Western civilization spent 2,500 years trying to get people to shut up. The armies of Alexander the Great were amazed to see their leader read a letter from his mother silently—because he alone knew how. After the dawn of Christianity, centuries upon centuries admired the ability not to vocalize, not to talk. Silence was an achievement. It is remembered of Saint Ambrose as part of his piety. It signaled an intensifying inwardness of belief, a world of individual privacy, a different mode of thought. Thus humans were gradually quieted—as part of the civilizing process.
The new etiquette eventually installed the calm of the library, the hush of the museum, the rustling anticipation of the concert hall. First, silence overtook the audiences watching dramas or musical comedies in the gaslit theatres of Paris, Berlin, New York; eventually, the new ways moved into the hinterlands. You could say it helped make the modern self. But then you don’t have to believe in such just-so stories to feel that being quiet around strangers, except when having a conversation with them, does define a certain relation of kindness or respectful attention to them. As a child, when you stood near a stranger, talking loudly but not talking to him, you were taught by your parents to feel self-conscious—as you learned to put yourself in the shoes (or ears) of those accidental listeners, who might want quiet for their own reasons.
Now we have entered an age where technology has ways of making you talk. Not to anyone present—nor in ways that acknowledge your surroundings. We know now that people will answer cell phones in the library and the museum, and place calls, too. “I’m at the library!” They’ll talk through whole transactions in a store. It’s rude; it’s insulting; nobody likes it. Then, annoyed, we do it too, phoning our friends and using our free Whenever minutes to complain. Alexander started the silent era of the West; Nokia will finish it.
Rudeness isn’t the real issue: it’s that we are building a new world, and consequences will follow. On a bus or a train, there is a competitive pressure not to be the only one without a friend to call when snow has caused delays. All of us deplore the yapping, and most of us join in. And the change reinforces truths we may have thought we already knew—but that, in fact, we never knew like this. Everyone may always have cared infinitely more about his friends and relations than about his temporary neighbors on a bus or in a store—just as he should. But he never could show it before. And it is this showing of mutual uncaring, of complete separation even among neighbors in public, that can gradually change your attitude about all sorts of things.
Civilization takes a turn. Not in the sense that talking on a cell phone while you pay for groceries is uncivilized, as in, uncouth, ignorant of the rules that still exist. The point is that it is decivilizing, undoing practices of civilization as fundamental as using silverware to eat. Or alternatively civilizing, if you like, because it doesn’t send us on a straight path backward (as if we were going to eat with our fingers or read by whale-oil light) but deflects us into something new that no one intended or wanted in advance.
Some people, who just like human communication, may defend the cell phone for its end to loneliness. We’d rather not be lonely, either. We like noise OK; we aren’t the ones who shush people talking during the movie previews. Valéry missed the days when he could smoke his pipe and carry his walking stick into the Louvre—when he could act naturally among his fellow spectators and not be so worshipful. But Valéry’s kind of public freedom has nothing to do with a development that makes people talk in the museum while teleporting them outside of it. The steady stream of words coming out of our mouths—with cell phones, and voice recognition, and the babble of new advertising and printing styles and culture—becomes a substitute simultaneously for interior monologue and for formal conversation with listeners all around us. The two effects, for the individual, of the cell phone’s contribution to the decivilizing process are ceasing to be able to be alone, and yet refusing solitude without entering into company.
This leads to the loss of one of the great comforts of modern urban life, not accounted for in the vast sociological literature on anomie: the fraternity of solitude. Sometimes you eat dinner alone; sometimes you do your grocery shopping alone; often you’ll ride the bus alone. At such times, in a city, there are always other people who are dining alone, shopping alone, sitting in their bus seats alone, in exactly the same situation. The fraternity of solitaries is always there for you to join. Pynchon imagined a society of “Inamorati Anonymous,” solitary anti-love and anti-company people who send letters through a secret network, simply to assure one another they are there. Go into a restaurant now, sit near a fellow single diner, and you will see him dial his cell phone during the appetizer and talk through to dessert. The only choices you have are to pull out your own phone or listen in.
From literature to advertising, we’ve developed a cultural style of ceaseless babbling. Never mind the endless self-interruptions and elaborations of needlessly footnoted fiction, talking copyright pages, and the rest; we got used to that, and it was sort of in the spirit of a warning. But even Burger King has now stolen the text-happy style of McSweeney’s, so you are fed grease by some whimsical garrulous spirit of the paper sack and the napkin. Talking toys chat to children trying to learn to think silently. Talking heads on twenty-four-hour television say as quickly as possible the first thing that comes to mind, in order to make room for the next first thing. The heads melt into one another, without any quiet for new thoughts, just as the toys start to record what the infant child babbles, to play it back. Even my dinosaur becomes Me. But who the hell is that? When you eavesdrop on cell-phone conversations, you learn who people are by what they are saying to their friends: “I am now doing one thing. I am now doing another. I will report them all and notice none.” And in effect this mode of constant self-report can be summed up in a single phrase: “I am on the phone. I am on the phone. I am on the phone.”
We do the only thing we can: pick a black Texas Instruments pocket calculator out of the trash can on the corner, wipe off the frost, press it to our ear, and start talking as loudly as we can. Now maybe we’ll fit in. There used to be so many crazy people in New York, talking to themselves. Now it’s the sane ones talking to themselves, until they turn to reveal their glowing blue earpieces—like android implants.
“Brothers and Sisters!” A man is up on a soapbox, it’s like the old Union Square. “Fellow revolutionary workers of Manhattan!” Kids are pushing through the throng to hand out broadsides, looking up with naked admiration at the bearded orator shouting hoarsely. “They call us revisionists, followers of Bernstein, traitors to Marx. But this is the true Marx, brothers and sisters! This is our day! We have been expelled from the CP-USA, ostracized by the Spartacists, thrown bodily out of debates at the public library! But Karl Marx told us the system would undo itself by its contradictions, and we are in the final stage—not from the efficiency of exploitation, but the inefficiency of email! The poison is in the system, my comrades! We only need to bcc it!”
Having said this, the fiery revolutionary descends from his perch. “But how will we know how to break the chains?” the people shout.
“Read my blog!” says the man. “I only have an hour up here to regale you with true wisdom—before the cops interrupt the development of the critique. But online, I have twenty-three more!”