There is a vivid article in this month’s Technology Review by the unlikely contributor Jonathan Franzen, called “I just called to say I love you“. It starts out as a screed against the destruction of public life by mobile phone conversations, and is made readable only by his painful awareness of just how hard it is to conduct a screed against the destruction of public life without sounding like a nag, an old fogey or a conservative technophobe. It then veers into a description of the thing Franzen hates most about this destructive capacity—the repeated and thoughtlessly uttered “I love you” which it is now impossible not to hear constantly ejaculated by those near you, talking to their putatively loved ones in tones too shrill and hectoring to ignore. Then the article gets worse—or better, depending on your reading—by locating part of the transition in 9/11 and the ways in which televised images create a form of collective trauma that is somehow (i didn’t quite get this) related to the cell phone and the nature of public declarations of love. Finally, Franzen turns to his own father and mother and their differing declarations of love (in person by his mother, and in writing by his father), which connects in the end to the danger represented by the cell phone.
Since it’s Franzen, it’s fun to read, and since it’s in Technology Review, it’s interesting to think about what the people who get Technology Review (MIT alums and those who love them) will think of it. I personally found a couple of aspects of his analysis dead on: 1) the definition of “privacy” Franzen uses is the one I think actually helps us make sense of the nature of privacy, namely “[Privacy] is about sparing me the intrusions of other people’s personal lives.” Whereas privacy advocates (and most readers of TR, likely) would define privacy as the individual’s ability (and right) to control who sees what of their personal lives, Franzen inverts this definition, and puts in the forefront our inability (and lack of rights) we have of preventing others from talking to us about their private lives. This helps make sense of why privacy matters: because it is about respecting our vital need for a public life.
Implicitly, Franzen is using the definition that Hannah Arendt made popular in The Human Condition: that the private sphere is the location of privation and survival, the public sphere that of politics, decision making and collective responsibility. To elevate the concerns of the private sphere into the domain of the public is to make issues of housekeeping and mere survival into political issues, with ambivalent effects. On the one hand it renders the inherent inequality and injustice of the private sphere a matter of debate and potential correction; on the other hand it diminishes the space of collective constructive work on what our world will be like in the future—because we are all too busy constantly conducting our private lives in the ever-diminishing space that was our public life.
Franzen’s point is perhaps not so lofty, but it is related: by dominating public discussion with private concerns we have no space, or time, or in the parlance of the cell phone companies, no minutes, left to debate and make decisions about our collective life, rather than our merely immediate concerns of survival. Franzen recapitulates this by demonstrating how is own father “saw nothing wrong with consigning his wife to four decades of cooking and cleaning at home while he was out enjoying his agency in the world of men.” And yet, despite this seeming injustice, “my father loved privacy, which is to say: he respected the public sphere. He believed in restraint and protocol and reason because without them, he believed, it was impossible for a society to debate and make decisions in its best interest.” What Franzen is asking is whether it is possible to have a world where the inequality inherent in his father and mother’s life can be reduced without sacrificing respect for a public life.
But I part company with Franzen in his assumption that the cell phone can only lead to destruction of the public. What he does not hear in the conversations around him are those instances where people are organizing a public via the cell phone or via the internet. What his argument implies is that a public space can only be face to face and that technology can thereby only be parasitic on that space. This I think is a major mistake. It partakes of the same logic the NRA uses when they say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The NRA is wrong because it is people with guns who kill people (or people with knives or people with powerful corporations), and Franzen is wrong because it is how people use their cell phones, how they gain control of them, and how they organize a social world through them that matters. Franzen is right about the millions of people who intrude on public life with their private concerns, but those people will do so with any technology, or with no technology at all–they are simply not entering the public world at all, whether because they don’t care, don’t have to or don’t want to. Others however, must compete with them to create new public spaces and to beat back the relentless encroachment of the “i love you” consumers.