The Terrors of the Cell Phone - The Orator of the Future
by, 09-10-2008 at 11:49 AM (13930 Views)
Cell phones have drastically changed the way we communicate. Like the leap from agricultural to industrial, the jump from wired to wireless phones is equally significant. For many of us, the cell phone is an element of our wardrobe. Wireless phones have created social and structural standards that have changed our communication expectations; we now live and work in a global society that operates on a 24-hour schedule. The wireless phone has created an expectation of immediacy; unlike its land line predecessor, this communication takes place anytime, anywhere. Where did these behaviors tied to cell phones originate?
Initially, the shift to instant communication was not well received. The wired telephone was patented in 1876. Quickly, it became apparent that the phone was here to stay. This new technology did not excite everyone. The New York Daily Graphic ran this headline for March 15, 1877: “The Terrors of the Telephone – The Orator of the Future.” The idea of a different method for communication was frightening and unfamiliar to a society so grounded in the written word. It is difficult to imagine what the people of the nineteenth century would think of the over 2 billion cell phones that are in use today.
Marshall McLuhan, an authority in media theory, wrote, “You just start telephoning. Anybody can walk into any manager's office by telephone...the telephone is an irresistible intruder in time and space.” While cell phones didn't exist when McLuhan made this observation in 1964, his words hold true today. This 'intruder' is now distorting time and space to the worldwide audience by helping to create a world where inhabitants demand immediate gratification from almost every aspect of daily life.
McLuhan seemed frustrated that the phone makes it possible to talk to someone without actually being in their physical presence. He would be shocked today to discover that so many people own a wireless communication device that can easily communicate with almost anyone. The phone has moved from a desk to the pockets of its owner.
When using the phone we paint a picture of who we are talking to and the setting they are in. McLuhan says the telephone is “…the extension of ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception.” He theorizes that the telephone becomes a “sixth sense” used to interpret communication. In face-to face interactions, we can use body language to interpret the messages we receive; in a phone conversation, we can’t use these physical cues to understand the speaker. We begin to rely on extra-sensory perception. Our minds must interpret information using auditory cues rather than the visual and special cues that to which we have grown accustomed. Would you trust someone more that you’ve met in person, or someone that you’ve only talked to on the phone? Meeting someone in person allows you to pick up these visual cues and body language. This interaction gives you more information to make an informed decision. Will this behavior change in the future as we use cell phones more?
Some of McLuhan’s theory is no longer as relevant. He goes on to state "The telephone demands complete participation, unlike the written and printed page." He saw a ringing phone as something that required full and immediate attention. After all, your books don’t have ringtones. In a time before caller ID or answering machines, a ringing phone would “demand” to be picked up. Today we have the luxury of ignoring this ring or returning the call at our convenience. Additionally, people multi-task while on the phone much more than they used to now that the restrictions of a corded phone have been lifted. In McLuhan’s time, a phone call was for news exchange rather than the variety of motivations for cell phone use today, including mobile games, texting and web browsing.
McLuhan may have been onto something else. He observed that many people doodle while on a corded phone. He explained this behavior as a replacement for sight in a face-to-face conversation. To be fully engaged, perhaps we must participate on multiple levels. Has our world has become so fast-paced that we 'doodle' (or drive, walk and shop) on the phone to effectively participate in a conversation? Will society reach a point where face-to-face interaction is no longer needed?
In coming years cell phones will become an even more integral part of our daily lives. As smartphones and PDA phones become more common, and cell phone software improves,users will be empowered by the information and features offered by their device. Telephone communication has certainly changed since Marshall Mcluhan’s time. While we are no longer literally tied to our desks, we may now be tied to our cell phones, our "mobile" desks.
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