Can you hear me now?

Relatively rare just a decade ago, cell phones today are commonplace. In fact, industry sources report that consumers worldwide will buy 740 million new cell phones in 2005.

That astounding global number, translated to a local level, means Twin Cities residents are affected by cell phones like never before. The accidental cell phone ring heard so often at meetings, birthday parties and church services is symbolic: we brought cell phones into existence; now their increasing presence and impact are seeping into all corners of our lives — whether we like it or not.

Social advantages

“Socially, it’s essential, especially on the weekend,” said Mendota Heights resident Ben Doane, a senior at the University of St. Thomas. “I really don’t know what I would do without a cell phone.”

Doane bought a cell phone the summer after his freshman year at UST, after witnessing how helpful they could be in terms of getting people’s numbers, making social plans and being available to friends. Now, just two years later, he has 216 names in his contact list — basically an entire social network in his pocket.

“On the weekend, I’ll call my best friends, they’ll call their friends, and we always know what’s going on.”

Not having a cell phone means being on the outside of the social loop, simply because it’s harder to get in touch with people, especially late at night when many collegiates are bouncing from movies to bars to parties, Doane said.

“It’s hard to think of a single one of my friends who doesn’t have a cell phone. I’d say maybe one in 20 people at school don’t have a cell phone,” Doane estimated.

Besides the social advantages, Doane’s cell phone helps him stay connected with his parents and sister. He talks almost daily with his mom.

“It helps to keep the relationship with my mom and dad. They know I’m just one phone call away,” Doane said.

Keeping families in touch

Larger families often rely on cell phones to stay organized and in touch.

John and Angel Fitzgerald of Centerville each have their own cell phone, as do four of their five children.

“At the point where we had three kids in college, one in high school and one in middle school, we literally had five kids at five different schools,” Angel said. “I can’t imagine how we would have stayed organized without cell phones.”

Adding to the busy school schedule was the fact that all five of the Fitzgerald kids each played at least two sports.

“We were always calling with up-to-the-minute changes regarding games and practices,” Angel said.

Business tool

Cell phones have become a near-necessity at the business level as well, helping busy professionals on the go finalize plans and disclose details — often conducting teleconferences in the car.

For South St. Paul entrepreneur Chris Francis, the accessibility cell phones provide is crucial. Working for the Structure Rock construction company and operating an independent fishing guide service keeps Francis on the go, and often in the boat. But having a cell phone makes him available to customers and clients.

“I pride myself on people being able to contact me 24-7 if there’s a problem,” said Francis, who’s brought his Verizon cell phone on fishing trips to South and North Dakota, California and Canada.

“The ability of someone to be able to get a hold of you to talk business is incredible,” said Francis, who has a plan with more than 80 hours a month on his cell phone. “When you’re running a small business it’s like a third arm.”

Underlying impact

The rise of cell phones has affected the way people communicate. Quick, convenient calls enable friends and family to stay in better touch, yet conversations on cell phones are often briefer and less sincere, said Donna McCarthy, a communication professor at the University of St. Thomas.

Talking on cell phones in public often prompts the speakers to act different than they would if bystanders couldn’t hear the conversation.

“There tends to be a forced cheerfulness with cell phones — it’s ‘OK,’ ‘cool,’ ‘great,’” McCarthy said. “It’s called the ‘presentation of self.’ When you’re aware that people are watching you and listening to your conversation, you tweak it, possibly. The end result is communication that is skewed and insincere.”

Sometimes the act of talking on the cell phone is more important than the conversation itself.

“A cell phone is such a status symbol — it shows how busy and important someone is,” McCarthy said.

When McCarthy asks her students in class how many of them have pretended to talk on their cell phone to look popular or busy, more than half routinely raise their hands.

“Cell phones can keep people out just as much as they can keep people in,” McCarthy said, referring to the fact that cell phones often reduce face-to-face interaction and deeper connections.

Future reception

While cell phones catch a lot of static for being a daily disruption, they certainly offer advantages. Many parents feel better if their driving teens carry a cell phone in case of an emergency. Cell phones also help busy friends and scattered family members stay in touch with each other.

For better or worse, cell phones certainly aren’t going anywhere. Trade magazine RCR projects worldwide cell phone sales to top the 1 billion mark in 2008.

McCarthy thinks that trend will apply locally.

“We’re a country that revels in convenience,” McCarthy said. “If you can go to the grocery store and call home to see how much milk is left, you’re pretty darned happy you’ve got a cell phone.”

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