Reading this NY Times article about how parents and students have thwarted attempts by schools to ban cell phones reminded me of an incident in the library the other day. In the study where I work most people put their cell phones on vibrate, or at least some barely audible chirp that only goes off once before they run outside the room to answer their phones; however, the other day an older woman’s phone kept ringing very loudly. She was new to the study, so I politely suggested to her that she switch it to vibrate. Her answer: “Can I do that?”
Yes, she could, but it required about a hundred steps: First select “menu” then scroll down to “phone setup” then choosing “Ring Preferences” or something like that (but you had to do this with a special “select” button which is different from the normal dial button), after which you could scroll to “vibrate” with the arrow keys, hit “select” again, and be done.
Here’s a suggestion: Why don’t we pass a law that all new cell phones be required to have a “politeness button” rather than trying to ban phones outright?
What might a politeness button do? For one thing, it would automatically switch between various settings: Ready to receive calls, receive calls silently, don’t receive calls, etc. Secondly, as per Mark Frauenfelder’s suggestion, it could also offer the ability to play short messages such as: “I’m in an area where I can’t talk, I will call you right back.” or, “I’m in class/watching a movie/etc. I will call you back after it is done.”
Technology can affect social behavior. Before cell phones few would have thought it appropriate to yell about their private problems in public places. Technology can just as easily help avoid some of these social problems. In the future there could even be the ability to automatically change politeness settings based on external signals. So a movie theatre could put everyone’s cell phone into “movie mode”, and schools could have a “class mode”, etc. Sure, you could have some kind of override, but I think most people would actually be happy not to have to constantly change their cell phone settings and worry about forgetting.