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Broadcasting the personal

THE FLIGHT ends, the ritual begins. Wheels down, cellphones up. Within seconds the woman standing behind me in a crowded airplane aisle has called her office and begun a cranky and noisy inquisition. Has the memo gone out warning that "Ken was not a suitable candidate for trafficking director?"

Mind you, I don't know this woman. Nor do I know Ken. Nor do I know what a trafficking director is. But there she is, publicly sharing office gossip, not to mention Ken's future, with at least six people on either end of her substantial voice range.

This was by no means the only cell snippet of a life story to come my way through the mobile airwaves. Nor was it the most outrageous.

In just the past few weeks, there was the woman who got on the train in Boston with a shaky relationship -- "I did not leave my things at your place on purpose" -- and got off in New York with no relationship. There was the father in Cincinnati whose son's SAT scores -- 540 in math, 480 in English -- were audibly not what he hoped for. There was the doctor in the grocery store discussing a CAT scan of a patient in Milwaukee. How do you spell adenocarcinoma?

By now we have all had little bits of dialogue float past us on the street. A tete-a-tete is now a tete-a-tous. What once was told in quiet now wafts by any open ear. Cell stories have become the aural equivalent of indecent exposure.

But this morning, with poor Ken's fate hanging in the airplane, my annoyance went on speed dial. It occurred to me that the line between what's public and what's private must have been inadvertently severed when the first phone line was disconnected from the wall.

Is it barely a generation since phones became mobile? Once the phone booth was the place where Clark Kent could protect his privacy. Now cellphoners strip in public. And city folks who long ago cultivated a way of avoiding eye contact are now supposed to avoid ear contact.

Over the years, I have read and written my fair share of rants against the ringing and the driving, and the rube and the rude. I've applauded the quiet car on the train and the no-phone zone in the restaurant. I've been appalled when cheery little sounds wafted over wedding bells and furtive conversations took place in funerals.

Cell manners and mores are now the subject of PhD theses. The blessing and the curse of the cellphone turned out to be in the way it has enabled us to live in our own virtual community. And opt out of the physical community around us.

We never have to be exclusively where we are, on the road or a mountaintop or the aisle of an airplane. Even the area code that once described a piece of geography has been dislocated. We can keep in constant contact with a wandering teenager or a wandering employee -- but we never know precisely where they are.

Indeed, cell technology has metastasized into all sorts of odd behavior. We now have people who perform running commentary on the minutiae of their daily lives as they travel down a grocery line -- "Honey, I'm at the avocados" -- or round the corner. A favorite New Yorker cartoon tracks a cellphone narrator through three panels: "I'm boarding the train. I'm on the train. I'm leaving the train."

At the same time, it has cut down the number of small personal encounters that make strangers feel as if they inhabit the same world. It may not be a safety hazard to talk to one person while ordering coffee from another, but what was the woman's message to her hairstylist when she talked on the phone while he cut her hair? You're invisible?

The diminished sense of place and the increased sense of anonymity have together transformed privacy in the cell story age. It is easier to hang your feelings or your son's SAT scores out in public if the people around you are invisible.

Justice Brandeis once famously described privacy as "the right to be let alone." But Brandeis didn't have a cellphone. The original fear was that someone would invade your space, dig into the personal details of your life. But what do you call it when someone invades your space with the personal details of their life?

Memo to the woman on the plane with the cellphone: I'm here, and I'm listening.

Memo to Ken: Better buff up that resume.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is 

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