Personal Surveillance Etiquette

In an alternate universe, the National Security Agency's database of every telephone call made over the past five years in the United States is being used in couples counseling sessions to prove that some guy really did say that mean thing his boyfriend says he said. But in this universe, where the government spies on you rather than keeping couples from breaking up over stupid shit, we must rely on our personal phone surveillance logs to preserve social connectedness.

That's why I've been having an etiquette crisis about my smart phone. It's a Treo 650, the kind that holds a zillion numbers in memory and can therefore identify anybody calling me who has called before. It's like a just-in-time call-tracing system. Even when people try to block their numbers, I can often tell who they are based on how the block looks. One colleague's blocked caller ID always pops up as "4321" and another as "9999999." My phone also maintains a fairly extensive log of who has called me, so I can browse through my own personal phone records for the past year and a half to figure out names, numbers, and times called.

As more people acquire similar phones, I become increasingly alarmed by all this record keeping - not so much because of the mini-NSA feelings engendered, but because I'm not sure what the social rules around it are. For example, I can now be fairly certain that if I call a friend or colleague's cell phone, they'll know it's me before they answer. Even creepier, they'll know I called, and when, even if I don't choose to leave a message. And they know that I know the same things about them when they call. Thence comes my etiquette crisis.

You see, the whole practice of calling and hanging up without leaving a message has taken on a new meaning. Calling and hanging up is no longer really an option - even if you do hang up, a record of your actions lingers on. And there's no benefit in terms of stopping cranks or fraudsters here because caller ID is easy to fake or block. There are at least a dozen services that help you spoof the number on your phone so it looks as if you're calling from 6969696 or whatever. So this is really only an issue for the casual phone caller who isn't energetically paranoid enough to go through the trouble of altering her phone number.

All this is an elaborate explanation for why I stood in the street the other day, staring at a missed-call notice on my phone and wondering if the person who called intended for me to call him back. He hadn't left a message, but then again, he didn't need to - he's a pretty tech-savvy person and would certainly have anticipated that I would know he called and precisely when. Was it like a "call me but not urgently"? Was it just a transient sort of request, like an invite to lunch that would time out by the time I got a message, so he didn't bother leaving one? (In that case, I thought to myself, I really didn't need to call him back.) Or was it some new form of passive-aggressiveness, in which my decision whether or not to call him back based on the call trace became the measure of my loyalty to our friendship?

Charlie, who watched me staring at my phone, opined that I didn't have to call the person back. But then I reminded her of a spat we'd had where she cited my cell phone log, saying she could prove that she'd called 10 times before I called back. She conceded, "Well, you should always call me back if I don't leave a message, but nobody else."

This seemed to me an awfully arbitrary rule. Miss Manners would be indignant. Caller ID is causing a politeness aporia in my life. I suspect this is because surveillance and etiquette are both tools that help us monitor and control what everybody around us is doing. Of course, no matter how stringent the etiquette enforcers are, we still have a choice about how and when we choose to adhere to their little rules. With surveillance, there is no choice.

And, in case you're wondering: No, I didn't return the phone call.

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