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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