A call to be more civil

Cellphones assault public space. Jammers can help.

Congress has just approved a massive upgrade for Amtrak, the national rail service. As fuel prices rise, we will become again, like it or not, a people that rides the trains. Now is our chance to think of how we might make that necessity a pleasant one.

Trains were once the civilized form of travel, allowing us to contemplate, read, or talk to a neighbor. A whole genre of American films, such as Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," depended on the premise that people could get to know each other on trains.

Today, this would be impossible, since we neither think nor talk to each other on board. Generally, we sit with eyes glazed, making cellphone calls, reminding friends and family far away that we are on the train, that the frozen peas are in the freezer, and that the baby's diaper will need changing.

Is this necessary? Why not install cellphone jammers on half the train cars on the new Amtrak?

What about all of the businessmen and their urgent conversations? Surely we need nonstop communication for economic growth? Sound business decisions, like all sound decisions, require concentration and focus. They also require the development of an attention span.

Sometimes, when the stakes are highest, connectivity is exactly what we don't need. Take, for example, the International Congress of Plasma Physicists: Organizers of the most recent congress consciously decided to forgo Internet connectivity. These are the scientists who are working to turn fusion into a viable solution to the world energy crisis. Their task is quite literally to save the world, so they concentrate on their work.

But who is Amtrak, or the government, to make a decision to jam cellphones in the train? What about free speech? No one freely chose the situation we currently have, in which we beam radio signals through our skulls and transmit obnoxious noises into the hapless minds of our neighbors.

Public cellphone use today is what smoking in public places was until very recently: an obvious violation of the rights of others. Cellphones also undermine the whole purpose of free speech, as understood by the Founding Fathers: public discourse. Contrary to the intention of the framers of the Constitution, we have made speech into something that keeps us apart, rather than brings us together.

When people can't use cellphones, they are much freer to speak with one another. Buddhists advise us to "be here now." As we zone out and force others to do the same, our motto is rather "be nowhere indefinitely."

We can do better. Cellphones are useful tools for the lost traveler, the fireman, the farmer in his combine in the middle of a field. They can bring the lonely together and keep comrades close. But there is no need for cellphone access everywhere.

Airlines should not use jammers, for technical reasons, but they should ban cellphone use on board. There is no reason why people couldn't say "I'm at baggage claim," rather than the current "I just landed and I'll call you again from baggage claim." With the exception of true emergencies, such as terrorism and heart attacks, no one actually has to make a cellphone call from an airplane.

If some train cars could be jammed, then others could be connected. Then cellphone users could choose to be together, as could those who prefer traditional conversation or reading. People who think they might need their cellphones could simply sit in an unjammed car.

This would be far better than a single "quiet car," where oversensitive passengers hush people who are having normal conversations. Let us create a real choice and allow people to have a public space.

This could be the beginning of a national conversation. Mindless, habitual connectivity in all places is making us a worse society. The time has come for some forethought, about the kind of people we are becoming ourselves and about the generation we are creating.

University and school buildings should all have jammers in their classrooms, for example, to be turned on and off at the discretion of teachers.

At some point these decisions are no longer a matter of courtesy, but a matter of the creation of a thoughtful body of citizens. The train is a good place to start.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book is "The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke."

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