10/12/2011 09:08 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Children of the Hive

When my car was in the shop on and off last year, I found myself riding Los Angeles buses and subways, which cover a considerable territory and are clean, air-conditioned and not at loud as I remembered the older New York versions to be.

Quiet enough, in fact, that I began hearing phone conversations around myself. Not the loud, annoying ones, the people having viral arguments. No, I mean the everyday, quiet, but insistent ones.

Most often the cell-phoners were young, even more often young women, and they were on the phone for the entire ride, one for over an hour.

I was struck by these conversations because of the low content value they offered. I'm an older guy, and my phone calls go like this: "I'm running late. I'll be there in 17 and a half minutes. I'll call when I'm a block away. Bye."

But these younger people were taking 45 minutes to impart as much or as little information, and sometimes longer.

One of the bus rides ended at UCLA, where I was lecturing to a masters program in Information Storage and Retrieval, what we used to call Archiving or Library Studies. I brought up this question to the small class the first day: how much actual information were the students imparting and receiving? Would they mind monitoring their longest calls?

Bless their hearts, at the next lecture they came in with the results. Approximately 4.9 percent down to 2.3 percent of their phone calls were actually utilized for the passing and receiving of data. The rest was -- noise.

Well, not so much noise as -- stroking.

I'd noticed that same thing. All those "mmm"s and "uh-huh"s and "no?"s and "he didn't?"s. A lot of it was reactive. And even when they were talking, the speech tended to be of the "well, maybe, you should, kinda, you know, say that" type.

This was very different from, say, a working mother getting a call on a crowded bus, listening and saying, "I don't care. Wake him up and get him ready for school. Call me when you are leaving the house," which I also overheard.

I asked to look at their texts, too. So my students saved a bunch of their texts.

Same thing: stroking. Or leading. Or directing.

In fact, it struck me that they were remaining in contact with each other without any real need to convey or receive any other information than the fact that they were remaining in contact with each other.

It reminded me of the way we now understand that social insects behave.

Bees, for example, finding new pollen, return to the nest to dance around and touch all the other bees and thus convey the information. Worker ants lay down pheromones as paths. Termites spray scents to gather a group to attack another group: all hive activities.

In his 1953 novel Childhood's End, science fiction seer Arthur C. Clarke posited an alien invasion. I read it a while ago. This is the book's description:

The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city -- intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began. But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind ... or the beginning?

And at the novel's climax, all human children's minds worldwide become linked, leaving out the adults, and thus become a hive mind.

Well, it seems the invaders came all right, but unlike Clarke's Overlords, this time all they had to do was put pretty little cell phones for sale everywhere.