Wednesday, July 9, 2014

So What Is It About The Phone?

We were the last in our building to install a telephone in the apartment; my father had resisted  as long as he could. And once it was there, after a whole year of waiting, he never once picked up the receiver. My father rightly argued that no one ever called him, and besides, he had enough phone calls at work.

At the time a phone was a rare commodity and only people with connections, or Taxi stations, could obtain an easy phone number. It cost a small fortune to make a local call, even more to call long distance, and over-sea calls were out of the question.  On my wedding day when my brother called us up  from Britain, we stopped everything and gathered around taking turns talking to him; it was a celebration.

It was only when we left Israel for Toronto several years later that we had our own phone; it was simple in the new world. But even then, calling the old world was too expensive for graduate students, and was saved for special occasion, the rest of the time we just wrote letters.

That same year, at the University of Toronto, I was privileged to hear a lecture about the telephone by one of our professors -- Marshal McLuhan. He was a charismatic and exciting lecturer, it was 1979 and a year later he died. He refered to the telephone as a device which promoted alienation, and used the word anonymity. Since at that time,  people did not (yet) see the other person on the line, they took liberties and said things that they normally wouldn’t.

It may seem a bit off, but reflecting now about McLuhan’s theory of anonymity brings to mind another important researcher who studied the same topic from a slightly different angle, at around the same time. The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo tested the propensity of “the man in the street,” or bystander, to misbehave and even to commit vandalism. In his experiment he parked an automobile with no license plates and the hood up in a Bronx neighborhood and a second automobile in the same condition he positioned in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked by vandals within minutes while in contrast, the vehicle in California was untouched for over a week.

 McLuhan argued and Zimbardo proved that human commitment to one another  diminishes when there is no face to face interaction and annonimity kicks in. While people in Palo Alto knew their neighbours so they exhibited social respobibility, in the Bronx they were alienated from one another and did not care. Similarly, as there is no face to face interaction on the phone it leads to detachment.

While in the late 1970s the phone was a device which threatened intimacy, McLuhan’s  theory has quickly become dated, almost irrelevant. The invention of the internet, and with it so many other communication devices, has changed the status of the phone and made it seem almost warm in comparison to others.

Barbara Pym’s novel A Glass Of Blessings (1957) opens with the ring of a phone amidst a lunchtime church service. At that time it was an unusual event, which in the world of the novel signified that changes were about to follow.  However, today’s reader is bothered by the ring of the phone at funerals, movies and lecture halls, among others, and consequently would hardly notice the oddity of the event.

So what is it about the phone that makes it still powerful? Of course there is the element of surprise: when it rings without warning it usually catches us off guard.  I often think of the phone as that stranger who appears out of nowhere at the beginning of a drama, invades the lives of the people and threatens existing order. With its sudden shrill ring, the phone has the ability to startle and to make us stop everything we do. It can spoil the moment ,but also transform it. And as is with the case of the stranger, when life finally resumes it is often no longer the same.

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