerile and obnoxious? Turns out that Bruce Schneier, a computer security consultant, believes that there is, although, like Richtel (or, possibly, because of Richtel, as Richtel wrote the follow up comment about him as well), Schneier ignores the obvious fact that the cellular franchises, and the investment behind them, lose much of their value if people are allowed to legally jam the signal.

At the level of abstract theory, this story presents another fascinating question. As with its cousin, the Internet, wireless communication is, despite being a technological product of capitalist investment and entrepreneurship, actively eroding the centrality of private property by diminishing the value of what is commonly known as quiet enjoyment. Similarly, cyberspace, whether wireless or not, permits individuals to gain access to intellectual property without payment, most specifically in entertainment, one of the most important fields of opportunity within contemporary capitalism. Cell phone service providers and file sharers are accordingly engaged in one of the most enduring aspects of capitalist expansion and, paradoxically, resistance to it, piracy.

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