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A call to be more civil

Cellphones assault public space. Jammers can help.

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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.

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