I remember being told as a kid that whales could speak to one another from across the planet. They could do this by singing in a very deep voice whose immense vibrations were strong enough to push past the deep ocean currents. No ordinary fish could hear them, because they kept their big voices so low. Their big voices would glide past the other marine life forms invisibly, perceived as a gentle circulation of the oceanic body. It is an image that has grew with and persisted in me: two giant, antipodal humpbacks trading melodies sculpted out of brine—undulating along the vast ocean surface, their tidal broadcasts sending spherical shivers from the Tropic of Capricorn to the rippling riverbanks of the Schuylkill by which I resided. I imagined their deep sounds permeating through the seas, through even the continents so that lying in bed at night I sometimes thought I could feel the slightest tremble of a whale’s melodic murmurs spread from beneath the foundations of my house to meet my slumbering body. This myth from my childhood has nurtured in me a connection to the world as organic and majestic as the voice of a whale.
But these days I think of those ocean crooners much less. A new, noisy web of communication has been spun around me. The arachnid responsible is called AT&T, and I first put him in my pocket when I was a junior in high school. The transcontinental greetings of aquatic leviathan have faded into the background—ignored or inaudible—overtaken by an indiscriminating monopoly, the discrete drone of radio waves. But what’s so bad about that? Connectivity, that is the name of the ideal, as clearly advertised by industry giant Cingular’s namesake. Everyone can be connected through digital fabric; America can now be joined in a singular network. Most people are highly supportive of this ideal, for its realization means a way out of urgency: finally a shoe fast enough for Expediency to wear. It is all a very exciting enterprise.
Yet above this sprawling, uniting infrastructure sits the punch-line: cell phones are loud. One is hard-pressed to have never complained about a cell phone’s disruptive behavior. They are loud and disruptive not only sonically—they blast loudly, their radio waves invoke the discordant RF interference from electronics, and some believe they are in part responsible for the recent decline in the bee population—but also volumetrically in a manner distinct from the sound space. They hold immense potential to layer exterior states over the immediate. They are portable information outlets, and the information conveyed often inundates the present state, ablates the state of life that existed just a moment prior to make room for the vicarious spirit of a distant state of affairs. Reminded of tele-Atlantic communication of whales, the cellular song in incomparably ungraceful. But sometimes this inundation is necessary: parents quietly watching the Friday night news must be informed when their child has been out scuffling with the law. Yet oftentimes the information is superfluous, acting only to shift a present state to match the spirit of an elsewhere state that holds no evident, overriding priority. Remember Mr. Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man? Remember the dinner conversation spliced into silences by a spontaneous text conversation, and all those inopportune calls that disorient the present with dispensable jabber?
These complaints may not be made against original non-mobile phones, as non-mobile telephones lie duly connected to their surroundings and are neither person-specific nor carry any telic obligation. Unlike the original household phone, the cell phone is not installed in a specific space. The ring of a household phone reaches only those within the volume in which it is planted. It is meant to probe a vicinity, not an individual; the expected respondent is any resident of the vicinity. When I call a family household, I expect the household to respond—that means any cohabitating member. On the contrary, a cell phone call is person-specific, a direct poke or a pat on the back to elicit a certain intimacy. I say intimacy because telephonic communication is a direct descendant of whispering—the speaker’s lips pronounce messages directly into the listener’s ear, lips and ear being separated by a nullified distance—which is inherently an intimate form of communication. (This is why the first telephone conversation with an acquaintance works to strengthen the relationship, as both parties speak intimately into each other’s ears.) Calling a non-mobile number is akin to dropping by a dwelling to see if by chance an acquaintance is there. Calling a mobile number is akin to soliciting an acquaintance by yelling the acquaintance’s name directly into his or her ear. In present culture, having one’s number might as well be equivalent to having one’s ear. This is an ultimate ramification of the personality of cell phones. In such close company, one risks a certain hermitic stigma if one often does not respond to the goading of one’s mobile device. Indeed, the present arrangement for cellular relationships seems to be an ear for an ear. There is an obligation to answer all cell phone calls and texts—for to do otherwise seems to require impudence or a confession of absentmindedness—just as when one does not reciprocate a gesture of greeting. One may evade a household call by a simple alibi, and one is not obligated to return the visit. On the contrary, one may not escape the call to communication of a mobile device. The status quo must abide the disorientation promised by the polyphonic clucking of the mobile.
In realizing mobile technology, humankind has engineered a highway system on which sound travels, indefatigably, at the speed of light, toward every ear with a handheld. Everything is a lot closer because sound has become a lot faster, a lot more indestructible. Now the state of things can shift with unnatural velocity as this new, vigorous strain of information announces loudly its arrival with the repeal of a doorbell when one is walking down the street, when one is cooking dinner, when one is taking a hot bath. I emphasize that this information is unnatural because the exotic bits of communication that do reach us and swipe us up from our status quo are handpicked by the voice on the other end. The information jolts us from our environs to respond with biased information to events of distant places. The world suddenly folds up compactly on the spot, but this newfound compactness requires a certain myopia, a certain density—a certain stress. In the cellular world, one is thrust into constant obligation for convergence and conversation, which if left rampant, may undermine any significance once held by telephonic relations.