The giant, ringing village

Except for Lewis Carroll, no one's made much of a fuss over the mail as a topic of conversation. It's hard to imagine serious businessmen writing at length on letterhead about post office efficiency and the merits of particular mail carriers. There's stamp collecting, but all in all, that's a rather rarefied group.

The cell phone, however, instantly became a hot topic more than a mere means of communication. In 1991, when the cell phone brought a whole new dimension to the Italian gift of gab, Umberto Eco labeled the majority of mobile phone users as work slaves, social climbers, and adulterers.

Lovers long to "connect" when they can't be physically close. And once upon a time, all it took was writing.

In "Dangerous Liaisons," Valmont - sort of a living cell phone - keeps Cecile and her harp teacher in contact by furtively delivering the little notes they write. We can only imagine what exactly is written in these love letters.

What's written doesn't really matter - it's the connection that counts. Goethe knew this when he confessed to his beloved, "Why do I resort to writing? ... in truth, I have nothing to say to you; it is enough that your gentle hands will touch this letter."

So we ask, "Why did I call? I don't know - I just wanted to hear your voice, or maybe I wanted to make your phone ring."

The cell phone, then, is both the tool and the topic of communication.

The significance of the cell phone's ability to communicate something without words is evidenced by the now-legendary "archives" used to incriminate organized crime rings.

These "archives" weren't intercepted calls. No text of a conversation was recorded: All that was needed was the record of a call for judges to place a suspect at a crime scene or to reconstruct an illegal transaction.

The cell phone talks, and it makes others talk about it.

Those who use the phones are also talking about the phenomenon of cell phones, as Gianfranco Marrone found in his unpublished study of the semiotics - the study of signs and symbols - of mobile phones.

He sees a new linguistic wealth introduced by the cellular movement in technical terms that we all know by now - abbreviations common in Europe like GSM, neologisms like the Italian diminutive telefonino, new meanings for terms like "field" or "coverage."

The phone call vocabulary mutates: It's no longer just a request for identity (Who is it?) but for place clues (Where are you? Am I bugging you?).

We marvel that the calls are almost always made in the presence of strangers or third parties who can't help but listen and therefore play unwitting "quasi-interlocutors."

The constant need to verify contact - "Wait, here comes a tunnel " or "I can't hear you" or "Wait, I'll call you back" - itself conveys meaning between two speakers. Where they are. Whether they're in a rush or moving.

The spatiality and temporality of their communication changes continuously, and the two must "contract" with each other to define a plan for future communication. This is what Marrone refers to as "forms of meeting (or of nonmeeting)."

Another symbolic significance of the cell phone is that of gadget. Beyond being a status symbol, it has a strong element of a fetish, a toy. The "toy" is pleasing to fiddle with, to reset, to personalize by changing the tone of the ringer; it's gratifying to take care of with the replacement of batteries and rechargeable cards.

The object requires the same artificial attentions as the Tamagotchi, the electronic pet fad of the mid-1990s, but also elicits periodic devotion like rosary beads.

The cell phone compels us to reclaim what we've lost during dead time spent in nonplaces (airports, stations, waiting rooms). It cloaks us in the illusion of constant availability and ubiquity. The game once reserved for VIPs is what everyone now yearns to possess.

There is now a "cell-phone-man." The owner of a cell phone doesn't just possess the techno-gadget, but also lives it, assumes its logic, and changes with it.

So what's next? It's time to start gathering behavioral data on the hybrid creature inhabiting this "giant ringing village."

*Stefano Bartezzaghi is a semiotician based in Milan, Italy. He is a regular commentator for Italian publications. This essay originally appeared in the newspaper La Stampa and was translated by Elisabetta Coletti, who is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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