Cell Phones And The Sense Of Place
November 17, 2003 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Where Are You? Are You Sure? Are cell phones robbing us of our sense of place? (More inside.)
posted by MiguelCardoso (47 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Paul Goldberger, an excellent architectural critic, seems to think so. But the opposite case could be made: thanks to cell phones, millions of places have suddenly entered our aural consciousness, i.e. the soundtrack of the street, the road, the railway station, the incidental, the quotidian, the banal.

Much as websites like MetaFilter simultaneously obscure and reinforce geography and locality. In short long, how do cell phones conflate everywhere and nowhere - and is life still possible without them?( Via Arts and Letters Daily. Fwiw, I hate cell phones but I hate the phony disgust they provoke even more.)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:35 PM on November 17, 2003

Thanks Miguel. The shits been flying here for a while.
posted by Keyser Soze at 8:46 PM on November 17, 2003

i'm not here.
posted by quonsar at 8:58 PM on November 17, 2003

Here's another aspect to the "cell phone effect":
Accused Murderer Caught When Police Traced His Cell Phone - Even Though He Didn't Make Any Calls. Your friends & family may not know where you are, but Big Brother does.
posted by wendell at 9:11 PM on November 17, 2003

Fascinating link. I just bought my first cellphone two weeks ago (the Nokia 3300 Mp3 player/phone) after resisting them for so long (I got rid of the mostly unused landline). I have been loving it for the most part; I am able to stay "in touch" with my wife and it has generally been extremely convenient.

That being said, I am almost embarrassed to have it most of the time (due mainly to the phony disgust exhibited by a lot of people when it rings), and I find that when I am in public I turn it off.

I think they can be an intrusion in many circumstances, but I think that I am skeptical of whether or not it "robs us of our sense of place." The article mainly pointed to two areas of concern 1) use in the "street" when "sharing the communal experience of urban life" or 2) when people answer their cells outside their area code, and I am not sure if either is really an issue. The larger issue is the overall fragmentation of society into smaller, more individualized "places," and I really believe that cell phones are just a symptom of this.

There is much concern over the loss of the "great good place;" if it ever did exist, has for the most part escaped my own experience. I still interact with strangers, I still have plenty of relationships, all without having experienced the joy of the communal urban setting.

Miguel, I think this ties in with your Metatalk post yesterday about the "reality" of virtual friends: the new fragmented "nodal" style of interpersonal communication is slowly eroding old forms of proximity based face to face interpersonal communications.
posted by Quartermass at 9:27 PM on November 17, 2003

I've still never owned a cell phone
And so far I feel my decision has been sensible.
I know where I am, and have some quiet time alone,
and I haven't convinced myself I'm indispensable.

Not that I have an issue with those who prefer to use one,
but given the trade-offs, these things I'll continue to shun.

(And I have to give the observant Quartermass props:
These thoughtful subjects from Miguel are the tops.)
posted by troybob at 9:44 PM on November 17, 2003

i found out about columbine while riding a chairlift at squaw valley a couple years ago via my pda ... a gruesome intrusion in an otherwise magnificent afternoon of snowboarding. i have since let the pda thing languish.
posted by specialk420 at 9:57 PM on November 17, 2003

"...Federal agents using sophisticated technology tracked a man being sought for the murder of two Cobb County real estate agents from Atlanta to a community near Milwaukee, where he was arrested early Saturday after a high-speed chase......officers of the U.S. Marshals Service in Atlanta and several other cities tracked Humphreys electronically by locating his cellphone as he drove north from metro Atlanta through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois before he was apprehended in Wisconsin, investigators said...."Investigators would like to thank the United States marshals for helping them track Humphreys all night," said Cobb police Cpl. Brody Staud.....Staud refused to give details of how Humphreys was traced."


Quartermass - humans (or sentient beings w/keyboards and computers) I meet in the flesh weigh far more heavily on my soul than all you ghosts out there who are, really, like potential blind dates: the words we exchange are often so far from the idiosyncratically perceived beings we might perceive in each other that forays in the dark to randomly grope at faces in a dense crowd might prove more rewarding.

But somehow I always come back, moth to the flame....
posted by troutfishing at 10:03 PM on November 17, 2003

in the dark to randomly grope at faces in a dense crowd

oh, stop, you tease!
posted by quonsar at 10:32 PM on November 17, 2003

phony disgust

Try genuine and utter contempt.

And thank you for turning it off in public. If everyone did that it wouldn't be an issue.
posted by trondant at 10:47 PM on November 17, 2003

I agree with the observations, but the conclusion isn't argued very well. Yes ok, cell phones are changing our lives, but how exactly, and so what? To say that we're all less individual because of them makes not much sense ("They are all just nodes on a network--and so, increasingly, are we.") You could just as well argue for the incredible liberation cell phones afford us. Not that I know the answer, but this article is a bit facile.
posted by muckster at 10:50 PM on November 17, 2003

I find that when I am in public I turn it off.

Quartermass, there's no need to turn it off. Just set it to vibrate, or some such setting.

I get frustrated when I get dirty looks about answering my phone when I'm, say, on a city street or walking through the mall. I have my phone on because I need to stay in contact, and my phone lets me leave the tether of the land-line. Yes, certainly ringing phones in movie theatres or restaurants are rude, but in the supermarket? At the mall? I fail to see the issue, provided that I don't advertise my conversation for all who pass by.
posted by anastasiav at 10:53 PM on November 17, 2003

Ya, but the vibrate setting causes other, far more embarassing situations to occur. . .

Its not the ring that I find embarassing; I don't really feel comfotable talking is all.
posted by Quartermass at 11:08 PM on November 17, 2003

Also, I have the Outkast song "Hey Ya" setas my ringtone. If anything, the people in the streets would just start "shaking" like a "polaroid picture."
posted by Quartermass at 11:09 PM on November 17, 2003

I have three cell phones, all cheapos. One is only for my mother, wife and daughters and is always on (my father is no longer alive.) It's the only one I always carry with me. #2 is for my best friends and the rest of my family - and is only on when I'm not working or feeling gregarious. #3 is for work and everybody else - and is rarely on. Like the terrestrial phone, I only turn it on when I need to make a call or am expecting a call I actually want to receive. Which is seldom. I hate telephones.

Like everything else technological, it's just nice to know they're there if you need them.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:22 PM on November 17, 2003

A testimonial: Over the summer I had just finished cycling on highways bordering the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama (I was in Mobile all summer doing academic research) when my cell phone rang. I was going to just take off before, because it was Sunday evening and kinda late. Instead, I walked down the municipal pier in Fairhope, a big retirement area, and an arty sort of small town (that I was usually in no hurry to leave, but I had a lot to do later). And I noticed this. I stuck around.

If not for the cell phone, in other words, I would never have noticed that spectacular sunset. I was in get-home mode, and I'd walked down the pier about five or six times already. The other lesson is that maybe it's good to have a camera handy too, but I would've been knocked out all the same if that hadn't been the case. So ... viva the cell phone.
posted by raysmj at 11:55 PM on November 17, 2003

You get into the atmosphere of the city through audio-visual immersion - that is by listening and watching the people and places around you. If you spend a lot of your time on the cell-phone, you won't get immersed in the atmosphere of particular places. And trust me, there are quite a few folks who are glued to their cell phones, so this is an issue... for the rest of us who have the occasional conversation, it's not.
posted by gregb1007 at 12:10 AM on November 18, 2003

The more I read, the more I see Miguel as an international man of intrigue (sans overzealous gunfights).
posted by The God Complex at 12:16 AM on November 18, 2003

I think a lot of people use cell phones to hide the fact that they're alone. I normally mind my own business and take no interest in other people's conversations, but I'm increasingly under the impression that the people keeping a phone pressed to their heads when they're by themselves in cinema queues and restaurants often aren't really talking to anyone.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:22 AM on November 18, 2003

I'm agreeing with George_Spiggott. In fact I'd go as far as to say that some people seem incapable of spending time on their own in public without taking out their phone and talking to someone. It's as if the ability to think to oneself without communicating with another has deserted them. I don't know if this is a good, bad or even a neutral thing.

One thing I do know is that, as a cyclist, pedestrians (and drivers) talking on phones are the ones to watch. I'm amazed more people don't get mowed down by vehicles due to cell phone use, or maybe they do.
posted by squealy at 2:12 AM on November 18, 2003

I think maybe he should stick to architecture.

I just moved to Germany from the US. My cell phone works here. It is great. It helps me keep my clients in the US by allowing them to call a local US number to reach me. With the internet and the cell phone, I don't feel completely isolated from home and they allow me to maintain friendships that might be hard to keep if I had to rely on snail mail and a land line with all those funny international dialing numbers.

Having a cell hasn't kept me from experiencing the amazing sights and architecture here in Dresden. But then, my life is made of connections with flesh and blood people, not buildings.
posted by jopreacher at 2:14 AM on November 18, 2003

Err, I meant due to pedestrian cell phone use. I'm aware that car drivers talking on cell phones are mowing people down willy nilly.
posted by squealy at 2:21 AM on November 18, 2003

I would say that the exact same shops being in every town - hey, in some more than one a town - does more damage to our sense of place. The missus forgot what town she was in the other day in a chain store and had an anxiety attack (we'd been travelling around a bit that weekend, we were both incredibly hungover).

That weird feeling; I could be anywhere, anytown...there's nothing unique about here...I think it's got very little to do with cellies.
posted by boneybaloney at 3:24 AM on November 18, 2003

Are cell phones robbing us of our sense of place?



posted by biffa at 3:30 AM on November 18, 2003

boneybaloney, I totally echo your sentiments here. What sense of place is there left anyway? Folks might as well talk on their cell phone if all they ever counter are similar looking houses, lawns, gas stations, and chain store. They won't be seeing anything new anyways.

And also lets be honest - with people working at different jobs in towns far apart, they might not see family or friends for most of the day. So it's kinda understandable they might want to hear a recognizable voice once in a while, isn't it?
posted by gregb1007 at 4:35 AM on November 18, 2003

The image of people standing around in public places spending 20 minutes on the phone to Tallahassee doesn't ring true to me. Where I live, the cell phone is an indispensable part of improvising daily life.

People make approximate appointments for "Wednesday somewhere around 3PM somewhere near the Cathedral", and then work out the details with short calls and SMS on the actual day itself. The other big uses of the cell phone are "We left that bar, and now we're over here", and "I'll be 30 minutes late, don't bother waiting for me, I'll call you when I arrive and we'll figure it out from there". I make lots of 2-minute calls and send about 20 SMS messages a day.

People without a cell phone force you back into an industrial-era tyranny of organized space and time where you have to prearrange everything and always be on time.
posted by fuzz at 5:00 AM on November 18, 2003

fuzz, be careful here, you might, unintentionally, be saying that the cell-phone is a necessity for every-day life. I think that's dangerous territory to be heading into.
posted by gregb1007 at 6:04 AM on November 18, 2003

Fine, fuzz, as long as I don't get run over by an industrial-age automo-bubble driven by someone desperately fleeing the industrial-age tyranny of space and time while using an industrial-age cell phone. That's all I ask. :)
posted by attackthetaxi at 6:47 AM on November 18, 2003

I agree with those who are saying that the "sense of place" is eroding rapidly for many reasons, cell phone use being a relatively minor contributor.

some people seem incapable of spending time on their own in public without taking out their phone and talking to someone

I think this is absolutely the case. Before cell phones, many people avoided going out alone; now they can carry a social tether, so they venture further and more often. I find this kind of psychological dependence quite disturbing.

I have three cell phones

I hate telephones.

I'd hate to see you if you liked them!
posted by rushmc at 6:48 AM on November 18, 2003

I agree with jopreacher: Goldberger should stick to architecture. This is a classic thumbsucking piece, wherein a columnist has the sort of semi-bright idea that can make for an interesting few minutes of cocktail-party chatter but shrivels up in the cold light of print (or monitor). He gets a call from somebody somewhere, returns it and discovers that person is now somewhere else but is still at the same phone number... why, that means cell phones are destroying our sense of place! If he weren't a columnist, he'd probably have thought "Wait a minute, that's ridiculous; our sense of place isn't based on phone numbers, and flaneurs have always been figures of privacy—that was kind of Baudelaire's whole point. Oh well, it was a thought." But he's a columnist, so he thinks "Whew, a column idea, I thought I was never going to get one!" And he dashes it off, and they print it because he's Paul Goldberger. If he were just your average blogger, he'd be mercilessly mocked for this pseudo-insight.

As for cell phones, they're great as long as you leave them off most of the time (as I do).
posted by languagehat at 7:06 AM on November 18, 2003

I love my mobile.
When I was a kid I dreamed of having a universal walkie-talkie with unlimited range - SMS is a bonus.

I agree with languagehat.
posted by spazzm at 7:15 AM on November 18, 2003

tracked Humphreys electronically by locating his cellphone as he drove north from metro Atlanta through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois before he was apprehended in Wisconsin, investigators said...."

note for fellow MeFi users who are planning to take part in a police chase (as prey): it's not enough to turn the damn cell phone off, you need to remove the batteries as well
posted by matteo at 7:30 AM on November 18, 2003

Migs, are you sure one of those numbers isn't for your mistress? ;-)

I joke because it seems like everyone here also has 2-3 different cell phones. I held out for a year until getting my first brick-like cell phone, bought off of an acquaintence. It was simply far easier to buy a SIM card so the fam and friends could call me than dealing with bloody Telecom Italia to get a land line.

Weirdest piece of italian cell phone culture to acclimate to? The propensity to answer the phone anytime, anywhere. (Except church, movies, and during sex, though I'm not 100% sure about that last one)
posted by romakimmy at 7:49 AM on November 18, 2003

cell phones don't work where I live. Visitors from the city (only 20 miles away) are often incredulous and sometimes disoriented by this.

you need to remove the batteries as well

Not true for many phones. Some, probably. Know your phone. Mine has a stupid little GPS system, but doesn't provide me any way to read my coordinates -- only the telco can do that. I find this to be the absolute height of design stupidity.
posted by sfenders at 7:53 AM on November 18, 2003

Weirdest piece of italian cell phone culture to acclimate to? The propensity to answer the phone anytime, anywhere. (Except church, movies, and during sex, though I'm not 100% sure about that last one)

well, I'm told (not that I've actually watched it, mind you) that Freedom Hilton actually answers her cell phone during sex in her video
Is she Italian?

posted by matteo at 7:58 AM on November 18, 2003

When I was a kid I dreamed of having a universal walkie-talkie with unlimited range - SMS is a bonus.
See, we do think of the children.
posted by thomcatspike at 8:57 AM on November 18, 2003

nah, just wannabe Euro-trash. FWIW, while I've never had someone pull a coitus interruptus cellularus, a girl friend has. Followed shortly by a smackdown, naturally.
posted by romakimmy at 8:57 AM on November 18, 2003

Oh damn, posted too soon & forgot this little NSFW cellphone accessory someone emailed me about the other day.
posted by romakimmy at 9:06 AM on November 18, 2003

I find that the thing that destroys my sense of place is airplane travel. You go up, you come down a few hours later somewhere else. Although I know intellectually I've traveled hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles, it doesn't feel like it. Only by driving it do I get a real sense for how far apart cities are, where they are, and (especially) what the world is like in between them. It's one of the many reasons I prefer driving to flying, and will drive whenver it's at all feasible, even if it means a multi-day trip.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:29 AM on November 18, 2003

Just nipped out from work to prove ID at the bank for some legal stuff. Texted the name of the person my g/f has to see later in the week when she takes her docs there [I don't have a great remembery*]. On the way back took a picture of some replacement door handles we need. And measured how big they were. All with my 'phone. [Size is from the top of the 'phone to the top of the '9' button].

I've got a heating engineer coming over on Friday when I'm chasing round town doing bits & pieces. He can ring me & let me know exactly when he'll arrive so I don't have to hang around at home when I could be doing more important things.

And a million other handy uses including screening calls & switching it off ;-)

*Peanuts reference.
posted by i_cola at 9:53 AM on November 18, 2003

Regarding the actual link (and a good one, Miguel), I think the writer has an excellent point about how you aren't really anyplace if you're always at the end of your cell phone. As for his other two points, about area codes and name exchanges, big deal.

No cell phone for me (something about that word 'cell') but I can see they have their uses. (Although I don't quite get ramsmj's point about how he wouldn't have noticed the sunset if it wasn’t for his phone.) I find it amusing that so many people get furiously irked by other people talking in public, but won't go anywhere without their own.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:34 AM on November 18, 2003

lelilo: It's pretty simple, actually. What I'm saying is that the call broke me out of a routine, of a state of mind focused on getting home. Most people are not taking in the details of the world as they walk along city streets and rural byways. To think otherwise is to be highly deluded and ludicrously romantic. Most of the time, we're all focused on getting home or work, or getting to that meeting, or getting to the grocery store, etc. There's a word for it: Automaticity. The cell phone call in question broke me out of that, momentarily.
posted by raysmj at 12:39 PM on November 18, 2003

Are there really people getting wound up about cellphone use in public? Like others have said, restaurants, a movie, libraries, sure, it's impolite... but just walking down the street? I've never experienced it, but I don't live in a big city.
posted by normy at 1:24 PM on November 18, 2003

I don't quite get the "area code" thing. If he thinks that an area code defines a reasonable geographic locus, then he doesn't get out much. The area code I live in is about 3 hours wide, and the area code I grew up in takes two days to drive across.

I think that the point of the old cell phone ad is still valid: I don't want to phone a place, I want to phone a person.
posted by djfiander at 2:34 PM on November 18, 2003

Joe Luddite, here. I don't need no stinking tracking device. Never had one, don't intend on getting one. My wife has one, which we use for long distance calls because she can expense it on her business, but other than the rare emergency, I don't have the need.

I don't think it's so much the "sense of place" thing that turns me off, it's just an intrusion on my personal need for solitude. We introverts are junkies for it.

Personal music devices are probably worse than cell phones in terms of isolating you from your environment. Granted, this is often not a negative, but sometimes the aural landscape can be as interesting as the visual one.

I recently read an article by a self-professed nature lover who told of saving her pennies for a dream hiking trip to the Grand Canyon. She described the splendor of the beautiful vistas, all the while accompanied by the sounds of Yanni over her headphones. I wish I could have been there to push the bitch over the cliff myself.

(Ok, I don't remember what she was listening to, but it doesn't really matter. The sounds of the wind, the birds, your footsteps, it's part of the complete experience.)

I suppose if you get right down to it, just about anything can restrict your sense of place. Cars? Definitely. Underwear? Hmmm...
posted by groundhog at 6:49 PM on November 18, 2003

Cellphones cheapen life. People spend thousands to go away to far off places and imagine trips to exotic locales then bring a cell. It is cheap and low class IMO. Being far away and out of communication is the new luxury class symbol.
posted by stbalbach at 12:51 PM on November 19, 2003

Re cellphones: what CrayDrygu said. Just keep the damn thing off unless you need it. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need one, you'll be sorry you were such a luddite.

Re sense of place: I just ran across the primordial version of this observation, from an anonymous 1848 Philadelphia newspaper article marveling at the newly invented telegraph: "This extraordinary discovery leaves, in our country, no elsewhere—it is all here." (Quoted, for example, in this article.)
posted by languagehat at 1:21 PM on November 19, 2003

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