Knowing my belief that actual person-to-person communication is in its death throes in American society, Scott McLatchy directed me to an article in last Thursday’s The New York Times about “cellphonies,” people who pretend to be talking to someone on their cell phones to escape social interaction in the physical space they actually inhabit — to communicate their unwillingness to communicate, if that can be called communication. “Some do it to impress those within earshot, others so they don’t look lonely. Men talk to their handsets while they’re checking out women. Women converse with the air to avert unwanted approaches by men. Camera phone shutterbugs fake being on the phone so they can get a good angle without looking suspicious. And certain cellular vigilantes fake for the benefit of real callers who are oblivious to the rules of common decency.”
Never mind that this trend piece seems journalistically dubious, and the people interviewed as experts on the topic seem like a bunch of the writer’s friends. I’m willing to believe this is really happening all over the place, because I’m convinced already that people prefer faking the act of communicating with someone to actual talking, listening and responding. Faking gives you all the benefits of communication — seeming like you are concerned about others and have a rich and diverse crew of people hanging on your every word — without any of the downside, i.e. actually listening to someone. Communication has become a prop, a status signifier, an end in itself to display your access to technology rather than a means of exchanging information. The fake cellphone conversation perfectly symbolizes this: You listen to yourself talk while other people watch you, spectators to your fine show of sophisticated urbanity.