Cell Phones Are Good

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 16 October 2008

Sci-fi writer and media academic Paul Levinson attempts to show in his new book that cell phones are as natural as fingers.

For an academic, Paul Levinson makes some pretty heady and optimistic assessments of the role of cell phones in our lives. For a science fiction writer, on the other hand, his visions seem quite grounded in the reality of the present. But maybe because he is both a media professor and a sci-fi novelist, Levinson can serve as a worthy appraiser of the function of this most ubiquitous wireless media tool in human affairs.

Levinson’s brand new, sweeping, strident, yet commonsensical analysis of the wireless handheld’s influence on our lives is fittingly entitled, Cellphone: The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything! While his chronicle of the cellphone’s role in the pantheon of communications media may seem watered down to industry insiders and a bit professorial to others, sometimes a strong grasp of the obvious is precisely what’s called for.

Levinson’s short (179 page) book breezes by, spending its first chapters recounting the history of communications technologies up until now, and then focusing on the cell phone as the culmination of all this development. It’s a big-picture book about a very little device, and works best when it is retraining those unaccustomed to thinking about media as both an extension of human will and, conversely, a very strong influence on how that will is developed.

For instance, Levinson asserts that communications media are “not determined by tyrants,” but rather a Darwinian process of natural selection: “People determine the evolution of media - which ones survive, which ones fall by the wayside, which ones hang on by a thread, which ones thrive.” And, in support of this contention, he cites Western Union Telegraph’s owner, William Orton, ridiculing the invention of the first telephone as “a toy,” as well as the Soviet Union’s failed efforts to halt the development of underground “samizdat” video and photocopying. In Levinson’s view, the will of real people always wins out, eventually.

This assertion reaches epic proportions when Levinson frames the invention of the cell phone as an almost inevitable and natural evolution of our species: “Using just two of our four limbs to walk freed our other par of limbs – our hands – to do and hold things. Like the cellphone. When we walked out of Africa and talked about it, we were thus headed slowly but surely for the cellphone. Intelligence and inventiveness, applied to our need to communicate regardless of where we may be, led logically and eventually to telephones that we carry in our pockets.”

He also sees cell phones as a new chance for families to bond, much in the way they did back on the farm: “Was there ever a time in history when husbands and wives, parents and children, families, were in such close continuing contact? The family on the farm often has been cited as the predecessor to the digital homestead. But unless husband and wife and children worked literally together in the field all day, even the farmstead lacked the unrelieved continuity of contact of the ‘cellstead.’”

For those of us experiencing cellular’s version of connectivity, however, such descriptions may sound a bit warmer than they really feel. While a son may call a mother, as promised, before heading to the football game after-party, it’s more of an exchange of data points than, er, prana. And, as Levinson admits, the cell phone puts children, husbands, and wives on a new kind of leash. In his analysis, while cell phones probably make infidelity more difficult as far as pretending to be out of reach, they also make calls between secret lovers easier, so overall it’s probably “a draw.”

You get the idea. Levinson explores the kinds of issues any of us thinking about cell phones should already be exploring – though with a lot more historical precedents to make his case. He reaches much more useful ground, however, when he ventures toward what both media theorists and science fiction writers do best: deconstructing the biases of certain technologies, and looking at how they mix with human nature.

For example, he makes an excellent case for the cell phone’s ability to reinstate the supremacy of the written word, previously rendered obsolete by the telephone’s replacement of the telegraph: “In this new, cellphonic context, the silence, precision, and endurance of text-the advantages it always had over voice-finally are able to show their mettle…in fact, short messaging on cellphones and computer screens represents a resurgence of the alphabet over the Mac and Windows icons…Their readers and writers are as literate as you and I. Indeed, maybe more so, in my case, since texters are creating a slightly new form of writing from various components, whereas I am doing the best I can, here, with an already existing form.”

He also makes a compelling argument for the positive influence of the cell phone as a tool for journalists in war zones to report in an uncensored or even unedited fashion; he calls the cell phone “an ideal instrument for the reportage of war” for its ability to stream live without bulky apparatus.

Where Levinson’s style of analysis works best is in judging the “bias” of this medium – that is, whose agenda do these new tools favor? This is the crux of an emerging discipline called media ecology, and the most valuable contribution Levinson makes to the ongoing debate about the influence of wireless handhelds on our work and lives. In Levinson’s judgment, and now mine, the cell phone gives power to the caller, while taking it away from the called.

In his words: “No matter how much we try to protect our wish and right to sometimes be inaccessible, the thrust of the cellphone, its bias, is toward extending the options and power of the caller.” Ever the cell phone’s advocate, Levinson can’t help but see this as a good thing, for “being out of touch usually breeds misunderstanding and more damage than being in touch too much.