The Architecture of the Cell Phone

For var­i­ous rea­sons, too tedious to go into, my wife and I still don’t have cell phones. That puts us in a small minor­ity, the less than 17% of Amer­i­can adults who don’t. The inter­est­ing thing about not hav­ing cell phones is the per­spec­tive it gives you. It’s pretty clear that a new form of sub­jec­tiv­ity has emerged in the last five or ten years, and cell phones are both a sym­bol and a cause.

First, this isn’t an anti-cell phone rant or a “watts-a matta-with kids today” jere­miad, or an exam­ple of lud­dism. Thea­poretic loves him some gad­gets. Cell phones are obvi­ously really good and use­ful tools, or else peo­ple wouldn’t have them. Instead, what I want to look at how tech­nol­ogy changes “subjectivity.”

I’ve tried to define “sub­jec­tiv­ity” before. It means partly “sense of self” or iden­tity, but it also describes the inter­ac­tion of one’s inter­nal sense of self and the exter­nal forces brought to bear on it. If you com­mit a crime, you’re sub­ject to the jus­tice sys­tem, and youre the sub­ject of its scrutiny. If you get sick, you become a patient, a new sub­jec­tiv­ity, and as a patient you are sub­ject to and a sub­ject of the dis­ci­pline of med­i­cine and the health care indus­try. His­to­ri­ans are often inter­ested in chang­ing forms of sub­jec­tiv­ity: for exam­ple, the gen­er­a­tion that declared inde­pen­dence from Eng­land had dif­fer­ent sense of sub­jec­tiv­ity than their par­ents. Cell phones pro­duce a new kind of sub­jec­tiv­ity, and you can see this pretty clearly if you’re in the 17%.

First, cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity does not need places. Gen­er­a­tions of Philadel­phi­ans would arrange to meet “at the eagle,” a large statue in the main entrance to Wanamaker’s depart­ment store. The eagle-site had all the ingre­di­ents nec­es­sary for pre-cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity. It was big, and unique, and in a grand space. There was a huge pub­lic clock right across the street, in case you didn’t have a watch. There were lots of inter­est­ing things to look at as you waited, and there were pay phones nearby. “Meet­ing at the Eagle” com­bined the social and the com­mer­cial and the pub­lic. But if both peo­ple have cell phones, nobody needs to spec­ify a place except in the most gen­eral way: “I’m at the mall. I’m walk­ing towards the Sun­glass hut.”

Pre cell-phone sub­jec­tiv­ity thus demanded an archi­tec­ture that’s van­ish­ing as well. The eagle was intended as a meet­ing place. Grand Cen­tral sta­tion in New York had a dis­tinct place to meet, the cen­tral infor­ma­tion desk. It had num­bered doors where you could arrange to be picked up; stair­cases and land­ings you could see from 100 yards away. It was designed with that kind of pub­lic social con­tact in mind.

The archi­tec­ture of the land­line era was ordered and hier­ar­chi­cal: arrive here/go there/wait here. There were recep­tion desks, ticket booths, clocks, door­men, stat­ues; places that and land­marked and ordered space. Cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity dis­re­gards that hier­ar­chy and order.

Con­sider a mod­ern air­port, which is archi­tec­turally hos­tile to pre­arranged meet­ings: Washington’s Dulles air­port is an excel­lent exam­ple. Pas­sen­gers get dumped out at ran­dom undif­fer­en­ti­ated door­ways, in a long con­course of repeated equally undif­fer­en­ti­ated fea­tures. You can’t really ask some­one to meet you at “what­ever that name­less and face­less chain cof­fee shop is that about three quar­ters of the way down from the inter­na­tional arrivals.” There’s no obvi­ous ren­dezvous spot.

And who needs one? Cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity is based on the idea that the per­son arriv­ing will call you when he lands, and you’ll both update each other until you come within mutual visual range. Or bet­ter yet, you will wait in your car, and they’ll call you as they are leav­ing the build­ing. There’s no need at all for a grand, land­marked social space. The archi­tec­ture of the cell phone is dis­persed, place­less and oddly uniform.

The most obvi­ous point of change is the dis­per­sion of the self that accom­pa­nies this change. If you don’t have a cell phone, you notice that peo­ple are con­stantly check­ing them. Every­one is always some­where else. (One of the rea­sons I don’t have a cell phone is that I know I’d be doing it too, all the time.) To con­tinue the archi­tec­tural ana­logue, what’s miss­ing in cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity is the land­mark qual­ity, the “here now,” and the hier­ar­chy and struc­ture that implies. You don’t have to allow this moment, this con­ver­sa­tion, to com­mand all your time. Or, you are con­stantly being com­manded by other per­sons in other spaces and times.

There are lots of com­plaints about this, and it’s a famil­iar chiche that needs no elab­o­ra­tion. What’s inter­est­ing is the larger changes in sub­jec­tiv­ity that cell phone ubiq­uity helps bring about. The Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion owed a great deal to the new forms of sub­jec­tiv­ity brought about by lit­er­acy and print. What does it mean to “flat­ten” pub­lic space? I don’t exactly know, nobody does. But if you doubt me, try leav­ing your cell phone at home for a week, and get back to me. By email.

It’s been pointed out to me, rightly, that Dulles long pre­dates the cell phone! True, all true. My obser­va­tions are based on hav­ing used the place for more than twenty years. It’s been through many remod­els, many, and each on strips out some of the fea­tures that made it work with land­line sub­jec­tiv­ity. I was just there last week and notic­ing again how it works. As built, it had a vast open con­course with a cen­tral stair­case and a huge mechan­i­cal board listed flight arrivals and depar­tures. The board screamed Meet here! Now I’m not sure if its even still around. Cer­tainly it’s not cen­tral in any way. But I think the sense of the argu­ment still works with other, sim­i­lar build­ings and will work with more.

I want to stress again that I don’t see this as an anti cell phone argu­ment, it’s rather a sign of chang­ing sub­jec­tiv­ity, dif­fer­ent rather than bette or worse. In the mid­dle ages, pub­lic clocks fre­quently had only hour hands. Even­tu­ally minute and sec­ond hands became more com­mon, reflect­ing the increased pre­ci­sion that life demanded. The Wana­maker eagle as a meet­ing place required a high degree of pre­ci­sion and coor­di­na­tion in time and space. The phys­i­cal land­scape coop­er­ated in devel­op­ing and main­tain­ing that pre­ci­sion. But none of that is nec­es­sary now. Rather than say ill meet you at the x at x o’clock, peo­ple tend to more gen­er­ally expect a call that locates the caller and sig­nals action. The pub­lic space and time is largely irrelevant.


  • But you’re really talk­ing about changes in archi­tec­ture, or ideas about social space, more than changes in sub­jec­tiv­ity. Wal­ter Ben­jamin sug­gested that changes in tech­nol­ogy (pho­to­graph, film) brought about changes in per­cep­tion, and atten­dant changes in sub­jec­tiv­ity. Unlike Ben­jamin, you aren’t really talk­ing here about what the tech­nol­ogy does or enables for the sub­ject. I’m not dis­put­ing that there might be a new cell­phone sub­jec­tiv­ity, but it’s inter­est­ing to me that your evi­dence doesn’t focus on use, or modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but rather on social space.

  • You’re right, but it’s harder for me to speak with any clar­ity about cell phone com­mu­ni­ca­tion, since I see it only from the out­side. The phys­i­cal effects of cell phones are much more appar­ent if you aren’t habit­u­ally using them. I tried writ­ing some­thing about explic­itly social inter­ac­tion but it sounded more like Andy Rooney.

    I sup­pose I’d also want to call archi­tec­ture a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and say that what’s being com­mu­ni­cated is a much more util­i­tar­ian sense of pub­lic space, and a much less–what’s the word–considerate(?) mode of social inter­ac­tion. Peo­ple habit­u­ally just expect you to call them when you get close, rather than set­ting a spe­cific time for meet­ing, and they habit­u­ally sub­stitue a call announc­ing late­ness for punc­tu­al­ity. See? more like Andy Rooney!

  • But.… mod­ern air­port archi­tec­ture pre-dates the cell phone and has NOTHING at all to do with it, right? (Sez this per­son who owns only a $6/month pay-as-you-go that she uses about four times a year.)

  • Sure. But what I should have made clear is the way Dulles has been redesigned over the years. Each time they remodel it–I’ve been going to it for twenty years– they strip out some of the fea­tures that made it work Old school”

  • […] The Aporetic, a provoca­tive post raises a vital ques­tion: Are our undif­fer­en­ti­ated and anony­mous pub­lic spaces a response to the […]

  • […] Aporetic, a provoca­tive post raises a vital ques­tion: Are our undif­fer­en­ti­ated and anony­mous pub­lic spaces a response to the […]

  • Matthew Graybosch wrote:

    I think you have this back­wards. Most pub­lic spaces are not Wanamaker’s Depart­ment Store or Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal. They’re strip malls or Wal-Marts. They’re waste­lands of asphalt and con­crete, each indis­tin­guish­able from the next. Places like that pre­dated cell phones, and they don’t mat­ter.

  • There were surely blank and anony­mous spaces before cell phones, and blank anony­mous spaces which bore Jo rela­tion what­so­ever to cell phones.

    But if you don’t have one, one of the things you notice is the grad­ual dis­ap­pear­ance of land­marks and spaces arranged for meet­ing. Peo­ple don’t think “where will we meet” in the same way–they don’t seem to think of “where” as a land­mark or a spe­cific pub­lic place.

    And I’m using the cell phone in kind of a broad way. Air­ports look the way they do because of 9/11, but 9/11 was a “mod­ern” attack based on mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties, and the response to it is sim­i­larly struc­tured around a world where every­one has a cell phone. The entire func­tion of the NSA at this point seems to be mon­i­tor­ing cell conversations.

  • […] The Aporetic, a provoca­tive post raises a vital ques­tion: Are our undif­fer­en­ti­ated and anony­mous pub­lic spaces a response to the […]

  • I don’t know if it’s as clear as that, though I speak as one closer to The Aporetic’s gen­er­a­tion than to the true cell phone gen­er­a­tion. I met my friend at the Kennedy Cen­ter on Sun­day — we met at the JFK bust, but we texted each other only min­utes before­hand to make that the loca­tion where we met. We still needed a meet­ing point — but we didn’t have to plan it much in advance like we would have in the old days. With my par­ents, even though they own cell phones, we still agree the day before where we’ll meet at the air­port pick up queue (under the first inter­na­tional depar­tures over­head sign, etc.). I’m not sure how I’d meet any­one in the absence of all geo­graphic mark­ers — maybe that’s because I’m “old school.” I’d go nuts doing “warmer/colder” in the air­port and talk­ing while walk­ing (“I can see the Star­bucks.” “Which Star­bucks?”) — I’d become the peo­ple I hate who mean­der (because they’re talk­ing on their phones) in a place where peo­ple should be mov­ing with dis­patch. And inevitably some­one will have no cell phone, someone’s cell phone will be off, and someone’s cell phone will be out of bat­ter­ies. Again, this may be entirely a gen­er­a­tional issue — or it may be that I can’t imag­ine the brave new world where “kids today” live.

  • I see I’ve been unable to escape the odor of cur­mud­geonly ness that attaches to sub­jects like this! I’m try­ing to pitch this as “nei­ther bet­ter nor worse, but dif­fer­ent.” Some kind of land mark­ing will still be nec­es­sary, but it seems like land mark­ing as the point, “grand” land mark­ing, will be less and less necessary.

  • I wasn’t sug­gest­ing “cur­mud­geon” — I agree with you that things are chang­ing — just point­ing out that this may vary widely among gen­er­a­tions. Peo­ple who grew up with cell phones weren’t trained to plan ahead the way I was (and many of them don’t wear watches, because they didn’t need them when they had their phones). I learned to proof­read on paper and I still do — folks a few years behind me learned to proof­read on screen and still do. As you say, nei­ther good nor bad — but different.

  • […] and sped up footage pro­voke the viewer to acknowl­edge the pro­sump­tion implo­sion of our net­worked cell phone sub­jec­tiv­ity. Patrick Lan­g­ley prob­a­bly cap­tured this sen­ti­ment best in the title of his thor­ough review of […]

  • I would like to chal­lenge your obser­va­tions here. From my van­tage point the destruc­tion of pub­lic land­marks began in the 1970s and is unre­lated to cell phones entirely. Remem­ber that cor­re­la­tion is not cau­sa­tion and I think this is why you are get­ting so much push back on this. In a face­less sub­urb where the only land­mark is a shop­ping mall has the archi­tec­ture changed at all in 30 years?

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