Cell Phone Culture

I own a cell phone.  It is not a smart phone.  I don’t search the internet, look at GPS, or have a lot of apps.  I talk and I text.  Because my mother is 93. I almost always have it with me in case she or one of her aides is trying to reach family.  I am obsessive about having it on vibrate at concerts, at work.  Until I read about the incident at the New York Philharmonic, I mostly thought about those people who are constantly on the phone.  They stop in the middle of the sidewalk unexpectedly or they weave back and forth so you can’t pass them.  They drive erratically and often don’t notice that the light has turned red.  They have loud and sometimes very private conversations on the train.  And I have one work colleague who has loud personal and political conversations for large parts of the day.  This is the way the world is now.  We try to ban talking and texting on the phone while driving with little success.  We announce that patrons should turn off electronic devices before concerts.  (I notice that the Boston Symphony used to have a projected announcement but this year have added a broadcast message.) 

Then last week we had the incident at the New York Philharmonic.  According to the story in the New York Times

The unmistakably jarring sound of an iPhone marimba ring interrupted the soft and spiritual final measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, did something almost unheard-of in a concert hall: He stopped the performance. But the ringing kept on going, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor.

After words from Mr. Gilbert, and what seemed like weeks, the cellphone owner finally silenced his device. After the audience cheered, the concert resumed. Internet vitriol ensued.

 Gustave Mahler

So the cell phone owner, Patron X, claims he didn’t know it was his phone ringing.  He thought he had turned it off, but the alarm was still on. 

But no one, it seems, felt worse than the culprit, who agreed to an interview on Thursday on condition that he not be identified — for obvious reasons.

“You can imagine how devastating it is to know you had a hand in that,” said the man, who described himself as a business executive between 60 and 70 who runs two companies. “It’s horrible, horrible.” The man said he had not slept in two days.

The man, called Patron X by the Philharmonic, said he was a lifelong classical music lover and 20-year subscriber to the orchestra who was friendly with several of its members. He said he himself was often irked by coughs, badly timed applause — and cellphone rings. “Then God, there was I. Holy smokes,” he said.

“It was just awful to have any role in something like that, that is so disturbing and disrespectful not only to the conductor but to all the musicians and not least to the audience, which was so into this concert,” he said by telephone.

“I hope the people at that performance and members of the orchestra can certainly forgive me for this whole event. I apologize to the whole audience.”

What have we learned from this incident?  First, music, live music, is still important.  Two, many people have no clue about how to use their technology.  I’m not talking about knowing the programming or electronics, but how to turn it on and off and what bells and whistles it has.  Anyone read the instructions? 

I think the incident at the Philharmonic shows again that we are being ruled by our technology.   The Economist had this comment

The problem is that although most people are minded to silence their mobile phones during performances, alarms are often designed to make a racket regardless of whether the phone is in silent mode (some even sound when the device is powered down). In 2007 Apple’s late boss, Steve Jobs, touted the original iPhone’s mute switch in 2007, which could be without messing with menus (though the device can also be unintentionally unmuted in a pocket). But alarms override the mute function.

Donald Norman, a guru of usable design and a former Apple and HP executive, says that there have been proposals to design phones to detect a signal disseminated in a performance space that instructed the phone to mute itself. (Suggestions involving signal blockers are no use against alarms, and are in any case banned by telecoms regulators.) He notes that the vibration mode is of little help. After all, the vibrations need to be significant enough to rouse a mobile’s owner, and creating them produces sound. Perhaps, Mr Norman suggests facetiously, concertgoers ought be frisked before entering a theatre.

Maybe it won’t come to that. Modern smartphones can use satellite-navigation and Wi-Fi network information to determine location indoors. They also have an array of sensors for noise, light and movement. It shouldn’t be too difficult to teach an operating system to suppress all alerts when, say, it discerns live music at the same time as locating itself in Avery Fisher Hall (the New York Philharmonic’s home). 

For now, though, vigilance remains the only safeguard—albeit not a foolproof one. Mr Norman, doubtless a sophisticated user, admits that even he can’t disable all sounds on his phone; every once in a while, the blasted device beeps. One can only hope it doesn’t choose to do so at an inopportune time. Like the adagio of Mahler’s Ninth.

As I said, technology rules us.  I wonder what Mahler would think.  Happy 100th Birthay, Gustav!