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Splendid Isolation


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
June 27, 2005

There is a running joke in the movie Play It Again Sam in which the Tony Roberts character phones his office and leaves the telephone number where he can be reached every few minutes. This joke may have missed the mark with some viewers when it came out and now it comes off as, depending on your point of view, either a charming or an annoying anachronism. Anyway, when I first watched the movie, I was paying too much attention to Diane Keaton (not long after her Broadway debut in Hair) to care about either Tony Roberts or Woody Allen (or pseudo-Bogart for that matter). If Woody ever gets desperate and remakes the movie, you can bet that a cell phone in bed will become the new running joke.

Having people in constant contact fundamentally alters the fabric of society. It difficult to go anywhere and not find someone talking on the phone and in shopping malls it seems like every third or fourth person is walking and talking at the same time. I suspect that many people are literally in love with their cell phones, give them pet names, and achieve a greater level of intimacy with them than they could ever find possible with another person. I am not convinced that this is a bad thing.

I must admit to having been one of the vanish clique of anti-cell phone snobs. Back when mobile phones first made the scene and cost a bundle, they were considered a status symbol. Then, prices came down and crack dealers become the power users of cells. The phones were still a status symbol perhaps, but not in my 'hood. Indeed, as prices dropped, not having a cell phone became a status symbol. At my old multinational conglomerate employer, the people with cell phones or pagers, were basically lackeys (my apologies to those with this surname) at the beck and call of their superiors. (In case you are wondering, I've turned off Word's automatic cliché detector so that I can write things like "beck and call" without triggering the dreaded wavy green line. I'm Gumby, dammit, and if I want to write clichés, I will.)

Anti-cell snobbery got old for me and so I got a phone that I can hook to my belt and in its jet-black scuba cellsuit. Nothing has changed in my life. Not yet. Not even with unlimited night and weekend minutes. Soon after I got the cell phone, I had another of my all-too-frequent epiphanies. I figured out that I had reached the stage in life where anyone I might want to call did not want to hear from me and anyone who called me I tended not to get excited about. Oddly, the occasional person that I call says something like "What a coincidence, I was just thinking about you earlier today" or "I was just about to call you." Whom do you think you are kidding?

On the other hand, there appear to be loads of people who are able to establish and maintain conversations on cell phones. Either that or they are going through the motions in public. With extra phones costing a mere $9.99 per month plus exorbitant tax (at least here in Patakiland, oops, that's where my salary and health benefits come from) and in-plan minutes going for nada, keeping someone on an electronic leash has gotten dirt cheap (touché cliché). Technology has become a boon to insanely jealous or overprotective people everywhere. When I went away to college, barebones landline phone service itself cost just under $10 a month (tax included) and you'd have to call after 11pm to get a mere hour of long distance for another $10. Prime-time long distance back in premobile times cost about the same per minute as calling Antarctica today. (Word has yet to provide a built-in hyperbole or fact checker—I have no idea what long distance to Antarctica costs and I am not about to Google it down.) When I left New Jersey for California, I really left home and everything about it. I guess the only recourse for sons and lovers endowed with "free" cell phones is to find creative ways to "lose" them. (No real style checker in Word either. Quotation mark abuse is a constitutional right until the Supreme Court rules otherwise. As is parenthesis abuse. And sentence fragment abuse.)

Being connected can be burdensome at times, but the thing that cell phones have going for them—even in their current, flawed state—is what economists call a "network effect," which is related to the econojournalists' idea of a "tipping point." In other words, once everyone else has a cell phone, one is almost forced to get one just to survive. Things like getting together for a meal in a strange city on little notice can become impractical if one of the parties lacks cellular connectivity and so ultimately that party will simply not be invited. And among the younger folk, those who go cell-free risk becoming social outcasts. And, given the nature of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, you won't see movies that glamorize not carrying a cell phone the way they continue to glamorize smoking.

Between economic incentives and human proclivities, there are no apparent roadblocks on the path to universal connectivity. From the periphery of my conscious, I became aware in recent years that the science fiction community has taken to imagining what such a world would be like. I got bogged down a few pages into one of William Gibson's books and the Borgian resistance-is-futile routine is just plain laughable. (Note to those few readers of mine who are Renaissance scholars: Borgian is a made-up word—duly flagged by Word—that refers to the Borg on the Star Trek with the bald captain who did the Crestor voiceovers and not to the Borgia family.)

There is, however, a new pseudo-sci-fi movie, The Girl From Monday, written and directed by indie film fav Hal Hartley, that deals with a connected "future" that looks just like the present. In Hartley's world, it is a crime not to connect. The banned bible of the disconnected is Thoreau's Walden. I was myself a disconnectedness sympathizer until I saw this movie. I underwent a spontaneous conversion because the driving force behind Hartley's manifesto of individuality is that markets work by connecting people together in "transactions." Anyone who has been paying any attention to what I have written knows that I am a big fan of markets—maybe I should name my cell phone "Hayek"—so I guess that puts me in the connectedness camp.

Hartley's The Girl From Monday deals with much more than connectedness—it also touches on issues of post-modern financial engineering. My next commentary, "Invasion of the Asset Swappers," (simultaneously forthcoming in the July/August 2005 issue of Financial Engineering News with updates and snide remarks added for my web audience) uses Hartley's movie as a point of departure for examining the social implications of financial engineering.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to