Thursday, August 30, 2007

Placeless Enclaves

These days, it's hard to visualize a world without mobile communication. Where I work, San José State University, I notice everyday how countless students pour out of their classrooms with mobile phones glued to their ears. When I wait to take my bus home, I see person after person walking along the sidewalk, looking straight ahead while chatting into their hands. And I can hardly imagine the Highway 17 bus ride without hearing at least one passenger engrossing us with his timely communiqués. With our mobile phones, the notion of being "here" seems less meaningful than it once was, or so I suspect. Writing this now, flying across an overpass while onboard the bus, I try to remember a time when making a phone call required an attachment to place.

Think back to the age when telephone booths seemed as ubiquitous as Starbucks coffee shops. You may flash upon that 1967 movie The President's Analyst when James Coburn was captured by spies after entering a phone booth, or you may remember further back to that crazy fad in which college kids would try to pack as many of their buddies into one of those tiny rooms as drunkenly possible. We recognize the oddity of such an era when we think about the so-called "loneliest phone booth," located on Highway 50 in Nevada, a testimony to the ways in which mundane technologies become exotic with the passing of time. In those seemingly ancient days, you could not carry your network world with you. You needed to enter a physical enclave, a place set apart, the phone booth. This was an important place.

Today, in contrast, we carry placeless enclaves, our mobile phones, melding them upon our bodies in almost borg-like fashion. Frequently I'll spot a Bluetooth device hugging the ear of a person who drifts like vapor from place to place, lost in the reverie of some distant dialogue. The creepiest part of the scene is that occasional blue-white flash of the device, blinking with no apparent purpose except to signal to others, "now this is a talker." More frequently I notice folks bolting mobile phones to their pants or coats, demonstrating a perpetual preparation for important calls. And though I want to ask these people, "do you really want to be so obviously tethered to these devices?" I hush my queries. Surely some people need such connectivity, just as I need to mind my own business. And that's entirely the point.

Still, I can almost remember earlier days when we somehow managed to pass through our lives without this kind of connectivity. I look through old college yearbooks that are filled with an endless array of dances, teas, picnics, games, formals, and other forms of place-based interaction. I cannot imagine the students of that age descending the stairs from their classrooms only to open a phone. Surely, even without mobile phones, it must have been loud, a buzzing cacophony of greeting, argument, announcement, and farewell. Today's mobile conversations are loud, no doubt, but they are generally enclosed, a moving cone of personal space that just happens to overlap with hundreds of nearby enclaves. Such is the nature of public life in so many places today.

More and more people talk, alone.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

No comments: