Sick Cell

Representations of Cellular Telephone Use in North America

How to Cite

Nicholson, J. (2001). Sick Cell: Representations of Cellular Telephone Use in North America. M/C Journal, 4(3).
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

The mobile telephone, or cellular telephone as it is called in North America, is the fastest-growing consumer product of the past decade. [1] Despite its popularity, metaphors of risk, contamination, and illness frequently run through stories about cellphone use. These representations are based mostly on a lingering but unproven link between brain cancer and cellphone use. Despite numerous scientific studies, none have definitively ruled out the risk and none have found conclusive evidence of harm. The claim that cellphone use is potentially dangerous or downright carcinogenic is supported instead by plenty of anecdotal evidence, rumour, urban myth, and "junk science."

What is interesting to me is that these different representations of cellphone use as a practice that poses relative, absolute and no risk can coexist and persist, despite obvious contradictions. I suggest that Donna Haraway's concept of breached boundaries and Ulrich Beck's notion of "risk society" can be employed superficially to make sense of how we negotiate these different representations.

In order to begin a discussion about why cellphone use in North America continues to be represented as a potentially risky practice, it is necessary to mention one story that is frequently credited as being the starting point for the narrative of fear and anxiety informing these representations. In spite of its germinal status, the story is but the latest embodiment of the narrative.

It begins in August 1988 in Florida when David Reynard gave his wife Susan the gift of a cellphone. Seven months later, a medical scan revealed a tumour in Susan's brain. She claimed that as a result of being bombarded by radiation from the cellphone, the damaged cells either caused her tumour or accelerated the growth of an existing tumour. In April 1992, Susan launched a lawsuit against the phone's manufacturer, the company that provided the cellular service, and the retail store that sold the phone. A month after filing the lawsuit, Susan died of brain cancer.

In January 1993, David Reynard was interviewed on the highly-rated CNN show Larry King Live. The interview sent shockwaves through the telecommunications industry. Stock prices of the major cellphone companies fell and some subscribers cancelled their contracts and returned their phones. Spokespeople for the industry countered David's accusations with claims that electromagnetic energy is as harmless as the oxygen we breathe. In fact, they said, it is already all around us in natural and artificial forms, including in emissions from the earth and sun.

A spokesperson for Motorola, a major cellphone manufacturer, predicted that Susan's lawsuit would fail because "thousands" of studies had been conducted, which proved that radiation emitted by cellphones was not dangerous to users. In fact, no such studies existed. The lie was revealed when journalists and Susan's lawyer asked to see the studies. Almost as if to make up for the lie, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association,[2] a lobby group for North American cellular service providers, created the Wireless Research Center. Not surprisingly, the Center produced findings during its six-year mandate that were mostly favourable to the industry.

In 1995, Susan's lawsuit was dismissed by a judge who said no reliable scientific evidence had been presented to link cellphone use to cancer. Expert witnesses for the defence had argued that the evidence presented on her behalf was merely wild speculation, "junk science," and a perversion of science masquerading as real science.

Over a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and the U.K. since. Few of them have surpassed Susan's lawsuit in notoriety and none have earned a favourable ruling. While it is still both mocked and venerated in the popular media and is the focus of derision in the telecom industry press and in medical science journals, the question central to the case (but does it cause cancer?) is still unresolved and so are the contradictions now associated with it.

Did Susan's own body generate her tumour or was it generated by cellphone radiation? Where is the line between junk science and real science? Is artificial radiation from a cellphone as harmless as natural radiation from the earth or sun? These questions are indicative of some of the boundary breakdowns that Haraway claims are causing disorder and contradiction in late twentieth-century Western culture, namely between human and machine, between the physical and non-physical, and between natural and artificial.

According to Beck, the degeneration of these boundaries are also indicative of a risk society characterised by environmental degradation. Because this degeneration is both perceived and potential, it hardly matters anymore what is rational or irrational, legitimate science or junk science. Both factual and fictional texts contribute to our knowledge of risks surrounding cellphone use as a biohazard that is a threat to individual bodies and to the social body.

A series of events occurring throughout the 90s in North America added to the ambiguity and mystery surrounding cellphone use. Numerous rumours circulated about the practice sparking explosions at petrol stations and causing interference with car brakes, airbags, and electric wheelchairs. In addition, Health Canada and the U.S . Food and Drug Administration issued several bulletins to alert the public that cellphone use could cause heart pacemakers, hospital monitoring equipment, and aeroplane navigational instruments to malfunction.

Susan's lawsuit ended when the court imposed closure, but the narrative embodied by the lawsuit continued in these rumours and warnings. The lawsuit was an event with a clear beginning and end. The narrative of fear and anxiety about contamination that could lead to illness, disease, and death preceded the lawsuit and was already embodied in other stories, particularly ones surrounding cancer and AIDS.

When Susan launched her lawsuit, in some media reports, the cellphone was called the "new cancer villain" and the potential link between cancer and cellphone use was deemed the "yuppies version of AIDS." The comparison of cellphone use to cancer and AIDS functions both as a cultural and biological metaphor. It links the practice explicitly with disease and implicitly with death, and it also recalls the narrative of fear and anxiety surrounding cancer and AIDS, two potentially fatal diseases which preceded the introduction of cellphones.

Seventeen years have passed since the cellphone became widely available in North America. Currently, almost nine million Canadians, or one in three people, own a cellphone. In the United States, there are 108 million users. Subscriptions there are increasing at the rate of approximately 46,000 each day or about one new owner every two seconds.

The recent flood of private talk in public places in North America is being represented in popular media as a contamination of the social body, a morally repugnant practice, and a menace to civil society. A moral panic has arisen over cellphone use because it allows conversations to be audible and the user to be visible where before they were inaudible and the user was invisible by virtue of being hidden away in homes, offices, and phone booths. In public places the voice of the cellphone user extends the self and claims more space, which in turn impinges on the personal space of others. It is like a stranger's unwelcome touch.

Proof that the moral panic has reached a new level in Canada may be evident in a request from the federal government last March for public opinion on whether devices known as silencers or jammers should be licensed for use so that businesses and institutions can disable cellphones within a particular radius when necessary.

As a result of the popular use of the term "cellphone" in North America, a neat conflation of meaning is occurring between cellphone use as a potential threat to biological cells in the human body and the practice as a perceived threat to the physical spatial cells of personal spaces that comprise the social body.

Stories about cellphone use as hazard articulate a narrative of fear and anxiety we share that cannot simply be dismissed as absurd. How people respond to cellphone use and the health questions and moral panic surrounding it cannot be decided by medical or legal experts alone. Consequently, in a risk society characterised by a peculiar synthesis of "empirical knowledge" and "indefinite uncertainty," the question "does it cause cancer?" becomes irrelevant. According to Beck, it may be more useful to ask "how do we want to live?"

Author Biography

Judith Nicholson