Technology shapes our lives through its presence. It even shapes our identities and relationships with others. Communication technologies increasingly atomize us and, while allowing communication and connection of one sort, break connections of another.
I first got a cell phone when I lived alone in a converted one-car garage. The phone service was cheaper than having a regular phone line. I dropped it when I moved in with a girlfriend and we could share the costs of a regular phone. She, however, still had a cell phone. Nonetheless, we still got lots of calls to the house from friends and our family. So I often spoke with her mother and father when they called. Friends who called would speak with which ever one of us answered. People called us.
A few emergency situations came up, a wacko stalking a friend and my father going to Iraq, and I was going to have to be readily accessible by phone. Since I was often not home, that meant getting a cell phone. My girlfriend and I then decided to drop our regular phone service because it had become an extra expense. This changed things.
I no longer spoke with her parents, nor she with mine. We quickly found out which of our friends was really friends with whom by which of us they now decided to call. There was no longer an us, only her and me.
Friends of mine have found similar difficulty with cell phones. Their son often plays over at a friends house where there is no regular phone. My friends often have difficulty when they try to his friend’s parents to send him home. They might, for example, call one cell phone and reach the boy’s father at work, which is of no use. The cell phone is identified with an individual, whereas a traditional phone is identified with a place. When my friends want their son to come home, it is a place they need to reach, not an individual.
Phones are supposed to connect people. In a way, mine and my girlfriend’s cell phones did. I was able to catch a call from my father in Iraq whenever he had a chance to call. That was nice, especially after my brother was dying from cancer, which was extremely hard on my father who was unable to be with him. But cell phones also isolate people. The regular phone presumes a home and family. The cell phone presumes the atomized individual. Which do you want? Of course, you can choose to pay for both, but you have only limited control over which of those phones people choose to contact you with.
I moved in with another girlfriend, whom I later married. I let my cell phone contract expire. She didn’t have one at all. We have only a single home phone. So I speak with her family, clients, and friends. As does she with mine. They call us.