Glenn Uminowicz - May 2008

An Age of Perpetual Contact is Dawning


Glenn Uminowicz

With the invention of the telephone in 1876, it was possible for the first time in history to have real-time conversational interaction at a distance. Back then, the technology was astounding. Early demonstrations of its capability attracted large crowds, most of whom were awe-struck. By contrast, in the twenty-first century, the telephone has for a billion people become, literally, a fixture of everyday life. The miracle of telephone conversation is too readily forgotten by laypeople and scholars alike. However, the telephone’s becoming mobile has refamiliarized many people with the amazement felt by its early witnesses.
From James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus, Perpetual Contact (2002)

    I am holding it in my hand. I am waiting to connect across more than a century with Eastern Shore people who appreciated and marveled at the “miracle of telephone conversation.” Yet I am not full of amazement as I gaze at my first cell phone.
     My inability to enjoy the living-history experience of the “miracle of telephone conversation” may be partly due to simple demographics. In Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance (2002), editors James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus note that men are less likely than women and older folks less likely than youngsters to embrace the cell phone.
     Given my personal background, however, I might be expected to appreciate the 21st century’s premier example of Personal Communications Technology (PCT). I am a former Hagley Fellow. Headquartered at the Hagley Museum in Delaware, this fellowship program focuses on the history of industrial America, including the history of technology. Moreover, my father worked as a senior technician for Bell Telephone Laboratories for more than a quarter century. He devoted his working life to advancements in communication technology, from repairs to the Atlantic Cable to microwave towers in the American West. He was chosen to be among the technicians to staff the receiving antenna for the Telstar satellite in Andover, Maine in 1962. The cover story about that pioneering communications satellite in National Geographic was titled “Telephone a Star.”
     To define the interaction between a “social person” like myself and their mobile phone, Katz and Aakhus coined a new term—Appartgeist. The term was derived from the German and Slavic word, apparat, meaning machine and the Germanic suffix Geist that denotes spirit or mind. This “neologism” could be used to explain the significance accorded the cell phone by “users, non-users and anti-users.”
     In the 19th century, the Appartgeist among Eastern Shore people appears to have been extremely user friendly. In 1872, for example, the telegraph reached Easton. An editorial writer for the local newspaper enthused, “We feel confident, we express the sentiments of every citizen of Talbot County, in saying that this finished work is an event, which affords sincere gratification, in as much, as it has placed us in quick communication with the Telegraphic world.” Five years later, local telephone service arrived in town. In 1886, long distance service was introduced. From a phone in Henry and Brother’s Drug Store, people availed themselves through a “telephonic connection” of the opportunity to contact residents of Centreville, Chestertown, Elkton and all points in between. A reporter observed, “You can stand in Henry’s back room and hear people in Centreville talking politics.”
     One organization determined to maintain positive telephonic Appartgeist in the 20th century was the Telephone Pioneers of America. The membership was drawn from long-term employees of the Bell System companies. The Pioneers engaged in community service activities such as raising money for a Cancer Fund. They also enjoyed socializing at crab feasts and oyster roasts. The Maryland Chapter of the Pioneers included an Eastern Council covering Delmarva.
     In the History of the Maryland Chapter (1961), Pioneer Harry Davis recorded the milestones of the communications revolution sparked by the telephone. In 1910, for example, 5.9 million telephones were in service in the United States. In 1957, the 50 millionth telephone in the Bell System was installed in the home of Pioneer James S. Russell of Salisbury. Looking to the future, the Pioneers anticipated the benefits derived from communications satellites and direct dial service to “All the World.” In short, there should be “Bigger and Better Things to Come.”
     I am holding it in my hand. My cell phone is far from being bigger and better. In fact, it reminds me of the time I served as a hand model for a corporate training film for employees designing consumer products. I demonstrated that consumers with big hands experienced difficulties working tiny calculators. I tried to push a single button on the machine, but invariably I pressed two or more. We had to do several takes because I kept saying “Darn!” when I pushed two buttons. The film director kept informing me that they were not paying me for a speaking role.
     The buttons on my cell phone are even smaller than on that calculator. Moreover, its sound quality is horrendous. I am on that provider plan with the advertisement where an army of people follows a cell phone user backing them up with “support.” I am certain that one of those support person’s first jobs was in a fast food restaurant’s drive through window where they muttered unintelligible gibberish through a speaker while taking your order. My phone also takes photographs of inferior quality that I can transmit around the world.
     The “penetration rate” of mobile phone technology in the United States for a long time lagged behind the rest of the world. According to Katz and Aakhus, technological deficiencies and economic factors alone cannot explain this phenomenon. After all, countries poorer and less technologically advanced than the U.S. display higher penetration rates. They speculated that a “cultural component” must be involved in the American case. Among those components stood the “erosion of the public-private distinction.”
     In 2000, Commonweal magazine columnist Sidney Callahan deplored that erosion. He implored, “Who will deliver us from this new plague? Second-hand intimacy is even more agitating than second-hand smoke. Don’t the users of cell phones understand that they are breaking the implicit rules of public behavior? Involuntary immersion in other people’s intimate lives, audibly broadcast in trains, buses, planes, elevators, or on the street, is a subtle form of battery.” Another journalist noted that one survey found that fewer than half of all cell-phone users turn them off while in the bathroom or having sex.
     Callahan does not stand alone in identifying second-hand cell-phone intimacy with second-hand smoke. In 2005, in the New Atlantis, a journal of society and technology, Christine Rosen voiced the hope that public cell phone use would go the way of public smoking. She observed, “It was not so long ago that cigarette smoking was something people did everywhere—in movie theaters, restaurants, trains, and airplanes. Nonsmokers often had a hard time finding refuge from the clouds of nicotine. Today, we ban smoking in all but designated areas.”
     In fairness, the cell phone is not without its merits. Historian of technology Robert V. Bruce analyzed the impact of the telephone by writing about “Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude.” In rural areas like the Eastern Shore, communications technology historically has been embraced for providing a connection to the outside world. Moreover, studies of telephone use indicate that the device has largely been employed to remain in contact with a circle of family and friends, a use encouraged by cell phone providers today. Finally, Katz and Aakhus note that the mobile phone serves as a means of handling emergencies. In 1998, for example, a Talbot County newspaper ad pictured a women walking down a country road away from her disabled automobile. The ad copy read, “So why not help protect your special someone by giving them the security of a CellularONE phone.”
     The “cultural component” discouraging cell phone penetration in America likely involves less a reaction to the technology itself than to its users. In researching this article, I was struck by the number of times I encountered references to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) regarding mobile phones. Columnist Jennifer Harper, for example, railed against the “muttering and mewling on the sidewalk, swerving automobiles and trite dramas at the grocery store: Egad, it’s the cell-phoner in full cry, oblivious to all but the wireless conversation at hand.” Her editor headlined the column “Cellular Jabberwock.” With apologies to Lewis Carroll, I’ll indulge my personal Appartgeist and conclude with the following:

‘Twas brillig and the slithy providers
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the users,
And their cells rath outgab.