Cellphone Bubbles And The Virtual Tribe

Looking for something else on the Net I stumbled upon this five-year-old piece from Jonathan Rowe in Washington Monthly, Reach Out And Annoy Someone. Some good stuff in there, but I particularly liked some stuff he wrote about Hong Kong, about the ‘lonely bubble’ of the cellphone user in public:

And what does that suggest about where this “communications revolution” is taking us? When I was in Hong Kong a year and a half ago, it was becoming a cell-phone hell. The official statistics said there was one phone for every two people, but it often felt like two for one. They were everywhere; the table scenes in the splendid food courts in the high rise malls were San Francisco to the second or third power. At a table with four people, two or three might be talking on the phone. You’d see a couple on a date, and one was talking on the phone.

In a way I could understand the fixation. Hong Kong is crowded almost beyond belief. It makes parts of Manhattan feel like Kansas, and I suspect that a cell phone offers an escape, a kind of crack in space. It is an entrance to a realm in which you are the center of attention, the star. Access becomes a status symbol in itself. A lawyer friend of mine there described the new ritual at the start of business meetings. Everyone puts their cell phone on the conference table, next to their legal pad, almost like a gun. My power call against yours, gweilo (Chinese for foreigner; literally “ghost”). The smallest ones are the most expensive, and therefore have the most status.

Some things are different now: the coolest cellphones are not small, they’re flat. And in a way not talking on the cellphone is cooler than talking on it. (Everyone now has a phone, so the actual talking-to-show-you-have-a-phone thing is superfluous. Silence is cool again.)

And the ‘cellphone bubble’ is not so much about status as about being part of a ‘virtual tribe’: Wherever you are, you have an ally you can count on to talk to, yanking you out of the fear of being alone, or of having to communicate to those around you, of having to participate.

It’s turned society on its head. No longer do we congregate to define ourselves. We do so via ‘virtual tribes’ that exist in a kind of telephonic continuum, via voice and SMS, as we wander around, largely isolated from the physical world around us.

10. June 2005 by jeremy
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