Image: Mikhail Prokhorov
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Don't try to call billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the new owner of the New Jersey Nets, he doesn't own a cell phone.
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updated 8/11/2010 10:28:17 AM ET 2010-08-11T14:28:17

Your boss not knowing how to type, John Madden refusing to get on planes — these are adorable quirks caused by being old, or phobic, or old and phobic. But a cell phone is so simple to use, so harmless, and so integral to how we've agreed to communicate as a society, that refusing to own one isn't just the act of a Luddite. It's a pretty serious power move.

Everyone has a cell phone now. There are more than 280 million mobile subscribers in America, according to the Federal Communications Commission. According to a 2005 international study by Advertising Age, 15 percent of Americans have interrupted sex to answer their phones. Even people who are videotaping themselves having sex, like Paris Hilton, stop to answer a call.

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Not having a cell phone is a way of getting the world to run on your time. A lot of powerful people are already on to this. Warren Buffett doesn't use one. Nor does Mikhail Prokhorov, the 45-year-old Russian billionaire who owns the New Jersey Nets. Tavis Smiley doesn't own one, either.

Smiley, 45, the host of a weekly PBS talk show and a national radio show, freaked out two years ago after realizing he couldn't remember phone numbers or appointments without checking his cell. Smiley believes his decision to give up his cell phone has benefited his 75-employee company, The Smiley Group. "At first everybody was complaining that it would be the death of the company," he says. "What's actually happened is that they get more conversation with me than they used to."

Smiley did suffer cell-phone withdrawal symptoms. "The first weekend I was on the road without a phone, I think my hotel phone charges were $1,000," he says. When he travels now, he steals his assistant's phone.

Getting off the mobile grid forces others to wait for you to get in touch with them. Afsheen John Radsan, 47, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., was assistant general counsel at the CIA and an attorney at the Justice Dept. All sans cell. He even refused to get an answering machine until his parents installed one at his apartment behind his back. Radsan began his habit of not answering phones when he was a young lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell. "If you were called on a Friday, it could only be a partner asking you to work over the weekend," he remembers. "And we had caller ID. So some of the partners would call from an outside phone and say, 'We got you!'"

Working at the CIA, oddly, reinforced his decision, since he couldn't bring any gadgets into the building or take home any of his work. After getting to know the son of an ayatollah, who explained the importance of not responding to everything, Radsan, an avid reader, knew he made the right choice. "I love Russian novels, and (with cell phones) I'm not sure our day-to-day life is any better," he says. His ban on laptops in his classroom has caught on with other professors, he says. The only person his habit seems to annoy is his wife. "She wants to do things on the fly. I'm of the mindset that we can avoid that just by planning. I say, 'Katy, I'll be home at 7 or 7:30,' and she says, 'Let's talk about it later.'"

Hanya Yanagihara, 35, traveled the world as a deputy editor for Condé Nast Traveler without any portable communication device. "In India, even the yak herders and rickshaw drivers have cell phones," she says. Occasionally, when her plans get canceled, she wishes she had one. A few weeks ago her plane schedule got scrambled and she had to tell an associate, so she borrowed a phone from a stranger on her flight. "They give you a sort of pitying look, and assume you're lying or hitting on them," she says of cell-phone lenders. "Then they ask for the number and carefully punch it in. They think you're calling international. They're very suspicious."

Jonathan Reed, 46, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne, east of Los Angeles, loves traveling without a cell. "I'll talk to strangers. I love going to Italy, where everyone talks to everyone all the time," he says. "A cell phone signals that my whole world is me and it excludes everyone else." He says he has never overheard a cell conversation that wasn't banal. "When I walk around campus, if students are talking to each other in person, you can hear some very interesting conversations." Recently, while in Israel for archeological work, he was struck by how much people use their mobile phones — usually two or three — as status symbols. "I was sitting at a very nice restaurant and two men were sitting there with beautiful women and they were on their phones. Do they have someone better on the other line?"

Reed, like many of his tiny tribe, cites increased efficiency as a reason for not having a cell. "I'm more focused. It forces me to be proactive," he says. It's also a useful management tool. "With 80 to 100 faculty, I wouldn't want to be shackled by a cell phone. In what I do, it's important to pay attention to people when they get a meeting with you. I see people reaching in their pocket when [their phone] vibrates — all of that distracts from your work. At meetings, colleagues of mine miss opportunities to shape the dialogue because they're glancing at their e-mail or going out of the room to make a call."

These non-cell-phone users don't avoid all modern forms of communication. Many are on Facebook and Twitter, and almost all are besotted by e-mail, which gives them time to insidiously shift the conversation to a moment convenient for them. Elena Kostoglodova, a senior instructor in Russian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, whose voice mail says not to leave a message since "my official means of communication is e-mail," responded to my three questions about not using a cell phone with an e-mail twice as long as this article. To summarize: She resents a phone's drain on her time. "I do not want to take calls when I'm playing with my daughter, thereby sending her the message that she is less important than the people who call;" "I don't want to expose my private or professional life talking on a cell phone in public." If students are caught using a cell phone in her class, she promises to reduce their grade by 2 percent. The only time that she was sorry not to have a mobile phone was when a teenager rammed into her car. She had to ask the kid to call the cops.

There are some Luddites among the cell-less class. Not only does Kurt Labberton, a 59-year-old dentist with a staff of six in Yakima, Wash., not have a cell phone, he also avoids e-mail. Instead, he sends his patients handwritten notes. "A quick e-mail is not the same as something with a postage stamp on it," he says. "The one thing you can offer in dentistry is the intimacy of the moment." Labberton sees the impact of cell phones firsthand: He has interrupted root canals and abscesses so his patients can answer calls. Still, he claims, "you can live a 1992 lifestyle and live pretty well." Especially if you have an office full of people communicating with 2010 for you.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.

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