Everywhere Means Nowhere: Cell Phones and the Reconfiguration of Space and Information
Olivier Tchouaffe / Southwestern University
This short essay outlines how mobile telephony is defining itself, particularly in relationship to space and news. The general consensus seems that cell phones are filling up valuable cultural needs by capitalizing to the taste of consumers banking on freeing and expanding their personal communication; however, that one-dimensional perspective must also take into account the exponential mounting screen time and the techno zeal exercised by cell phone users that disrupts notions of space and information, effectively rendering them hostages to that technology.
For the purpose of fairness, the whole concept of new generations of cell phones is performing the technological utopia of the one stop digital shop, delivering competitive edges to internet, newspaper, camera, photography, SMS, ITunes and games which oftentimes can all be downloaded for free. It is a machine that is symptomatic, for better or worse, of our contemporary society. Cell phones can empower every single citizen, dissolving the distance between the governed and the government. For instance, the iPhones can synch users into political agendas and collective actions through access to lawmaker’s biographies, voting records, constituencies, donors, lobbyists and platforms and social activists through multiple networks, immediately reporting on Big Brother actions and misdeeds to million of people, sparking political communities to oppose or advance new policies.
As a fluid and immediate medium, cell phones are relevant to inter-personal communication and interaction. I do messages with “friends” such as “Barack” and “Michelle” which allow me bragging rights because “Barack,” “Michelle” and I are on first name basis. This relationship with “Barack” and “Michelle,” however, does question the boundaries between the “personal” and the “impersonal.” Receiving text messages from “Barack” and “Michelle” does not mean that you have a relationship. On the contrary, belonging to this kind of political network can create peer pressure, as one may shy from dissention for fear of being kicked out of the group. What is important, however, is that these kinds of digital interactions are now expected from politicians.
On a more private level, cell phones come packaged with mobile GPS data allowing friends and families in your network to log on to your account online, track you on Google Maps and text you in case you are lost. It also has the power to create adverse relationships because your “private life” can also be recorded by cell phones cameras, traffic cameras, shopping center cameras, neighborhood cameras, etc. It also means opportunities for misrepresentation, allowing strangers to enter your network posting as friends for data mining or extortion purposes. In this way, cell phone culture presents a paradox: how does one control one’s own data and personal information and build meaningful relationships? Ultimately, cell phone culture expresses a deforming mirror of contemporary society.
Such examples mean that the distance between political and social power have became indistinguishable. Cell phone culture, despite of its technological prowess, is not necessarily progressive. Indeed, it can actually reinforce the status quo. One salient question, therefore, is wheter the cell phone ushers in a world that will be unlivable in the near future? In order to answer that question, one must recognize that cell phone use is not simply about touchstones because the effects of the cell phone culture encroach on space, boundaries, identity and knowledge. Consequently, social changes introduced by cell phone culture are inextricable from social issues.
For the purpose of this short essay, I will focus on a chain of communicative events introduced by the cell phone and the reconfiguration of spaces and the meaning of information that cell phone culture introduced. Consequently, I argue that cell phone culture is degrading the sacro-sanctity of personal space and privacy, face to face interaction, conventional social etiquette and the integrity of space with mindless self-indulgence. Cell phones have become a digital platform from which to launch all kinds of anti-social behaviors that include, but are not limited to, rudeness in restaurants, in forms of public transport, texting while driving, on the streets, in the shops and libraries.
Indeed, I still cannot fathom the fact that people answer their phones in movie theaters during screenings, or how students fire SMS in the middle of lectures. I can imagine how modern online resources can be made relevant to the classroom experience, however, I have to admit that I was caught off guard when one my students interrupted my lecture screaming from the top of her lungs “I got my internship, I got my internship.” Her lack of restraint was a demonstration that for some students digital interactions was now an accepted activity — even in the classroom. Her behavior, apparently, was not a transgression, highlighting a low commitment to classroom proper decorum and professionalism. Thus, I later learned that for my student demographic, not returning SMS within five minutes was considered “rude” — which explains all the anti-social behaviors I keep witnessing from cell phone users. With the diktat to respond to SMS within five minutes, I understand the temptation to keep checking the inbox. This leaves me out to ponder rather unpleasant questions: what would have happened if my student was receiving hard news, such as a break up or the death of a loved one, then collapsing in grief in the middle of my lecture? The idea that I no longer have the monopoly of my student’s attention filled me with horror. I was now involved in the war against “flow” and flow apparatuses such as cell phones — an odd position for a media scholar.
Texting may also facilitate cheating, as students may use their cell phones to receive information from outside of the class. The cell phone thus fractures the dichotomy between the inside and the outside when it comes to spaces that are enclosed for a specific knowledge and practice; such undefined boundaries express an inability to rationalize or comprehend the meaning of space. The erasure of appropriate settings is very disorienting. If we can take phone calls everywhere, then perhaps we are nowhere — as the concept of space de factor loses its validity, and along with it, the purpose of the classroom space. In other words, the classroom is longer sacred in this race for the lowest common denominator for the sake of gossip, exposure and exhibitionism.
The first casualty of the cell phone is the disintegration of ‘noble’ civic practices. First, cell phone usage normalizes the “failure to listen and reflect;” it institutionalizes rudeness, driving social relationships on the basis of power, rather than solidarity. Within these conditions, the uses of cell phones are, de facto, changing the meaning of public space and accordingly what it means to be informed. Cell phones introduce a culture of immediacy, often bridging the gap between the public and the private to challenge a culture of verification and gatekeeping. This mode of communication is horizontal not vertical. Thus, it often orients the discursive flow with a unidirectional influence that seems to empower the sender, rather than the receiver, to install a repressive culture of marketing and peer pressure. Because most cell phone users are not professional news gatherers, the standard of evidences is quite low and lack of inhibition quite high. Coupled with the lack of serious gatekeeping, these kinds of communication take place within almost a vacuum of law, engulfed in a society of spectacle and symbolic violence.
Information gathered over cell phones often snowball into a technological Far-West were the cell phone replaces the gun. What is taking place is a new paradigm were the dividing line between gossips and news, exhibitionisms and genuine expositions; information and manipulation are becoming increasingly blurred. If everything becomes blurred, the questions then become how can we defend genuine information if there is no genuine gatekeeping? How do we know what we need to know? It means that we are left with interpretations which can be quite disorienting. Cell phone culture, therefore, amplifies a flow of news that is difficult to verify: this ‘news’ comes from selective perspectives and is often decontextualized. Because gatekeeping is not firmly in place, the power in cell phone culture is quite diffused; however, it does not mean that power is inexistent.
Olivier J. Tchouaffe is a visiting Assistant Professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. He teaches classes on Communication and Film Studies. He currently working on a book on Cameroonian cinema and grassroots democratic activism.
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