Monday, July 25, 2011

Cigarettes and Cell Phones

An interesting passage from William Gibson's Zero History:
She hung up before he could say goodbye. Stood there with her arm cocked, phone at ear-level, suddenly aware of the iconic nature of her unconscious pose. Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had one belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. Human figures, a block down the street, in postures utterly familiar, were no longer smoking.
Until reading this, I had never made an explicit connection between the two. Gibson is on to something given the ubiquity of cell phones, but cigarettes still carry something that cell phones don't (is that due to recent transformations?); that is, they are a marker for sub-cultural group distinction in some situations (think of certain groups who go outside to smoke at concerts) or the way that bumming a smoke  or asking for a light can (in very limited instances) have an inter-subjective appeal.

In any case, Gibson's brief observation is more subtle that recent 'philosophical' takes on the problem, such as Giorgio Agamben's well-known rant from What is an Apparatus?, which reads like a bad joke at a conference that doesn't translate to the printed page (the essay also includes the ridiculous-- and historically unverifiable-- claim that our era possesses the "most docile and cowardly social body that has ever existed in history"):
I live in Italy, a country where the gestures and behaviors of individuals have been reshaped from top to toe by the cellular telephone....I have developed an implacable hatred for this apparatus, which has made the relationship between people all the more abstract. Although I found myself more than once wondering as how to destroy or deactivate those telefonini, as well as how to eliminate or at least to punish and imprison those who do not stop using them [which would then give Agamben-land a higher rate of incarceration than the international leader, the United States], I do not believe that this is the right solution to the problem.
He does not then describe the solution, just has he did not advance our understanding of cell phones as an apparatus. We do, however, have a clearer vision of at least part of Agamben's fantasy life.

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