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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/05/28
by Jesse Jarnow

I’m Living In The Future, I Feel Wonderful

The true absurdity of the cellular telephone didn’t hit me until about two
weeks after I got mine. I was standing in line at a post office in Boulder,
Colorado, when I felt the phone vibrate in my pocket. I opened it up – this
little, gray, autonomous vibrating thing – and talked to a friend, who was
standing in a bodega in Brooklyn. From a geeky
golly-gee-we’re-livin’-in-the-future standpoint, it was pretty amazing — a
wireless device that could pull open a pocket of air on one part of the
planet, and allow one to talk, nearly flawlessly, with a pulled open pocket
of air elsewhere on the planet. Yeah, old news, right?
My friend Bill made the first convincing argument I heard for cell phones:
they are a more perfect technology. Most of the time, when one picks up a
phone, he is trying to call a person, not a place. Attaching the phone to
the person is a more elegant solution to the problem. In a way, it is a
conclusion (or the beginning of a conclusion) to a progression that began
with the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century.
Before the telegraph was built, information could only travel as fast as
people. And the fastest way for people to travel was by water. The
Mississippi River became a central artery in the United States, running
nearly the entire north-south span of the country. An entire culture and way
of life developed around that river, documented with an alternation of
sentimental romanticism and post-Reconstruction realism by Mark Twain in
Life on the Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry
And, like any culture, it included music. The river as a way of life,
including its uses as a communication device, was somehow implicit. Old folk
songs are filled with weird word-of-mouth stories, endless games of
telephone that resulted in apparently meaningful nonsense, a strung together
vocabulary of tall tales, local legends, and mutated names.
When railroads reached across the land, they supplanted the River as the
fastest means of transportation. When telegraph lines spread out like a
spider’s web, they replaced the train as the fastest means of communication.
People could communicate instantly, albeit via the mediation of a telegraph
office. Telephone networks moved things a little bit closer to the goal,
though they still tethered people to desks. With the emergence of cell
phones, though, one begins to reevaluate what the goal actually is, and what
the results really are going to be.
The most recent phones to hit the market include both color screens and
digital cameras. In a way, these features come as a result of what might be
loosely categorized as the Drunk Call. The Drunk Call – a sputtering,
spontaneous (and likely incoherent) late night call – has, of course,
existed since the invention of the phone (one wonders if there were Drunk
Telegrams, too). With cell phones, though, they have become that much
easier: no numbers to remember, and not too far to go. A variation on the
Drunk Call includes calling from an overwhelmingly loud rock concert. One
only needs the glimmer of an impulse to call somebody, and away he goes.
I must admit, the impulse is often a tantalizing one, drunk or not. For me,
the urge usually comes late at night, during a trek back to the subway. I
enjoy those walks. Sometimes, I sing. Usually, I enjoy the relative quiet —
an empty street is a sublime pleasure. I often think of friends that I wish
could be there. With the temptation of the cell phone, it becomes all too
easy to call, to transform an idyllic memory to a reality. And what good
would it do? I was standing at a concert recently when a guy nearby held up
his phone, the music pulled into the mouthpiece. "Have you ever been on the
other end of one of those fucking calls?" a guy next to me groused. "It’s
horrible! It just sounds like mush!"
And what might an empty street sound like? A few nights ago I was in Ohio,
celebrating the graduation of some old friends of mine, and wandering about.
It was just after two. The bar had closed, and I was making my way back to
the house where I was staying, enjoying the night, when I actually received
a call from a dear friend who I often think about calling at two in the
morning. Go figure. I tried to convey the scene around me, as I sat on the
porch of the house where I was staying while a party raged on the lawn next
door, familiar faces parading by, three cop cars showing up, but doing
little to stop the festivities. I could imagine tinny reveries transmitting
vaguely in the background, but mostly, I suspect, the quality of the
experience wasn’t quite transferred.
That’s both too bad and kinda neat. I imagine a future wave of phones with
better microphones built into them, for starters. I imagine a language
developing out of cell phone use the same way that a language developed out
of the Mississippi River. I imagine music.
Jesse Jarnow hasn’t slept much lately.

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