by Rob Horning

11 April 2010


Do ringtones still matter? Are they vanishing? Do iPhones even ring?

The other day I mistook the ringing of someone else’s phone for my own while I was getting lunch, and it started me thinking about them. I used to have sort of knee-jerk view about them, and the idiocy of paying money to have a distinctive, attention-grabbing tone for one’s cell phone. (I almost never have the ringer on, and I find it almost pathologically embarrassing when I forget and it rings in public; it makes me feel as though my zipper is open or something.) But the ringtone phenomenon is probably indicative of something other than hypostatizing vanity. They are an emblem of the way we can be singled out as individuals in public places, the way we are almost compelled to carry around our individual identity with us as we traverse the public sphere. If we are going to be accessible at all times, and that seems increasingly to be the default, then it follows that one should have a unique-seeming tone by which to be hailed. The wireless technology that makes us more or less permanently available prompts the end of shared public space, making it field of contested, vying privacies. It seems like that trend will become more pronounced with “augmented reality” applications that allow you to filter the space you are in through a portable device that tags everything around you according to your inclinations. The same space will be experienced privately by each individual passing through it. The ringtone is one of the first ramification of that shift.

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