Ever since the apocryphal line “What hath God wrought” was transmitted via telegraph in 1844, digital communication assumed a sort of techno-magical status in our society. The ability to traverse space and time with the click of a button, to experience the digital presence of a friend or loved one, marks a huge moment in our cultural paradigms of communication and intimacy. Where once telegraphs and telephones were understood as a form of simulated transportation, channeling our sentiments through the power grid and phone lines, our modern devices are elegantly portable. Just as we can project our voice across continents and time zones, so too can we carry the world in our pockets. Although telecommunication was initially conceived of as a sort of lifeline—a mechanism for emergency and technological innovation in the midst of new scientific discovery and political upheaval—I like to think of my phone as a nexus of entanglements. I grew up memorizing friend’s phone numbers, tracing their area codes in my mind as I wound the chord around my finger, hoping that they would pick up. Our first family cell phone was bulky and unwieldy, never holding a charge or picking up a signal. Texting—now such a necessity—was still a novelty in high school, particularly with the cumbersome T9 keyboard options. Cell phones, then, never seemed particularly convenient, but rather were used as an essential thread which kept me tied to my family in the case of emergency. Cell phones, cell signals and cell phone users were forever getting lost, yet our contacts list was a sort of beacon, the critical people in our lives who we might need to reach if there wasn’t a phone booth close by. If you did get an SMS message, you knew that it must be important, with the data plans still expensive and any spare change spent on each character.
During the recent blizzard playfully referred to as Snowzilla, my friend texted me saying “I left you a voicemail like it’s 1999.” She’s not wrong. Back in high school and the beginning of college, I collected voicemails. Cell phones were both personal and clandestine, the place where we could spill our secrets and acknowledge the emotional overtones we couldn’t properly project over the buzzing dial tone. I have old voicemails from a friend suffering from depression, asking me to come and sit with her in the dark; missed calls that turned into friendly missives and thanks; congratulations on a poetry recitation several days after my grandmother was admitted to the hospital, a long pause when I knew he wanted to say “I love you”; silly stories a friend would share walking to school in Seattle, moved away from the delicate suburban nest we’d built together; new songs, entreaties for adventures, disclosures of discovery we hardly had the names for. My phone is a corpus of memories, dating back over ten years, voices that will remain to remind me how we once were. My contacts list now is far longer than it used to be, filled with the numbers of people I ran into but never saw again, friends I’ve fallen out of contact with, old lovers, professional contacts whose numbers and titles have probably changed and will change again. Yet they represent an intricate web, the silken threads of individuals woven into and out of my life, knitted together by the barely perceptible notion that maybe, some day, for some reason, I might need to reach out again. It’s a delicate dance within this web, the sly and subtle etiquette of what it means to add someone to your phone. Tug one thread and you may harmonize with another, never wondering at the vibrational frequencies activated.
The Quiet World
In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
When I’ve traveled, my phone was downsized, downgraded, diminished. With flip phones in South Africa, we’d spend most of our free time topping up, only to find that a few texts between bus stops had already diminished our data. During my stay in Fiji, even our Peace Corps issued phones couldn’t get service. In the pre-dusk light, I’d hike up the dusty, mountainous path of my village, hoping to get a signal and check in with my parents, catching every other word between the crow of roosters and crackle between continents. I’d learned which areas of my community had the best service, sitting cross-legged to the far corner of a piggery or the edge of the shore lined with black, volcanic sand. But the villagers had their own form of communication—coconut wireless, the gossip network that functioned without power lines or technological infrastructure. Everyone always knew where everyone else was and what they were doing at any given time. The only calls that really mattered were the emergencies, the soldiers serving abroad, or the men making a living by traveling with the tides of the tourist industry. My phone was maladapted to this technological or the emotional ecosystem, and even when the calls went through, they were never felt long enough. Just enough to top up my feelings of homesickness. If our phones represent assemblages of entanglement, these are the knots and frayed edges, the moments when our telepresence and telecommunication aren’t quite sufficient. If we put our lives on the line, who’s to say we’ll get the response we look for or expect?
The invitation to call has transitioned materially, linguistically, socially. Suitors no longer call upon women they wish to woo, nor do we immediately think of dialing someone up if we want to get in touch. Call me, maybe, we think to ourselves, uncertain what we would even want the shape of that call to look like. I used to get anxious on the phone, fumbling for words, nervous that my social awkwardness would only be exacerbated. Maybe culturally we’ve moved in the reverse direction, comfortable with the phone call and now more likely to send an email or a text. Still, though, our devices are imbued with the techno-magical overtones of the 19th century, fetishes we ritualize and pay homage to. Without the proverbial dial tone of a landline, perhaps our cell phones have us all on hold, one so pervasive and numinous it’s hard to say who is holding onto whom anymore.