Cell Phone "Refuseniks" Are The New Contrarian AssholesS

Today's Times identifies yet another way to be both hip and annoying: be really hard to reach. That is, don't have a cell phone.

According to Claire Cain Miller's article, most people who lack cell phones are "older or less educated Americans or those unable to afford phones." Says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "These are people who have a bunch of other struggles in their lives and the expense of maintaining technology and mastering it is also pretty significant for them." So basically, if you don't have a cell phone you must have bad problems. Unless of course you're among the 5% of non-cell phone users who, as in so many other areas of life, become cool by simulating those with actual problems. These are the refuseniks.

They are neither too poor to afford a phone nor too stressed to learn to operate one. They just don't want you to call them. Gregory Han says, "It's a luxury not to be reached when I'm out and about." The writer/editor doesn't even have a landline, and when he travels for work he has to provide his employers with a detailed list of ways to reach him, raising the question of how he still has a job. Jenna Catsos thinks being reachable via cell phone is "scary," and prefers handwritten letters. But she's also only 22, so this sounds like an affectation of youth. She says she'll probably need a cell phone soon, because she'll be couch-surfing — maybe lacking both an apartment and a cell phone is too close to actually being poor.

Gawker helpfully categorizes the cell-phone refuseniks into a few groups, including "people who are so incredibly important that the world will bend over backwards to find them when it needs them" and "people who are total jackasses." In my totally jaundiced view, most refuseniks think they're the former, but are actually the latter. Not having a cell phone is like a much less dire version of not getting your kids vaccinated — you still benefit from other people's willingness to do what you eschew. Yes, not having a cell phone makes it harder for you to reach other people, as well as for them to reach you — but if all your friends have cell phones, you can always stop by a pay phone and call them, no matter where they are. Your life is made more convenient by other people's decision to allow the "scary" intrusion of reachability. Of course, there are probably those who barely even use pay phones, who find all phone conversation outside the boudoir to be beneath them. These are people like that dude who tells you how much he wishes he could spend a year living in the woods without the burden of human contact. Having to talk to you is really rough on him, and he wants you to know it.

As you might be able to tell, a few bad experiences have caused me to associate not having a cell phone with being a holier-than-thou dickwad. But. When I came to New York, I discovered that my phone didn't work in my apartment. After a fruitless eBay transaction — the next time I feel like buying electronics on eBay, I'm just going to stand in the middle of the sidewalk wearing a "kick me" sign instead — I sort of gave up, and resigned myself to keeping up with my friends via Skype, or while sitting in the park. It was kind of like the opposite of not having a cell phone — I could only talk while I was out. But since I don't hear very well, I didn't do much of that either, and my cell phone use plummeted. Then, last weekend, I found myself telling someone at a party: "Yeah, I don't really have a phone." He looked at me with a new respect, and I have to admit, I felt pretty fucking cool. Then the next day I went out and bought an iPhone.

The Cell Refuseniks, An Ever-Shrinking Club [NYT]
Cellphone Non-Users: An Ethnographic Study [Gawker]