The Intrusion of Private Life upon the Public Domain or Something is Buzzing in My Pocket (but I’m not that happy to see you)

2012 June 13
by Roman Stoad

Image: Carri Skoczek

[Originally published in the WBO’s print edition in 2002, this classic has lost none of its punch ten years later in the Age of iPhones and Blackberrys.– AA]

It was another gloomy night—rain, bad TV.  I was surfing one of those Internet dating services.  The ad read  “Good looking woman of indeterminate age, into the arts and baseball games, seeks lethargic guy for aimless evenings of idle conversation.  No cell phone monkeys need apply.” I was intrigued, partly because the lack of a cell-phone habit is also one of my own personal dating priorities. Of course, that eliminates 95% percent of eligible women, the remainder falling prey to the “must read” clause.  But it was really the monkey reference that caught my eye.  It seemed to suggest a certain de-evolution of human mannerisms demanded by the new technology.  We have all seen those documentaries on ape intelligence in which a chimpanzee or a gorilla sits dumbfoundedly pecking away at some device the scientist has given him.

Still I didn’t quite have the visual I needed for the conceptual miscegenation, until one day I walked into my local laptop, reggae, and khaki coffee shop and had me a vision, kind of like Piers Plowman but without the alliteration. I saw in my mind a futuristic Planet of the Apes scenario (a la  Thomas  Pynchon).  Not that the cafe was covered with Charlton Heston posters, or even Mark Wahlberg.  But everybody was gazing moronically (or was it mournfully?) at the lit screens of their cell phones searching for scraps of self-validation.  It seemed like a lab of some sort, wherein the communication gods had given the race a new breed of toys.  I was more than a little upset by the rhyme scheme my thoughts were forming, and so I moved forward in time to a more prosaic reference—that  being postmodernism.

It was then those lines from The Crying of Lot 49 scrolled across the digital readout  screen in my head, something about,   “voices . . . searching ceaseless among the dial’s ten million possibilities for the magical Other who would reveal herself out of the roar of relays.”  It was a mystical moment, and a tragic one.  I reacted the only way I could.  I felt lonely, and had the urge to light a cigarette.  Then I remembered  I’d quit smoking years before.

A friend of mine has an existential explanation in which cell phones have taken the place of cigarettes in our health-conscious world. I suppose it is possible.  When I used to smoke, a lot of what fed my habit was a certain feeling of emptiness which I filled with the private ritual of lighting up.  I could be standing around at a party or in a bustling railroad station—maybe I didn’t know anybody, but I had a cigarette and that was my friend.  Now people have their little cell phones.  Awkward types can immediately begin making calls at the least sign of social discomfort.  Of course the film industry will have to adapt.  Your contemporary neo-noir  character no longer holds the match flame to his fag-end as a sign of alienation.  He flips open his Nokia and gazes into the blue light of his soul.

So, I says, if that’s the case, if cell phones are the new cigarettes, what about the health issues, what about the threat of second-hand conversation?  You can’t honk your car horn without getting a fine.  You can’t even smoke in an outdoor baseball  stadium.  You can however light up your cell and disturb your neighbors anytime you want.  Of course the fanatical vegetarian anti-nuke, anti-fur, anti-smoking types oddly enough don’t seem to care if they pollute someone else’s space with their frivolous egos.

But let me be the one to ask—is anyone looking into the prospect of brain damage due to second-hand  cellphone chatter?  The fact that every individual is now subjected to dozens of inane conversations every day cannot do a lot for the collective intelligence of the country.  On top of that one is hearing only half of a conversation—there is, therefore, a disconnect in the perception of normal cause/effect relationships.  No wonder the country has become more conservative.  We’ve grown used to accepting only half of an argument, of seeing one-sidedness as an acceptable mode of deciphering events.

The exponential increase of pre-occupation is another problem.  The population has learned to see this as something to aspire to—the more preoccupied you are the more important you are.  However, though also advertised as a type of freedom, pre-occupation is actually a way of keeping a people ignorant of what is happening to them.  The constant interruption of thought, augmented by the cell-phone phenomenon, facilitates the ability of the government to do whatever they want.  Check it out: in the absence of public attention, corporate monopolies have flourished, people’s savings and investments have been robbed, we have gone to war; the country has entered a conservative paranoid slide, and the rich and poor are further apart than ever.  Public concern about anything other than personal comfort, profit, and who’s meeting who for dinner, is at an all-time low.  All the while people proudly yak away on their cells in the name of corporate-defined freedom. What would Braveheart think, disemboweled before the crowd of British subjects.  (Sorry for the film reference, but there will be more to come.)

What’s the attraction?  I couldn’t say.  Maybe its about what the real estate agents have been saying for years: location, location, location.  Indeed there are theories—that cell phones are part of a larger government sponsored program of surveillance, by which the population voluntarily announces its whereabouts and divulges private information on the airwaves.  The italicized word is an understatement, because it seems to be with absolute glee that people decided to freely offer their privacy up to public scrutiny.  And many of these are the same people who deplore the proliferation of surveillance cameras all over the city.  Maybe they believe that the records of their calls and the accompanying FBI files will outlive them and are therefore a form of immortality.

But I’m not paranoid. There is another explanation, and that would be the general world evolution toward theater, which is accompanied by the individual’s evolution into character-status in the script of life.  Shakespeare saw it coming four centuries ago.  He himself no doubt had to deal with uppity actors, but it was a smaller percentage of the population.  Now that everybody is an actor, everybody is important.  Then again, perhaps the cell phone obsession is the predictable result of talk show culture.  After all, the glut of talk shows on TV and radio has made people feel inadequate if they are not constantly exposing themselves to the public, testing the entertainment value of their most mundane moments.  Even though there is nothing I would rather do than eavesdrop on personal conversations. I just don’t like being forced to.  That’s my take on personal freedom.

But there’s more to this phenomenon than government conspiracy, or the absurd tolerance of any kind of annoyance in the name of a healthy stock market.  I’m talking about the invasion of private life upon the public sphere.  After all, doesn’t it make you uncomfortable to have to watch people making out, or urinating in public, or carrying on a lover’s quarrel at the theater?  I for one do not really want to have bear witness to the private life of non-acquaintances.  It’s usually a lot more boring than what you can watch on television.

Maybe humor is the answer.  I was thinking of making a book about cell-phone “types” something like the parodies and social caricatures – for example, the drawings of Grandville –  which circulated in nineteenth-century Paris.  But this would just be cell-phone people, twenty-first century.

1)  The Mover and Shaker:  This super important fellow struts about the room like a cock, taking and making his very important calls.  These guys are always on their phones, doing big deals, arranging deliveries, complaining about incompetence, talking to JR. or Jimbo or whoever such people talk to with their exaggerated urgency.

2)  The Cell-DeSade:  This group could include the former but with a more sadistic bent.  These sadists make the lives of everybody around them just a little more miserable.  They take their business or bad sexual relations and make it your problem.  They get a kick out of forcing people to listen, standing as close as they can while they blather away, watching you suffer.  They are closely related to the following two species:

3) The Emotionalist:  We’ve all seen the type who parades back and forth engaged in airing his personal laundry at a public volume.  Fighting with his so called partner.  They are closely related to the Cell-DeSade except that it’s masochism more than sadism that drives them, a need to whip themselves in public as if to prove to you that they have emotions and can suffer.

4)  The Contra-Space Invader: These guys will get right in your face and make a call.  Then they give you a look as if you’re not giving them the privacy our American constitution guarantees, as if you’re the one invading their space.  Provoking a war of attitude.

5)  The Yuppie Ball-Capped, Khaki-Short-Wearing Carroll Gardens Dog Walker: Related to the above by volume.  Usually a woman, always with a head set—this gal is on the go.  She can’t be a nanosecond removed from the network because just like her Virginia Slims ancestors in self-assertion, she’s new and she’s in control.  You’ll also see her on buses and trains, talking much louder than she needs to.  She’s the first one to whip out her phone when the subway comes out of the tunnel.

6)  The Pseudo-Psycho: There are many species of this type, but the most prominent is the guy with the head-set walking down the street, seemingly talking to himself.  Anybody who lived in New York in the 70s or early 80s is familiar with the profile.  Except those mad people were talking to God.  The Pseudo-Psycho has no such spiritual agenda and is more than likely just making his grocery list seem critical.

7)  The Verizon Hippy Clone: This species is more virtual than real and yet they exist, mindlessly flashing what used to be called a peace sign but what is really the sign of pacification.    And last but not least are:

8)  The Cell-Phone Couples: These thoroughly modern lovers are now, or always were, completely bored with themselves.  We’ve all seen them on the street, in cafes and bars, tuning each other out in preference to absent company.  And what about cell phones dates.  There’s another nail in your coffin of male/female communication failure.

This list could go on.  Needless to say, I didn’t do this project. Firstly because it was too cynical and I’ve been told cynicism is out.  Secondly because I can’t draw and such a project seems to require funny pictures.  Thirdly because I thought the whole thing might work better as a Times Square peep show.  The exhibitionist desires of the cell-phone animal are so prominent they probably don’t care about or need the money.  But in today’s culture there probably are hundreds of pervs who would pay a quarter for a few minutes to gratify themselves by watching. it would be a symbiotic relationship.

But maybe the real point of cell phones is simple protection.  Cell phones offer a shield against any actual experience or emotion.  You can virtually walk (or talk) your way across the phantasmagoria of New York and not be aware of anything but the discussion you are having about where to eat dinner.  The issue of displacement is also involved—the movement of presence to an abstract location beyond the physical.  But the phenomenological ramifications of this are more than I wish to address right now.

Let’s look at a romantic example in which some of these problems are addressed:  You’re about to tell the woman you love exactly how you feel.  You’ve been preparing the speech for days.  You’ve even read some “literature” to get ideas.  The moment arrives.  But she gets a call.  “Hold the thought,” she says.  She has to go out and pace the sidewalk for awhile talking to her “personal life-agent.”  The moment deflates.  The emotion is tainted.  The time permanently stained.  Displacement and protection combine and the possibilities inherent in interpersonal reactions are “bled” off into the endless relay switches of capitalist bred desire.

The amazing thing is how all this is so easily absorbed.  There is absolutely no resistance.  One would think young people would form protest groups, but they don’t.  The anarchists are too busy crashing their skateboards into pregnant women. (I’ve actually seen this) while they chatter with their peeps.  Down the street the super important Billtown boutique owner (a recycler and believer in Gay rights and feminism) drifts casually through a red light in the middle of an important call, causing another car to skid up onto the sidewalk traumatizing a child who could well have become the next Che Guevara for the oppressed American underclass.

Indeed, the amount of distraction only mounts as the decline of public ethics, coupled with the slow degeneration of the American mind causes a downward spiral in social behavior. In fact leisure-time, (when it was considered normal to be polite) has already been converted into business (when indifference is the order of the day).  People act as if they were perpetually at some heavy-duty cocktail party, looking over each other’s shoulders for somebody more important to talk to.  The cell in their pocket may provide the technological equivalent of walking away from someone in the middle of a conversation, but now you can blame it on financial anxiety and not social covetousness.

And what about the general deflation of ego?  Yes Derrida and Lacan would have a ball with the psychoanalytic/Marxist ramifications of these devices.  Id, super-ego, libido, and anima are all involved, as is the idea of the supplement that replaces (absents) reality.  And what seems to increase on the basis of ego gratification actually serves to perpetuate the opposite—challenging the importance of ego.  How many times, after all, will you let yourself be abandoned mid-sentence while your buddy or your date puts you on hold to take a call? This attack on self-esteem feeds back into the system.  The offended person will eventually go out and get a cell of their own, if only for payback.  Thus vengeance enters the equation as leisure time begins to look more like work and various dramatic tropes enter the marketplace in the simulation of theater.

It’s been a given for quite some time that we all eventually be reduced to low level managerial thralldom, over-worked blithering minor executives at what amounts to perpetual “meetings,” in the business of our lives.   The participation in which somehow, has come to resemble our “value” as people.  The truth is that now you can be at work all the time.  You can be producing all the time.  To hell with the 35 hr workweek.  Liberal weeklies like the Village Voice of course condone any such behavior as fills their pockets with advertising revenue, and so why not promote the “freedom” side of the controversy as opposed to the “mind-control” or the “respect” issue.  But hypocrisy is no stranger to these papers, condemning the exploitation of women on the front page, while on the back page displaying the sex ads that pay their bills.  The old cliché that if “One takes money from the enemy, one is in fact the enemy” meets with nothing but smirks in this kind of distorted social/economic system.

Of course, my complaints are also already clichés.  The young Billtown scenester knows this.  Still, offended by the blatant attack on his values, he may well ball up his copy of the Williamsburg Observer in disgust.  He knows his financial and emotional solvency depend upon constantly being in touch with all possible people at all times, as if the market, of which he is the prime evolutionary specimen, demanded a certain impersonal distraction, a kind of chicken-coop behavior which keeps the novelty flowing and the products coming on fast and thick in his roller-coaster hipster world.  “Cynicism is dead,” he proclaims loudly.  Nobody hears him, however, because everyone is talking to somebody else.

Okay, I’m over-reaching here and I admit as much.  Williamsburg hipsters may not be taking up the cause but there are some people around capable of creative paranoia, people who can still get all bug-eyed about social decay.  One such friend asks, “Has anyone noticed that “cell” rhymes suspiciously with “sell”.  Don’t you get it?  It’s a prison cell man,” he says.  “The phones are shaped like dollar signs. They’re kidnapping everyone.  The aliens are here!”   He looked suspiciously like Dennis Hopper when he said it, but I didn’t let that distract me

Indeed, I have lost friends to cell phones—people I haven’t seen in years, even though I see them regularly.  We go to bars or cafes when it can be arranged (alas, the commitment level is so low).  But all they do is sit and stare at the pale indigo light of their Motorola or Verizon, wondering if they have any messages—if their stock sold at a profit, or if Britney sprung a leak, or Bobby made it home with the cheese tortellini.  If they printed grainy images of lost minds on the backs of milk cartons these people would qualify.  William Shatner could interview their friends on some reality TV show.  “It’s funny,” the friend might say, “he seems to be there. I can see him. But he’s not there.  It’s as if someone put a drinking straw in his brain and sucked it out.”  Then to complete the Charlton Heston motif, in a Soylent Green twist, we discover that the indigo glow of these digital displays is made from a fluid distilled from human brains.  Milton said the mind is its own heaven and hell.  Somehow these polar extremes, and indeed all space, has collapsed into this glowing fluid. Action at a distance, that old bugbear of chaos theory, returns in a hyper-animated sitcom optimism.  It’s Hal, the murderous computer of 30 years ago.  He doesn’t have anything new to say except his voice sounds suspiciously like the voice of Time-Warner (who probably owns both Heston and Shatner): “You got mail,” he says, and for a second it seems as if time stops, right at the very moment of joy.

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