Pay phone–Cell phone: Guess which one is winning?

The news is AT&T is going to dump pay phones by 2009. It’s already started. Being that I’m a bit of a Luddite, I find this alarming. Sure, as the article states, more and more people have cell phones, “even nine year-olds have a CrackBerry and Bluetooth headset attached to the dome,” but I think pay phones serve a function–perhaps not in every location, but I know people who can’t afford a cell phone or a land line phone–not consistently anyway. The people I’m talking about are the urban poor. Not all the urban poor, but some of them. They have a phone for a short time at the beginning of the month, but towards the end of the month, the minutes are gone and the service is off. I would bet that the rural poor are in the same situation. This is not because they don’t know how to manage money either. You can’t imagine.

This notion that everyone has a cell phone, even 9 year-olds, is the very reason why people buy stuff. I remember the unit on advertising techniques from my 10th grade English class. “Everyone is doing it.” To not be left in the dust of uncool, you jump on the bandwagon.

Also, there are still times when having access to a pay phone is also useful. Traveling for one. As a traveler, I’ve used a pay phone with a prepaid phone card many a time at a gas station or a fast food place to call home. I just recently bought a cell phone, but I’m the only on in my family who has one. My husband doesn’t want one–he hates talking on the phone and we’re holding out on getting one for my daughter since, to us, it seems that a cell phone for many adolescents is more of a vanity item then a necessity. Plus, teenagers just can’t leave them alone. They mess with them instead of focusing on the person they’re with or learning how to enjoy ones own company. That’s just us. (We’re coming close to caving, though. She wrote cell phone about five times on her Christmas list.) I still take a phone card with me when I hit the road. What happens if my phone doesn’t get service somewhere, or it breaks, or I loose it or the battery is dead? That’s my Ludditness talking. (Kurt Vonnegut was a Luddite too. Just read this if you don’t believe me. Seriously, don’t you feel like you are living in Welcome to the Monkey House sometimes?)

The way I see it, the loss of pay phones is another indication about how we’re moving further away from a communal existence. We can’t turn to the larger community to get our needs met, but must meet them ourselves. If you need a phone to call someone, you have to have your own. You have to have minutes. As a traveler who thrives on communal existence, I find this too bad.

When my father recently took his bus trip from Columbus to northern Kentucky for Thanksgiving, he wasn’t traveling with a cell phone. One day he may get one, but the plan for this trip was that he would call my aunt from the Florence Mall on a pay phone so she could come and pick him up once he arrived. In 2009, this plan will be obsolete, but for AT&T who is in the cell phone business, that will be a good thing. Perhaps, that’s the point. The more need a cell phone, the more we’ll buy, and that, just bothers me.