Silence Your Phone

Last week, as part of my growing effort to fake maturity, I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall for the first time. Laurie Anderson, noted weirdo and respected musician, was on stage performing an experimental storytelling piece over ambient synth pads (or something). She had two thousand people mesmerized by her voice, her Korg, and her androgynous clothing. It was strange and beautiful and so unlike a normal performance and, hell, this was a concert. A concert for a dignified audience with a breadth of artistic understanding. From high up on the second balcony, “dressed up” and already thinking about where I would pin my ticket stub when I got home, I smiled at Anderson’s musical soliloquy and at the peace in my life. It was all very metropolitan. Very New York. Very adult.

And then someone’s phone rang.

It was as if an angry clan of hooligans had thrown a brick through the kitchen window of my mind with a note reading “Jews Killed Christ.” In that moment, that’s really how it felt — invasive and offensive. Not terrifying in the same way, I admit that. Still, I was ripped from a sort of peacefulness and thrown into a ringtonic rage because some asshole — some forgetful, self-important asshole’s phone started blaring one of those outdated MIDI jingles that your parents still have. The kind of 3-second sample that, when heard, makes you want to bulldoze every iPhone in the room. The kind of tune that makes you cry because despite all the suffering and starvation and injustice in the world, a classically trained composer is getting paid to manufacture these “songs” to satisfy our first-world desire for more pleasant phone rings. Down here on Earth I was trying to focus on the Art happening at the world-famous Carnegie Hall, but all my brain could focus on was “Jazzy Ring #3,” as if it were a monument to human achievement that deserved to be heard right now, instead of Laurie Anderson.

I closed my eyes calmly and focused on maintaining my Zen. My attention was being stolen by a ringtone. A ringtone. I sat there in darkness, biting my lip and breathing heavily until Jazzy Ring #3 was just an echo in my head.

 _____

Allow me to back up a second. The reason phones “ring” is because, for nearly a century, telephones were stationary objects (remember that?) that one actually had to hear in order to know someone was calling (a design surely modeled on doorbells). Today we cling to our phones like vital organs with features like “vibrate” but we can’t shake the publicity of the audible ringtone. In fact, we’ve turned it into a form of expression. When a phone chimes a cute little diddy, it arrogantly broadcasts some aspect of the user’s “personality” to those in earshot. I don’t publicly announce every time I have to pee just because my bladder is “ringing,” so I object to making ringtones into “art” or “music” on the grounds that — well c’mon it’s not like you’re going to listen to the song. We have concerts for that. Your phone is ringing so you will pick it up. So pick up your phone.

Beyond the annoyance of it all, though, there is a deeper sadness I feel when a ringtone interrupts a performance. That “Oh for God’s sake” response we’re all familiar with — that’s a wariness of technology; Our phones are powered on 24/7, and we’re willing to answer a text message at any time. We check our email constantly, whenever we want, often when we shouldn’t. We’re like androids who have been tricked into thinking we have emotion, when all we really have are phones. My phone, by the way, is an Android.

What really gets me is that cellphones aren’t that old. In one generation we’ve gone from existing happily without them to wondering what life was like before them. It’s alarmingly fast, and a bit frightening. We treat our phones as natural extensions of our bodies, aware of our remaining battery life like we’re aware of how hungry we are — an elegant lie. Our phones are not part of our bodies. For many, myself included, that lie is so deep that checking our phones is the first thing we do in the morning. Before we have stood up or even collected our thoughts, we know whether anyone has tried to contact us in the last eight hours. It’s like our bodies don’t even exist, and the more we lie to ourselves like that, the more the truth will hurt. Yes, the Singularity is a lie, and it isn’t coming. It’s already here and we are extremely unprepared for it.

That sadness, that embarrassment of being too connected, of actually forgetting that I’m human and not machine, swells up in me — in us — when we hear a phone ring during a movie or during dinner. During Laurie Anderson. That ringtone reminds us of how deeply and thoughtlessly we’ve integrated this new and untested technology into our lives. We’re reminded of how careless we are, how vulnerable we make ourselves. We forget we don’t need them. The less we silence our phones, the more we let them speak for us.

 _____

Back at Carnegie Hall, as the show was beginning, Philip Glass came out on stage. I noticed that there had been no announcement from the house to have audience members silence their phones. Glass said some stuff and jumped right into the music and I thought, “That’s weird. Just ASSUME we’re going to remember to silence our phones without any reminder?” After all, most places (like movie theaters) offer that nudge. But then I realized Carnegie Hall was treating us like responsible adults — the kind of adult I wanted to be by going to Carnegie Hall in the first place. But in the middle of Laurie Anderson some idiot proved he couldn’t handle the responsibility. He hadn’t come to terms with the fact that his phone is expendable. He forgot to memento mori and as a result his phone took over the room. Anderson didn’t hear it, but as far as I’m concerned the audience and the performance both suffered because of him.

But it wasn’t him; I could have been that idiot. You could have. It was us. We should know better, but I don’t think we do. Every time a phone rings during the middle of a performance — every time my Zen is interrupted — I am reminded of just how inexperienced we are, and how much we still have to learn about ourselves. We’re supposed to solve global issues like hunger and climate change in the next decades, but we can’t even remember to turn off our phones? We can play as swanky as we want, but really we’re not very adult at all. We’re still kids. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

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  • Thisismyfakename

    I wish I wrote this. 

  • Liz

    Do you truly believe that because someone had a moment of forgetfulness, there’s little hope for humanity? That’s pretty sad.

    • Jay

      The author is basing this on the assumption that the phone offender DIDN’T forget and intentionally left it on. Don’t you think he thought of that as a possibility? Why do you feel the need to invalidate this story by bringing up a random useless “what-if” scenario? You missed the point. It’s pretty sad you missed the beauty of this article.

  • Emma

    UGH, I KNOW, RIGHT?! I mean, ok, it’s easy to forget, especially when they don’t make an announcement, but when they do…come ON. Last night, I went to see Seminar, and excellent play (now on Broadway) starring Alan Rickman. Before the show begins, one of it’s other stars, Hamish Linklater, makes a nervous, in character, announcement over the sound system asking playgoers to turn off their electronic devices. He then asks them to please, PLEASE check again and make sure that they’re really off. This being said, there was absolutely NO excuse for the person whose phone went off during one of the most intense, climactic scenes. Had there been an intermission, I could have understood. You know, you turned your phone on for a minute to check for messages, the lights came down quickly and you forgot. This show, however, was a one act. If that were not bad enough, to add insult the injury, the person then opted to turn their phone off, which let out, yet another, polyphonic disgrace.

    I’m not saying these people are dumb, I’m not saying that they’re bad people, I’m simply saying that we sometimes go through life so engaged in ourselves and our devices that we forget to notice, or take stock in, our surroundings. That’s the problem; the ringing phone is merely a symptom.

  • Age

     Yes, it is annoying when someone forgets to silence their phone. But sometimes it is just that…forgetfulness. This might quash your theory that we treat phones like an extension of our bodies because sometimes there are people who forget the damn thing is there in the first place. And what’s the deal with the pretentious idea that just because you’re at Carnegie Hall that somehow makes you more grown up? 

    • http://twitter.com/MJohnsonAttack Michael $. Johnson

      It’s true, lots of people just forget about their phones completely, which actually might be a good thing because then they aren’t so attached to it. But it seems to reflect poorly on someone when their phone goes off in a quiet space, and it feels intentionally inconsiderate (even though I know it isn’t). I forget things all the time, and I get frustrated when I do. Maybe I’m just anti-forgetfulness?

      Also, I don’t actually think that going to Carnegie Hall makes you more grown up. I’m certainly not any more of an adult having been there. But while you’re there it FEELS very adult.

  • Guest

    “We’re supposed to solve global issues like hunger and climate change in the next decades, but we can’t even remember to turn off our phones? ”

    this is the most obnoxious thing i’ve read on here in a while.

  • http://twitter.com/MissKimball misskimball

    I was bored so decided to try out a new ringtone

  • Anonymous

    “Yes, the Singularity is a lie, and it isn’t coming. It’s already here and we are extremely unprepared for it.” Beautiful.

  • Steve Tool

    So.. what’s your point? What’s there to do about our phones. I read a lot of complaining about the way things are, specifically with cell phones–yet, nothing about action.. Your conclusion is pretty weak.. 

  • bree

    ha, people also don’t know how to read things anymore…why can’t people just read something and glean the general idea/mood from the text instead of pulling out random things and making wild adolescent assumptions?? 

    nothing is black and white (hard for adolescents to grasp) so obviously the writer isn’t saying every person is puerile and irresponsible and that there is no hope for individuals or humanity in general…he’s making a wistful observation about a degenerate society in a symbiotic relationship with exponentially-multiplying technology, which is basically true…so take away an emboldened spirit and try to make yourself a better person instead of picking apart his well-written little article. geez.

  • kgb

    Just an FYI:   If you didn’t already know, when your phone rings, just hit one of the volume buttons and it will silence the ringer.

    Don’t know how many times I’ve sat and watched people try to read who’s calling while the phone kept blaring away.   JUST MUTE IT ALREADY.

  • Jason Blair

    The worst – when you call someone and they’re all like (annoyed tone) “I can’t talk right now, I’m at the cinema” and I’m all “Why did you answer you’re freakin’ phone then, now I feel rude for interrupting”.

    Actually, I feel a lingering sense of rudeness calling people (mobile or landline) most of the time, just because a phone ringing is like bursting into their house, ignoring what they’re doing, and shouting “ME ME ME LISTEN TO ME I WANT TO TALK TO YOU” and if it isn’t that important it seems quite intrusive.

  • Madeline

    I love this. I absolutely love it.

  • Julia

    The ad on my page was for AT&T. Anyone else?

  • Michael Simon Johnson

    I’ve seen that and I love it.

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