Notebook: Cell Phones

Notebook: Cell Phones

Cuaderno de notas: celulares

Sven Birkerts

Sometimes there is nothing to do but remark the obvious, and then wonder why others aren’t remarking it as well. Is it part of the nature of obviousness to be invisible— or irrelevant? I could be talking about many things, but right now I’m stuck on cell-phones, which have gone from being rich people’s perks to mass indispensibilty in what feels like a snap of the fingers. But what doesn’t feel like that? I’ve been noting the acceleration of the rate of technological change for years now, at first with alarm, then philosophical detachment, and finally with the kind of weary acceptance I reserve for the pricks that are clearly not to be kicked against. Except somehow this ‘prick’ got me going again yesterday. I was in Harvard Square, making my way along Massachusetts Avenue on my way back to my car; I was feeling relaxed for the first time in a long time, savoring the spring weather and the fact that the bulk of my semester’s work was finally behind me. I had paused on the corner in front of the Au Bon Pain, waiting for the crossing green, when the whimsical gods looked at each other and nodded.

Our fate dispensers have become savvy about presentation; they knew how to stage the scene for maximal effect. I lifted my head to check the traffic, and voila!—in one glance I took in five or six people converging toward me from different directions, some on the sidewalk, some crossing the street—and every single person was talking on a cell phone. It was like a clever TV commercial, but I knew right away that we were into something serious. But then, even before that image had fully registered, as a kind of ironic underscoring, I watched the stream of passing cars and every last driver had a phone pressed to the ear. This was too much- -even by hyped-up contemporary standards. I wanted to grab the arm of some fellow witness, to shout out “Come here, look! Get a load of this!” But there was no one I could address. Everybody, you see, was on a phone. So I gawked and gaped alone; I shook my head; and then…and then I continued walking to the car, taking the quiet side street, trying to get my mind back to the soft barrage of pastels in the trees and bushes that would all be gone in a week or two.

But I could no longer focus. For I was suddenly full of new surmise. I had for years been looking at people and their cell phones saying to myself this is something, but now I felt confi rmed in my most anxious forebodings. Not depressed, not at that moment—but excited. Though I was pretty sure that the news was not good, the prospect of turning that single image over and over in my mind exhilarated me.

Driving home, I was thinking in all directions. There was the media side of it all, of course, the Marshall McLuhan global-village/paradigm-shift perspective—clearly I had just observed the very moment of the turn—but I set that aside that for later. Just then I was struck more by the idea of talk—the sheer magnitude of it. I featured hundreds of millions of these instruments going all day long in all corners of the world—from the Faroe Islands to Islamabad—all of them spewing chatter. Chatter in every language and dialect, at every level of intonation. Blasphemies and love-talk; stock-tips and cooking instructions. Has there ever been so much noise, so much idle verbalizing? The cell phone has opened the sluices to a new species, a whole new phylum, of trivia. Husbands in supermarkets, checking in with home base once per aisle; bored commuters documenting their progress: “We’re just passing the Cinemax now…” What does this mean? Were we truly meant for this? If things exist—as I believe they do and always have—in some complex but absolute balance, then what is this sudden tilt, this skew, doing to the big picture? What is being rearranged, added? And what is all this chatter stripping from us?

I was asking these questions just as two cars roared past me in the left lane, and by God if both drivers were not in that identical pose of detached absorption, phones to their ear, eyes (I’m guessing) locked in the middle distance that is the home of distraction. What is being stripped from us? The answer came readily enough: focus, and that basic animal attentiveness that is the requirement of presence. “In the beginning all was here and all was now.” I had written that on a scrap of paper the other day. The Biblical cadence felt profound— warranted. It’s a big truth. For most of our long human history we lived mired in the moment, completely bound to our rocks and bushes, able to take in little more than whatever the senses offered, escaping only into grog and daydreams. This was true right up to the last century. And then—I compress it all to ‘suddenly’ in hindsight—technology exploded, innovation piled upon innovation, update upon updates in fast-forward. Transport, communications, the microchip. In two decades we have rescripted ourselves into a new dispensation. The old tyranny of time and place has been banished. We can move in the here and be connected to there; we fl oat happily in the endless amniotic atmospheres of information, of pictures and sounds. Immediacy is our mantra. The ancient balance tilts wildly this way and that, but we have no idea what the tilting means.

This amazes me. That something so recent, so historically anomalous, has been all but completely naturalized. People now can—and do—spend entire days hooked up to or at very least in the constant sight-line of all that that subtly pulsing illumination. Indeed, interacting with that illumination is now most of what people do with their hours. This interaction is no one activity, of course. We are banking, doing research, sending email, watching pornography, shopping…But it’s all one proxy interaction or another, and each borrows some glow from the great lamp of connectedness. The fact is that we have brought a great many different technologies into convergence, plaited them together to create an environment of distraction. Computers, i-Pods, Blackberries, i-Phones, the common denominator being this linkage, which has begun to feel indispensable.

Astonishing, yes. But at the same time it’s somehow seen as bad form to talk about it. Is this how we shield ourselves from recrimination—mocking those who bring it up? “It” being our now habitual divided presence, our distractedness, our frightening dependency, the whole new psychological condition. As if—overnight—it’s all become a given. The prior world is erased, eclipsed.

But we remember, some of us. The ghosts still hover. And sometimes when things happen in the older, slower way, when interactions feel relaxed and undivided, I want to say, like the sweet grannies in the movies: “How refreshing!” It’s as if attention itself has become an endangered human attribute. Attention—had we ever remarked it before? It was always just part of that here and now, the great given—and only when distraction and fragmentation came along was it revealed to be the precious thing it is. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” wrote Simone Weil. But we don’t need to go that far. Attention is also just focus, giving things their due. Even a regulation dose can offer the genuine human connection—that alert basking in the presence of another—or the immersion of art. Art! Plant yourself in front of a painting for a few minutes and watch what happens, how the straying beams of your attention get pulled toward a center—pulled, and then exercised, made to recreate the painter’s action of deep seeing…

I was still driving, but I realized that I was also listening to music on the car radio, which is its own narcotic distraction, and when I got home I would of course check my e-mail. I was implicated, too—I had to own it—and part of all my thinking has all along been in part thinking against myself. Reliant, addicted, enslaved— I am my own counter-argument, my own evidence; and I am full of rationalizations. We’ve come too far, I say. This will not go away. Technology does not move backward, it will find ever more sophisticated means to enter the weave. I see now that our addiction is what makes this progress possible. First the addiction of the devices themselves—watch how people fuss with their phones, opening them, prodding buttons, looking at their screens, checking the time…But the real addiction, I think, is to psychological expectancy. We clearly need ever higher levels of this new sensation, this psychological bleeding together of the actual and potential, the immediate and the virtual. Why? Because to live this way with all of our things, our network tools, is to pledge to the idea of connectedness. There’s the rub. Even when we’re not ‘on,’ we are permanently on the verge of it, which is to say divided from the idea of solitude.

Solitude—the word sounds quaint when I mouth it. Have we made some great unison turn from that original state, that very different connectedness? We did have our immersion—it was long and deep. Think of the eons of isolation: cabins, farmsteads, lonely roads. Our DNA is minutely marked with the fact of those millennia. But it turns out that we humans are fundamentally social. We put up with our isolation for all that time— and bravely—because there was no other choice. Now there is. In the space of a generation we have invented a vast new menu. We can finally invest ourselves in the rich fabric of signals; we can merge and merge again. Just like this, I thought, splitting off and catching sight of myself. It happened in an instant. In one swift lift I felt the mind pull back, and from my seat, my bubble of music and speed, I suddenly caught a panoramic flash of the enormous physical network I was swarming along in, with cars on both sides, more arriving from the feeder roads to join the great vascular throb; I took in the faces behind glass, all the fixated profiles pointing one way in this mass momentum, and again and again, as I passed and was passed, I saw, like clips from some mocking satanic montage, the hands pressed to the ears, the nodding heads, the moving mouths, and I could hear the voices as one—they were voting out the old and voting in the new.

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