Monday, July 18, 2005

I was sitting in a little restaurant in Back Bay the other day. At one point all of the patrons were talking on their cell phones simultaneously. There was a young couple sitting across the room, facing each other, both talking animatedly into their phones (to each other perhaps—who knows). Others were sitting alone doing it. At a nearby table, one visibly irritated man without a cell looked at me and blurted, “what?” It took me a moment to realize that he wasn't speaking to me, but into a tiny headset, repeating the mantra of cell phone abusers everywhere: “What? What? What did you say? What?” Especially on trains (remember, despite security concerns, the T will soon go wireless) and in crowded public places “what” seems to constitute close to 95% of cell phone conversation. After awhile it sounds like the quacking of agitated ducks. If, like Rip Van Winkle, I had just awoken from a ten-year nap, I’d have thought the world had gone barking mad.

So the new trend is to ditch the phone for a headset. We have come with startling speed to accept as perfectly ordinary people walking down the street, both hands free, hearing voices no one else hears and barking nonsense. This used to get you burnt at the stake, or in more genteel times a trip to a padded room where you could go quietly crazy in private. It takes the virtual into another dimension. Holding a phone at least gives the speaker some surrogate object, a prop, while with a headset he is somewhere completely virtual. He imagines himself into a space between here and there for which he needs no surrogate object. The man at the table was both/neither at the table and/nor not at the table, like Schrödinger’s cat with wifi. Should he be quizzed in a week’s time about his actual whereabouts during the conversation, my guess is he would have no earthly idea. And real people all around him are either unseen, or obstacles. Reality becomes an irritant, an inconvenience at best, the white noise to be tuned out. That’s the thing: the colonization of real space by the virtual seems to always degrade the former. After all, the Nowhere of the latter can be reached from nearly anywhere.

But what is most aggravating about cell phones is that they allow the user to constantly reassert the priorities of self over that of the nameless, faceless mass of humanity around him. There is in a public space a certain rhapsody, a communion of souls, which is as important, I think, for developing the sense of empathy necessary to function and enjoy life in society as the sense of self-reliance. The shrill of mobiles ringing on the metro, and the shrill of the one-sided conversation we are so often then assaulted with smacks of protest against our existence, that is, the existence of a we in which we lose for a happy moment our very selves.

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