Technology’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Each new advance seems to come with a factory-installed downside, just to keep the world from becoming too nice a place. It’s always been thus. Take fire, for example. Great for cooking, keeping warm, and keeping wolves out of the cave, but surprisingly unpleasant when applied directly to the skin, plus your hair smells like smoke all the time. The wheel? Ideal for carrying stuff around and getting quickly from point A to point B, but it also gave rise to the backseat driver and unicyclists. Nuclear power? Perfect for ending world wars in a hurry, but then there’s that inconvenient international arms proliferation thing and the ever-present possibility of species-wide extinction.

But few technologies have spawned as many drawbacks and foul consequences as the cell phone. Scientists talk about the possibility of us someday creating superintelligent robots who, if we’re not careful, will enslave us and turn us into bleating livestock. I say that day has quite clearly already arrived. People wonder how we got anything done before the arrival of instant and ubiquitous voice communication. The real question is how we manage to get anything done despite it. It used to be you could get by perfectly fine without a cell phone. Now – forget the debate over their usefulness – people look at you as if you’ve got a third leg growing out of your forehead if you tell them you don’t have one. You’re ostracized from society. “You don’t have a cell phone? How are you supposed to text message anyone?”

I’m not coming down on cellphone users. I’ve been using since 1998, and my most recent regular fix was coming from a Blackberry 8703e. For better or worse, Sprint does not provide service in Japan. So my Blackberry is gathering dust in a drawer at the moment. But back in the U.S., I could SMS with the best of them. Yet I also never crossed the line to the dark side, by which I mean yakking at top volume on my phone in public.

For many cell phone users, a short, quiet conversation is no conversation at all. For them to feel that they’re getting their technology’s worth, they have to share long, outrageously stupid conversations with not just their friend on the other end but with the entire room – or train, or movie theater, or restaurant, or bar, or elevator, as the case may be. This is not news to anyone who’s left their home in the past nine years, of course. What is news, however, is that there’s a solution available to us victims. Unfortunately it’s illegal. Technically.

The New York Times wrote yesterday about the growing black market for cell phone “jammers,” tiny, cheap devices that with the push of a button can shut down cell phone signals in a small area and silence those chatty Kathys.

The jamming technology works by sending out a radio signal so powerful that phones are overwhelmed and cannot communicate with cell towers. The range varies from several feet to several yards, and the devices cost from $50 to several hundred dollars. Larger models can be left on to create a no-call zone. Using the jammers is illegal in the United States. The radio frequencies used by cellphone carriers are protected, just like those used by television and radio broadcasters.”

The problem, according to some, is that it turns everyone’s cell phone into a temporary blinking paperweight, not just the abuser’s. Naturally, the Verizon spokespersons of the world are screaming bloody murder, as if civilization will collapse instantly if anyone, anywhere is kept from using their cellphone for even a moment. And what about emergencies, they insist? But you know what? That’s exactly how we got into this mess. (Remember the “phone in a bag” you kept in the car for “emergencies”?) I hate to break it to the good people at Sprint, but emergencies pre-date cell phones. We’ve been solving them just fine for millions of years. And as someone who’s recently been freed of his dependence on said technology, I can testify to the fact that my world has not yet crumbled into ashes.

Though people do look at me funny. Still, you can bet I’ll be asking Santa for one of these doodads this Christmas.

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