The plasma membrane of most cells is drawn tightly over the cytoskeleton of the cell, resulting in a significant tension being developed in the membrane. The tension in the membrane can be calculated from the force required to separate it from the cytoskeleton; and the force itself can be measured rapidly by using laser tweezers. Recent observations indicate that decreasing membrane tension stimulates endocytosis and increasing tension stimulates secretion. Thus, membrane tension provides a simple physical mechanism to control the area of the plasma membrane. Here, we speculate that tension is a global parameter that the cell uses to control physically plasma membrane dynamics, cell shape and cell motility.