Umberto Eco Decodes the Secret Meaning of the Cell Phone

In one of his final essays, the late author of ‘The Name of the Rose’ acknowledges that cell phones are no longer merely the annoying tools of middle managers and adulterers.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

More Thoughts on the Cell Phone

I wrote a fairly irate article in the early ’90s when cell phones were in the hands of just a few people, but a few who were making train journeys hell. I said, in short, that cell phones should only be allowed for organ transplanters, plumbers, and adulterers. For everyone else, especially in cases where otherwise unremarkable people were mouthing away in trains or airports about stocks and shares, metal section beams, or bank loans, it was more than anything a sign of social inferiority: those in real power don’t have cell phones but twenty secretaries who filter their calls and messages, whereas those who need them are middle managers who have to answer to the CEO at any moment, or small businessmen whose banks need to tell them their account is overdrawn.

As for adulterers, the situation has changed twice since that article: initially they had to forego this extremely personal means of communication since its acquisition gave rise to entirely justifiable suspicion in the mind of their spouses; then the situation changed—everyone had one, so it was no longer cast-iron evidence of an adulterous relationship. Lovers can now use them, unless they’re having affairs with persons who are to some degree in the public eye, in which case their conversations will certainly be tapped. No change with regard to social inferiority, there are still no photos of Bush with his ear to a cell phone, but it’s a fact that the cell phone has become an instrument for communication, and excessive communication, between mothers and children, for cheating in exams, and for photomania. Younger generations are abandoning their wrist watches because they can check the time on their cell phones; added to this is the birth of text messages, of up-to-the- minute news information, of the opportunity now to connect with the internet and receive wireless emails, offering, in their more sophisticated forms, even the functions of pocket computers, so that we’re now in the presence of a phenomenon that is socially and technologically essential.

Can we still live without a cell phone? Given that “living-with-a-cell-phone” means a total acceptance of the here-and-now and a frenzy of contact that deprives us of a single moment of solitary thought, anyone who cherishes their own inner and outer freedom can exploit the very many services it offers, apart from its use as a telephone. At most it can be switched on just to call a taxi or tell those at home that the train is three hours late, but not for being called: all you have to do is keep it switched off. When anyone complains about this practice of mine, I reply with a rather somber argument: when my father died over forty years ago, and therefore long before cell phones, I was on a journey and it was many hours before I could be reached. Well, those hours of delay had changed nothing. The situation would have been no different had I been called within ten minutes. This all means that instant communication provided by the cell phone has little to do with the great questions of life and death; it’s of no use to someone who is studying Aristotle, nor to someone struggling over the existence of God.

Does a philosopher therefore have no interest in a cell phone, apart from it allowing him to carry in his pocket a list of 3,000 books on Malebranche? On the contrary. Certain technological innovations have changed human life to such an extent as to become a topic for philosophical discussion—and just think of the invention of writing, from Plato to Derrida, or the advent of mechanical looms, see Marx. Curiously there has been little philosophical reflection on other technological changes that seem so important to us, such as the car or the airplane, though there has been on the changing concept of speed. But we use the car and the airplane only at certain times, unless we’re a taxi or a truck driver, or a pilot, whereas writing and the mechanization of most of our daily activities has had a radical impact on every second of our lives.

Maurizio Ferraris has written about the philosophy of the cell phone in Where are you? Ontology of the Cell Phone. Perhaps the title raises a hint of light amusement, but Ferrari draws a number of serious reflections from his subject, and involves us in a rather intriguing philosophical game. Cell phones are radically changing our way of life and have therefore become “philosophically interesting.” Having also taken on the role of pocket diary and mini-computer with Web connection, the cell phone is less and less an oral instrument and more and more an instrument for reading and writing. As such, it has become an all-inclusive instrument for recording, and we’ll see how words like “writing,” “recording,” and “inscription” might make a confederate of Derrida prick up his ears.

I like to recall the tragedy of Dr. Zhivago who, after many years, sees Lara on the tram. He cannot alight in time to reach her, and dies. If both had had mobile phones, how would their tragic story have ended?

The first hundred pages on the “anthropology” of the cell phone are fascinating even for the non-specialist. There’s a substantial difference between talking on a telephone and talking on a cell phone. On the telephone we could ask whether a certain person was at home, whereas on the cell phone, unless it’s stolen, we always know who is answering, and whether he or she is there, which also changes the quality of intimacy. But with a landline we know where we are calling. Now, with the cell phone, there’s the problem of where the person is. There again, if he or she replies, “I’m right behind you,” but has an account with a cell phone company in a different country, the answer is travelling halfway round the world. Nonetheless, we don’t know where the other person is whereas the telephone company knows where we both are, so that while we can avoid letting the other person know our precise whereabouts, our movements are totally transparent when it comes to Orwell’s Big Brother.

Various pessimistic and paradoxical, though credible, reflections can be made on the new “homo cellularis.” For example, it changes the very dynamic of face-to-face interaction between A and B, which is no longer a one-to-one relationship because the conversation can be interrupted by a cell phone call from C, and the interaction between A and B continues intermittently, or stops altogether. And so the prime instrument of connection, my being continually available to others and they to me, becomes at the same time the instrument of disconnection, A is connected to everyone except B. Among those reasons for optimism I like to recall the tragedy of Dr. Zhivago who, after many years, sees Lara on the tram. He cannot alight in time to reach her, and dies. If both had had mobile phones, how would their tragic story have ended? Ferraris’s analysis wavers, rightly, between the possibilities opened up by the cell phone and the way in which it cuts through our lives, above all in our loss of solitude, of silent personal reflection, and being condemned to a constant presence of the present. Change doesn’t always equate with liberation.

But one-third of the way through the book Ferraris passes from the cell phone to a discussion of questions that have increasingly interested him in recent years, including arguments against his early influences, from Heidegger to Gadamer and Vattimo, against philosophical postmodernism, against the idea that there are no facts but only interpretations, up to what is now a full defense of knowledge as adaequatio, i.e., pace Richard Rorty, as a “Mirror of Nature.” This, of course, has to be taken with many pinches of salt, and I’m sorry I can’t follow step by step the foundation of realism that Ferraris calls “weak textualism.”

How do we get from the cell phone to the problem of Truth? Through a distinction between physical objects such as a chair or a mountain, ideal objects such as Pythagoras’ theorem, and social objects such as the Italian Constitution or our duty to pay for what we order at a bar. The first two types of object also exist independently of our decisions, whereas the third becomes operative, so to speak, only after a recording or an inscription. Once it is said that Ferraris also attempts to provide some kind of “natural” basis for these social recordings, it is here that the cell phone appears as the absolute instrument for every act of recording.

It would be interesting to discuss many parts of the book. For example, the pages devoted to the difference between recording, which includes a bank statement, a law, any collection of personal data, and communication. Ferraris’s ideas about recording are extremely interesting, whereas his ideas about communication have always been somewhat generic. To use the metaphor from one of his earlier papers against him, they seem to have been purchased at Ikea. But this is not the place for deep philosophical debate.

Some readers will ask if it was really necessary to start from the cell phone to reach conclusions that could also have been reached from concepts of writing and “signature.” Certainly, the philosopher can also start off from a reflection on a worm to draw an entire metaphysics, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is not that the cell phone has allowed Ferraris to develop an ontology, but that his ontology has allowed him to understand, and help us to understand, the cell phone.

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Excerpt from Chronicles of a Liquid Society by Umberto Eco. Copyright 2017 by Umberto Eco. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.