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Addicted To Your Cell? Join The Crowd!

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"Attention passengers - there has been a fire on the train tracks and firefighters are on their way to assist you," said the PA system on Chicago's Red Line mass transit.

"There has been a fire on the train tracks and firefighters are on their way to assist us," 40 people relayed into their cell phones.

"Please remain in your car until further instructions."

"We're remaining in our car until further instructions," relayed 40 callers.

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Imagine life without cell phones - especially during an emergency. People might talk to the officials in charge - or the other people involved in the emergency. In the fire threatened train car they might have turned to their seat mates and said, "Are your feet getting as hot as mine?" or "Should we open the emergency exit doors for air?" - instead of phoning the set of all people who know them as, "Hi, It's Me."

Recently, pedestrians and motorists witnessed a near-miss accident in Chicago's downtown Loop. An SUV, its driver blathering into a phone while trying to turn right, almost mowed down a pedestrian also blathering into a cell phone while trying to cross the street. Screams were heard, tires squealed, horns sounded, fists shook, epithets flew ... but no one hung up. "Do you know what a &%$@ idiot just did to me???" both the driver and pedestrian were apparently saying into their cells without missing a beat.

Its not just motor and pedestrian traffic that's impacted, pun intended, by cells. Even doctors report having to wait to examine a patient while he or she says something urgent into a cell phone like "did you look on the bottom right shelf next to the bath towels?" Raise your hand if you've competed for attention in a business meeting with a one inch text screen or with the "immediacy" of a cell phone caller on a lunch and dinner date.

Moms - imagine your kids going AWOL from breakfast until dinner with no "electronic apron string" to geoposition them. Imagine no 3 PM school's-out-I'm-going-to-Melissa's phone call or roommate/finals/sore throat report from the college dorm. How did our mothers do it?

Thanks to cells, everyone is a communication substation transponding, relaying and documenting their spatial temporal verite to the next substation. Even the news succumbs to the I-perceive-you-perceiving-me vacuity.

Former Tribune columnist Bob Green says when his Southwest plane had an inflight navigation emergency in 2005 and had to return to Midway airport, the surprises had just begun.

"We landed, to the audible relief of those on board, pulled up to the gate, and - before the captain could tell us what had gone wrong - four people entered through a jetway. One held a television camera; another began handing out release-permission forms," writes Greene in the New York Times. They were from a reality TV show.

The "what's-it-like-to-almost-die" coverage didn't fly with the TV crew - not enough panic; no missed wedding days huffed the producer - but passengers loved the electronic documentation of their ordeal because it made the moment "realer," says Greene.

Cell phones are called the new cigarette because of their ubiquity and addiction, judging from all the chain callers and cell phone plumbing accidents. (Who remembers quiet stalls in public washrooms?)

They are so addictive, last year (before the priest problems) Roman Catholic bishops in Italy suggested people take a high tech fast and give up their cells for Lent.

But no one would.

It's not that people didn't want to sacrifice for Lent. After all, they give up meat, coffee, chocolate and playing the ponies and the riverboat. It's just if they gave up their cell ... who would they tell it to?

This piece first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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