Everybody's talking - who's left to listen?

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When social historians of the future look back on the early 21st century, they could easily label this the Age of Talk. From round-the-clock TV and radio call-in shows to ubiquitous cellphones, never have so many people made such an effort to banish silence.

As cellphone users cup their hands around small black rectangles, press them to their ears, and chat away - on sidewalks and beaches, in restaurants, malls, theaters, and even churches - their new credo has become: I talk, therefore I am.

And no wonder. Wireless phone companies are currently waging what could be called "cellphone wars." In full-page ads day after day, they offer more and more minutes of talk time to lure customers.

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"Give the gift of gab," suggests a Sprint ad on the side of a Boston bus.

"You'll never be at a loss for words," promises one AT&T ad. Another AT&T headline urges, "Keep the whole family talking in 2002."

Not to be outdone, Cingular Wireless touts its unlimited night and weekend minutes as "a marathon for vocal chords."

At Verizon, one calling plan includes 3,500 minutes every month. AT&T ups the ante with 3,600 minutes. That adds up to 60 hours of chatter a month - 60 hours! Do the math: That's 15 hours a week, or more than two hours a day.

These offers prompt two intriguing questions: Who has time for so much yackety-yak, other than teenagers and college students? And how many books could a book-lover read with that amount of free time every month?

You take the calling card. I'll take the library card.

The Age of Talk is also spawning a clever new vocabulary to describe the chattering classes. According to the Word Spy on the Internet, "chatterati" refers to talk-show hosts, TV talking heads, and members of the media. "Barking head" describes any loud-voiced commentator prone to aggressive and partisan remarks. And "Schmooseoisie" refers to the class of people who make their living by talking.

For those with babbling lips, a hunger for status, and an extra $21,000 in their pocket, Nokia now makes cellphones in gold and platinum. Whoever said talk is cheap?

The biggest development of all, perhaps, involves the incredible shrinking cellphone. Researchers predict that the devices could eventually be small enough to fit on a ring finger. A chatty type with a romantic spirit could add a few diamonds and voila! - a combination engagement ring and cellphone, all on one finger: With this phone, I thee wed.

The cellphone surely ranks as one of the most useful gadgets ever invented. But as their sizes shrink and their numbers grow, it's not too early to wonder: Will there be anyplace left to hide from endless conversations?

Like secondhand smoke, secondhand talk already fills the air, swirling around those who want to avoid it. Turn down the volume, the rest of us silently plead. No wonder "cell yell" was coined to describe excessively loud talking.

In an impersonal high-tech world, this constant chatter symbolizes a touching desire to be heard and understood. The low-tech activity of talking - face-to-face across a table, camera-to-camera on a talk show, or cellphone-to-cellphone around the world - carries a comforting, silent message: "I'm here, you're there, and we're connected."

Still, the 19th-century British writer Thomas Carlyle, himself a great monologist, makes a case for balance. "Speech is great," he says, "but silence is greater."

At least sometimes.

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