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So, what we’ve known all along is true.

March 18, 2013

The one-sided cell phone conversations forced on us in public places are indeed more distracting and irritating than nearby two-person conversations.

Of course, in declaring this I’m committing a common error, taking the results of a few narrow studies as broader fact, but since the results are exactly what I want to hear, I shall do so.

Some people claim to remain undisturbed by “halfalogues,” and certainly there must be people who are equanimous enough or deaf enough to make that claim, but the difference between halfalogues and dialogue is painfully evident to most of us.

You can hear it in a busy cafe. The background cacophony of multiple conversations is easily filtered out, but one person on a cell phone stands out like a sore thumb. It’s a fascinating effect, really.

Studies in recent years have not relied solely on reports of subjective experience. Instead, familiar cognitive studies were set up, such as completing anagrams or tracking a dot on a screen with the cursor, while the subjects were exposed to halfalogues and dialogues.

And yes, in some cases those who suffered the halfalogue performed worse. They also reported being much more irritated. Both results—distraction and irritation—are important, one for safety and the other for happiness.

In 2006, 82% of Americans said they were at least occasionally annoyed by public cell phone conversations; in 2012, it was 74%. Either the population is becoming deafer or more equanimous, or the practice of subjecting one’s neighbors to inane halfalogues is decreasing.

We all know that speechlessness is not necessarily thoughtlessness—how many times have you been rendered speechless by the words or actions of others while lines of thought weave through your head.

Thanks to cell phone halfalogues, we also know that speech does not imply thought. Have you ever heard the coherent half of a halfalogue, the other one that might make sense? Of course not, but unfortunately that means it’s the same nonsense on both ends.

The idea that we are at a cognitive disadvantage with halfalogues is interesting. “Madison Avenue,” or wherever evil advertisers are these days, is constantly on the lookout for our disadvantage this way.

How might the halfalogue be used against us? It has a stickiness advertisers crave. This is one reason Lily Tomlin’s operator skit works so well—we are riveted hearing only Ernestine’s half of the conversation.

“Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” We are forced into participating in each joke, figuring them out or being surprised.

Halfalogue is a fine word for a new, if unwelcome, aspect of our culture. Of course, it’s not just “our” American culture but human culture. In 2011, the U.N. estimated there were 6 billion cell phone subscribers on Earth—86% the world’s population.

That number is stunning to me. China and India each have around a billion cell phone users. Our virtual world, and much of our life, has moved to the palm of our hand.

This is the market for “content.” This is where books, music, magazines, videos, and who knows what will be “consumed.”

Not that physical stuff isn’t still important. We checked out over 225,000 items last year, only one percent of it electronic. Ten years ago we hadn’t yet reached 100,000.

The question “What do we need libraries for?” always sounds like a halfalogue. It leaves me momentarily speechless. But one answer is to share stuff—a lot of stuff—and the desire to do so keeps growing.

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