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.