Thoughts on the Phone


IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD mall there are fourteen stores in which you may buy a phone. The phones today being sold are, it is true, smart phones — but I wonder how long these shops can carry on, all selling roughly the same product and within yards of one another. In any case, and for now, folks are buying quite a number of these gizmotrons.

Each month, for example, I pay four phone bills. Before the 2000s, a phone was as a rule a communal resource, shared by everyone within an apartment or house. A common sight was the public payphone, whose ten-cent service was never far away when you needed it. Last year, when storms overtook the American eastern seaboard and cellular service was thereby interrupted, many people noticed for the first time how rare the phone booth had become. The transition of the telephone from a public good to a private one has yielded conveniences, but only for those able to pay the required costs. The family that a generation ago shared a phone within the home and the many public phones without now carry among them several portable devices, as well as the several bills which these untethered products require.

In Ye Olden Days only one company was in the business of telephones, at least here in Canada. The purchase of a phone line and of phones was done by visiting the Bell building in your town or city. Your choice of phone was very limited, and indeed there was hardly a choice at all until recent decades. A few colors, and the option by the early ’80s of push button phones (which displaced the rotary dial) summarizes one’s alternatives. If you wanted an additional line, or if anything went wrong, a man would arrive to your house to put matters in order.

I am not nostalgic for any of this. I merely notice how much has changed on the surface of our affairs while beneath so much is familiar. For example, the cost of owning a phone (and again I am speaking here of Canada) remains exorbitant, despite the number of phone providers. Of course, the background machinery which makes the smart phone possible remains in the hands of at most three companies, and it is improbable that something like a cartel does not characterize their operations. As for the landline, the price has always been and remains quite high, especially when one considers the fact that a wired telephone is used much less than in earlier days.

Along with the cellular phone has come the robocall, and I now get nearly as many spam calls as I do legitimate ones. Whether there is a causal relationship I am unable to say, but it does seem to me that the proliferaton of computers and smart phones has something to do with the proliferation of spam. The nearest thing to it, pre-cellphone, was the prank call. As annoying as these could be, they were not a common, even daily, occurrence. Due partly to the necessary recycling of numbers, and partly to advances in technology, we all get a large amount of misdirected or unwanted calls — and I for one have developed a habit of not answering when an unknown caller arrives.

In a crowded subway or at a street corner, or even in a restaurant or any sort of public space, it is normal to see the many people staring into a phone. Presumably before the smart phone an idle individual would look outward to her environs, or merely lapse into a vegetative state, but the phone is only one of the many recent innovations to have extended the notion of private space, so that public space has been practically overcome. Of course, one cannot entirely extirpate the public. You won’t, for instance, see more than a few subway passengers in their skivvies across your life. The point is that a kind of sealed private environment is possible within public space, and this trend is certain to broaden and intensify, only for the reason that it is widely desirable.

Recently I watched an argument on the subway come within fisticuffs when a passenger refused to turn down the music on his iPhone. The balance, if that is what it is, between public and private is at present under negotiation. Partly this negotiation concerns the differing notions of manners and etiquette to which the respective generations attach. One here risks an oversimplification, but it is doubtless the case that a person over forty is often more conservative in areas such as manners. And as I noted, the older sort of fellow will have grown up in an environment where the private was circumscribed and subordinated and far less pervasive than it now is.

That every man, woman, and child might have an individualized phone number can only seem strange to someone over about thirty years of age. Like so many goods in North America, the explosion of the phone number is an indicator of material superabundance. And your phone is much more than just that: it can hold thousands of books and songs and movies, it can entertain you, it can remind you to buy turnips, and it can do many more thousands of things besides. Notice that each of these functions – with the possible exception of turnip reminders — represents an industry, as well as jobs. The electronic book on your iPhone displaces the printed newspapers your parents read, and the mp3 has put the vinyl makers, long patronized by your elders, out of business. This has been very good for a small circle of corporations, such as Apple, but less good for the legions of journalists, musicians, authors and so on who have yet to find their way in the digital age.

Still, all of this in the palm of your hand! In exchange, you are required only to buy a new phone every two or-so years, for its obsolescence is now built-in and impressed upon you by whatever means the phone makers can assert. For the while, the empires of our generation will be built on the smart phone, billions of which each year pass from our shops into our hands, as well as the landfills to which they soon enough are committed.

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