"Approximeeting" ourselves

by Rob Horning

5 December 2006


This week’s Economist has a future-technology round-up that suggests we’ll soon be piloted around in robotic cars while communicating telepathically with one another via cell phones implanted in our gray matter. I’m probably not alone in finding the prospects of this depressing. Several long articles explore the singular nature of the cell phone as a transformative technology, akin to the automobile in its power to grant us independence from the constraints of time and space while affording us a powerful new medium in which to express the wonder of ourselves. One futurist guru calls is quoted calling it a “remote control for life,” which of course made me wonder who in the world would want to operate their life remotely through a tiny little gadget? You’ve got the whole word to experience, and you’re going to filter it through a tinny earpiece and a tiny screen? Then again, I’ve long since become a Luddite technophobic crank on the subject of cell phones, stubbornly resistant to having it remake me in its image and bless me with all its splendiferous convenience. If you’ve read this blog for very long, you already know this, so I apologize for flogging this theme again. Anyway, I was glad to see there’s a meme for the annoying tendency of cell-phone users to keep everything contingent and undecided until the last minute—“approximeeting.” The article spun this as an unanticipaated but welcome benefit of cell-phone usage, and I’m sure it has useful business applications. In social life, it seems more likely to sow discord and confusion, and encourage people to stop giving anyone the benefit of the doubt when late or incommunicado. I also romanticize the mystery of presence—that moment when somebody you are supposed to meet actually shows up after you’ve been wondering where they have been, and then the person is there with you, not merely partially there and partially in a nebulous ether with everyone else who has their number. I like the feeling that actually seeing someone mattters; the always-available, always-filtering nature of cell phone life seems to detract from that; but maybe I’m wrong, maybe it enhances the significance of face time. It may just be that I’m nostalgic for the days, long before I ever existed, when all communication was face to face, “real” and effortful. Back in the days before computers (and before my having real jobs) I used to write letters to friends, and it seemed as though I knew them better and that I revealed much more of myself, presented a better sense of what I actually think I am like and what has really been preoccupying me. In phone chatter, I talk about what I happened to do that day.

I’m sure my days of holding out from cell phones are numbered. And when my number comes, I’m sure I’ll smoothly adapt to the brave new world and wonder why I resisted for so long. But yesterday, as I was studiously avoiding participating in my office Christmas party reading the Economist articles, I couldn’t help thinking with an utterly useless and self-defeating vanity, that perhaps I really am somewhat exceptional in not wanting to be accessible for communication, not wanting to be connected. After all there was everybody else in the company happily enjoying being crammed into the lobby with catered food and crappy Christmas music, seemingly enjoying the experience, while the whole idea of venturing out there, even for free sushi, was enough to make me shudder and skulk deeper into my cubicle. I wondered if my revulsion for parties was related to my toxic aversion to cell phones; that the same missing personality trait that makes me unable to cope with parties also makes me unable to cope with the implied constant contact the phone suggests. But that’s probably a little fanciful. The Economist argues that the phone is in fact not about communication as much as it is about self-expression; cell phones are fashion items that are replaced to stay up to date or to express some new subtlety about oneself—the editorial suggests people will soon own several phones suited for different situations. Maybe that’s what I’ll do; get one for work and one for nights out, and one for around the house and one for formal occasions and one to make myself feel youthful. It seems to me the only useful purpose for different phones is to maintain different identities—perhaps this is something we can look forward to. As cell phones govern more of our lives in physical space, it will become easier to beccome a different person simply by equipping ourselves with a different phone, the same way people can become anyone online. We’ll have a different set of data stored, be accesssible to a different group of people, be plugged into a different collection of interests—it’s the ultimate form of “approximeeting,” in that we would be able to keep our entire personlity contingent until the very last minute.


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