Umberto Eco Decodes the Secret Meaning of the Cell Phone

Fun and stimulating to read:

I wrote a fairly irate article in the early ’90s when cell phones were in the hands of just a few people, but a few who were making train journeys hell. I said, in short, that cell phones should only be allowed for organ transplanters, plumbers, and adulterers. For everyone else, especially in cases where otherwise unremarkable people were mouthing away in trains or airports about stocks and shares, metal section beams, or bank loans, it was more than anything a sign of social inferiority: those in real power don’t have cell phones but twenty secretaries who filter their calls and messages, whereas those who need them are middle managers who have to answer to the CEO at any moment, or small businessmen whose banks need to tell them their account is overdrawn.

As for adulterers, the situation has changed twice since that article: initially they had to forego this extremely personal means of communication since its acquisition gave rise to entirely justifiable suspicion in the mind of their spouses; then the situation changed—everyone had one, so it was no longer cast-iron evidence of an adulterous relationship. Lovers can now use them, unless they’re having affairs with persons who are to some degree in the public eye, in which case their conversations will certainly be tapped. No change with regard to social inferiority, there are still no photos of Bush with his ear to a cell phone, but it’s a fact that the cell phone has become an instrument for communication, and excessive communication, between mothers and children, for cheating in exams, and for photomania. Younger generations are abandoning their wrist watches because they can check the time on their cell phones; added to this is the birth of text messages, of up-to-the- minute news information, of the opportunity now to connect with the internet and receive wireless emails, offering, in their more sophisticated forms, even the functions of pocket computers, so that we’re now in the presence of a phenomenon that is socially and technologically essential.

Can we still live without a cell phone? Given that “living-with-a-cell-phone” means a total acceptance of the here-and-now and a frenzy of contact that deprives us of a single moment of solitary thought, anyone who cherishes their own inner and outer freedom can exploit the very many services it offers, apart from its use as a telephone. At most it can be switched on just to call a taxi or tell those at home that the train is three hours late, but not for being called: all you have to do is keep it switched off. When anyone complains about this practice of mine, I reply with a rather somber argument: when my father died over forty years ago, and therefore long before cell phones, I was on a journey and it was many hours before I could be reached. Well, those hours of delay had changed nothing. The situation would have been no different had I been called within ten minutes. This all means that instant communication provided by the cell phone has little to do with the great questions of life and death; it’s of no use to someone who is studying Aristotle, nor to someone struggling over the existence of God.

Does a philosopher therefore have no interest in a cell phone, apart from it allowing him to carry in his pocket a list of 3,000 books on Malebranche? On the contrary. Certain technological innovations have changed human life to such an extent as to become a topic for philosophical discussion—and just think of the invention of writing, from Plato to Derrida, or the advent of mechanical looms, see Marx. Curiously there has been little philosophical reflection on other technological changes that seem so important to us, such as the car or the airplane, though there has been on the changing concept of speed. But we use the car and the airplane only at certain times, unless we’re a taxi or a truck driver, or a pilot, whereas writing and the mechanization of most of our daily activities has had a radical impact on every second of our lives.

Maurizio Ferraris has written about the philosophy of the cell phone in Where are you? Ontology of the Cell Phone. Perhaps the title raises a hint of light amusement, but Ferrari draws a number of serious reflections from his subject, and involves us in a rather intriguing philosophical game. Cell phones are radically changing our way of life and have therefore become “philosophically interesting.” Having also taken on the role of pocket diary and mini-computer with Web connection, the cell phone is less and less an oral instrument and more and more an instrument for reading and writing. As such, it has become an all-inclusive instrument for recording, and we’ll see how words like “writing,” “recording,” and “inscription” might make a confederate of Derrida prick up his ears.

“I like to recall the tragedy of Dr. Zhivago who, after many years, sees Lara on the tram. He cannot alight in time to reach her, and dies. If both had had mobile phones, how would their tragic story have ended?”
The first hundred pages on the “anthropology” of the cell phone are fascinating even for the non-specialist. There’s a substantial difference between talking on a telephone and talking on a cell phone. On the telephone we could ask whether a certain person was at home, whereas on the cell phone, unless it’s stolen, we always know who is answering, and whether he or she is there, which also changes the quality of intimacy. But with a landline we know where we are calling. Now, with the cell phone, there’s the problem of where the person is. There again, if he or she replies, “I’m right behind you,” but has an account with a cell phone company in a different country, the answer is travelling halfway round the world. Nonetheless, we don’t know where the other person is whereas the telephone company knows where we both are, so that while we can avoid letting the other person know our precise whereabouts, our movements are totally transparent when it comes to Orwell’s Big Brother.

via Umberto Eco Decodes the Secret Meaning of the Cell Phone

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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