Opposing cell phone antennas then and now

Mashpee and Centerville citizens’ cell phone antenna struggles are reminiscent of Wellfleet’s tilting at cell phone towers 20-plus years ago in the infancy of the industry. Up to several hundred determined Wellfleetians argued that microwaves beamed from cell towers were unhealthful, and that the gangly towers were in any case unsightly, and a contradiction of the spirit of our town.

The antenna proposed for a church steeple was decried as a commercial, secular use inappropriate for a church steeple, a compromise of its spirituality.

A big difference is that 20 years ago, years before the emergence of the killer app of smart phones many of this small, rural town (more remote then than now) aligned ourselves not just against a particular antenna location but against the whole, burgeoning technology, sensing that ubiquitous phones, would in fact harm our town. We lamented the likelihood of cell phones at beaches and spoiling the solitude of ponds. In fact, we saw ourselves as doing just fine without this so-called progress being foisted upon us. In trying to be a speedbump on the tech highway we didn’t see ourselves as committing the NIMBY sin because we didn’t think cell phones represented progress anywhere.

And of course our misgivings came to pass. I can remember that first time on a fine, still summer morning at my favorite pond overhearing a summer visitor’s chat with her stockbroker in Manhattan.

Our principled opposition seemed less quixotic at the time that it does now in hindsight. Given how the struggle over cell phones has gone—the total victory by this new technology, the centrality to our culture now of smart phones, unimagined back then, how deluded we seem in reterospect to think we could stem the tide of the future.

Today’s antenna activists confront a fundamentally different situation. Given that cell phones have become established as a defining feature of contemporary life, I suppose they are more vulnerable to NIMBY criticism.

Wellfleet’s oppositon at the time was one part aesthetics, one part lifestyle, one part health concerns. Activists placed folders in the library stuffed with statistical evidence worldwide of microwave health consequences. Our fight to keep antennas out of our town wasn’t defeated because of some revelation that cell technology is perfectly after all. We lost because of the bullying of our town by deep pocketed, determined the cell companies who had more money than a small town to fight for what they want. (It’s essentially the same story as why will be getting a glorified Cumberland Farms gas station despite widespreac local disapproval and why Provincetown will be getting a CVS it didn’t want.)

It was an uphill fight because industry lobbies had gotten passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was basically a fiat for the new technology.

It’s not as if the health issue has been settled. I guess we could say that if people were noticeably dropping like flies since cell’s advent, we’d know it and the fight against the technology would have gone differently. But we still see occasional news stories on dangers of microwave emanations, now that the world is saturated in them. The sum total of the health price we are paying for the marvel of cell phones has yet to be totalled.

Ironically, while Wellfleet’s activists didn’t see how cell phones would enhance our personal or communal life we didn’t know the half of it. We were worried only about the phone function of cell phones. We didn’t envision smart phones and the way their AI has shaped life. Arguably more dangerous than microwave-caused cancer are the issues now being debated : privacy, the undermining of interpersonal socializing, and (though we may happily enough defer to GPS for getting around town) to what dubious future the AI spearheaded by phones is leading us.

I wonder how many of our Wellfleet battalion of antenna warriors, so feisty in our opposition to this upstart technology, still believe the world (or our town) would be a better place without the ubiquitous, omniscient, digital Swiss Army knife suddenly so indispensable to contemporary culture.


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