Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cell Phones, Carcinogens, and Communication

Look, I want brain cancer as much as you do—that is, not at all. It’s not that I don’t believe the new WHO report that suggests cell phones may be carcinogenic. In fact, that sounds plausible to me, and I think it’s smart to take precautions against harmful things. But everything we do to make our lives more convenient also comes with some risk. I’ll be interested to see how this new information plays out, especially in the realm of communication and rhetoric.

See this CNN article on “6 tips for minimizing cell phone radiation.”

Number 6? “Don’t talk, text.”

But texting is not really a substitute for talking. Sure, they’re related. But sometimes speaking is more effective than writing (and vice versa).

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there are some conversations that just can’t be had via text message. Maybe you need the inflection in your voice to let the listener know that you’re joking (or angry, or sad). Maybe you want to hear the reaction to the first part of the story before you go into the second part. Or maybe what you have to say is just a long narrative that won’t fit very well into a text message.

Will advice that texting prevents cancer alter the way that we communicate? Will we stop sharing long, complex narratives with people we can’t meet face-to-face? Or will we just become more adept at reading long, complex narratives in a different medium?

I would be remiss here if I did not mention Walter Ong’s studies in secondary orality. Ong posited secondary orality as oral expression that is dependent upon a literate culture. So the speaking you hear on the television, a podcast, or even someone reading a written text are examples of secondary orality, and it is different from the type of speaking that is heard in primary orality cultures. The speaking of those in a secondary orality culture contains less repetition, different patterns, etc.

Will the new concerns over cell-phone induced cancer add another layer to the literacy/orality continuum?

Then again, we’ve been hearing warnings about artificial sweeteners for years, and this year Diet Coke overtook Pepsi as the number two soda in America (and it was joined by three other diet sodas in the top ten list.

Risk is far away. Convenience is immediate.

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