Land Lines, Cell Phones, and Their Social Consequences (2011)

Photo credit: Dean Terry

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the pre-cellular days of household phones. One line for everyone, and only one person on the phone at a time. Under the best of circumstances this situation would often lead to more than a few inconveniences. In less than ideal cases, inconvenience could yield to much worse. I’m not entirely sure what got me thinking about the place of the phone in my high school years, but, once I started collecting memories, I began to realize that a number of experiences and situations that were then common have disappeared following the emergence of cell phones. And, it seems to me, that not all of these transformations are altogether trivial.

For the record, my high school years were in the 1990s; cell phones were not quite rare and they had already evolved well past the “brick” era. Yet, they were not exactly common either, and they certainly had not displaced the landline. Beepers were then the trendy communication accessory of choice.

As I thought back to the pre-cellular era, it was the rather public nature of the landline conversation that most caught my attention. The household phone was not a subtle creature. Placing a call to a friend meant, in a sense, placing a call to their whole family. The ring of a phone was indiscriminate, so it was that your call was a matter of public record. If your friend picked up, they may later be asked who it was that called because everyone knew someone had called. If they did not pick up, then you might end up talking to a family member, hopefully one who was kind and polite. So not, for example, a bratty sibling or a cranky parent. Or both, since there was always the possibility that more than one person would pick up and the awkward process of determining who the call was for and getting them and them alone on the line would ensue.

That possibility alone, of perforce having to interact with someone other than the person you intended to speak to, functioned as a form of socialization. It meant that you got to know your friend’s family, including adults, whether you wanted to or not. Consider that it is not altogether unusual for us now to resort to texting so as not to talk to even the person with which we intend to communicate. Back then, we not only aimed to talk to someone, but we ran the risk of talking to other people as well. This strikes me as somewhat consequential.

Then, of course, there were all of those not quite licit conversations and the devious ingenuity they occasioned. For example, aiming to talk past a curfew or after other members of the family had gone to bed, one would arrange a set time for the call and then sit waiting with hand on phone, maybe even finger on hook, in order to pick up the call at the very first vibration of sound. Or the more serious variety, which often involved the maintenance of unacknowledged and disapproved relationships. Again, if you are of a certain age, I suspect you will be able to supply a number of anecdotes on that score.

This dynamic was recently dramatized in the series Mad Men, set in the early 1960s as both Don and Betty Draper maintain illicit relationships and their phone calls, placed and received, constantly threaten to unravel their secrets.

Also, the landline was public not only in that it made phone calls a matter of public notice, but it was also a shared resource. If you were on the phone, someone else could not be; some equitable system of sharing this resource, that was at times in heavy demand, would need to be devised. The difficulty of arriving at such an equitable distribution was, naturally, directly proportional to the number of teenagers in the house.

All of this together led me to recall the distinctions Hannah Arendt drew in her hefty book, The Human Condition, among the private, public, and social realms. I want to borrow these distinctions to think about the differences between landlines and cell phones, but I won’t be using the terms in quite the same way that she does. On one point, though, I do want to track more closely to her usage, and that is her conception of what constitutes the public realm: disclosure. The public realm was one in which individuals acted in such a manner that they disclosed themselves to others and were, in turn, acknowledge by others. The public realm was a function of scale. Its scale was such that the individual acted among many, but not so many that identity was lost and action rendered unintelligible.

The social realm featured a multiplicity of individuals as well — it was not private — but it took place on a mass scale and even though (or, because) it included multitudes, it was, in fact, a realm of anonymity — its image was the faceless crowd. This differentiation between the public and the social is especially useful now that the digital social realm has emerged over the last decade. Even though we can’t simply elide what we call social media with Ardent’s social realm, the awareness of a distinction among ways of not being by oneself is all the more important.

In Arendt’s analysis, what counted as the private realm shifted its terms according to whether it was paired with the public or social. In relation to the public realm, the private was the relative seclusion of household, a publicly respected zone. But as the household itself became a province of the social, privacy was reconfigured as anonymity.

Consider the landline an instance of the public dynamic and the cell phone a manifestation of the social dynamic, loosely following Arendt’s model. For all the reasons listed above, the landline brought the user into public view. It entailed a necessary appearing in the midst of others, the taking of a certain responsibility for one’s actions, the negotiation of rights to a shared resource, and it yielded a privacy that must be granted by others rather than seized by seclusion.

On that last point consider that while one could lock themselves in their room to have some privacy, the holy grail of teenage life back then, this privacy could rather easily be violated through numerous forms of eavesdropping. To be actualized, this privacy must be conceived of as a transaction of public trust.

By contrast the cell phone allows for a form of privacy that is closer to mere anonymity rather than to a publicly acknowledge and respected right. The cell phone also encourages concealment, rather than disclosure. If my phone is silenced, there is hardly any necessary reason why anyone would know that I have received a call, and if I require privacy I simply take myself and my phone where no one can hear me. I absent myself, I make myself disappear and consequently make no claims upon the civility or trust of others in order to have my privacy. What’s more, the cell phone is typically not shared materially, even though something abstract, like minutes, may be shared in a family plan. No limits are therefore placed on use of the resource, at least for those who can afford high-end plans.

If we take the habits of phone use to be a practice that reinforces certain ways of being, then the differences between the landline and the cell phone are not insignificant. Landlines yielded a public self, constituted privacy as a right premised upon public virtues, and instilled a sense of limits that come from the use of a shared and bounded resource. Cell phones, by contrast, yield an anonymous self, constitute privacy as a function of anonymity and dis-appearing, and instill habits of unbounded and unlimited consumption.

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