I’m a little slow posting an entry this week, though I almost felt like there was no need, since Virginia Heffernan covered my beat in her Medium column in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine (1o/31). “Funeral for a Friend” reads the headline, over a photo of a very shiny, very black, very basic touchtone telephone. Vintage 1978, I’m guessing, one of those sturdy, square-edged models from the days before the break-up of AT&T, when phones were solid and heavy as tanks.Owned by the “company,” leased by the consumer, these “landlines,” the only telephone connections we had,were built to last.
But it wasn’t the hardware Heffernan was eulogizing. Her column focused instead on the the loss of a particular experience that the telephone had once made possible:
… the old phones — wireful phones, defined by the strong visible insulated copper circuits that crosshatched the land — came to be indispensable to anyone who longed for a complex social and emotional and aesthetic life, a reliable vocal-auditory miracle, intimacy, friendship, romance, furious down-slammings, hissed interruptions and the awesomely strange sensation, via the mouth- and earpieces, of being inside someone else’s accent, intonations and sighs, ear canal and larynx and lungs.
I’ve long been a fan of Heffernan and her column The Medium, with its sharp, often quirky analyses of the ways new and old media converge in our lives. Every now and then, she takes a look backward and focuses on topics dear to us at Obsolescing. She’s not immune to the tug of nostalgia, but writes about the past with a refreshing self-awareness.She may lament certain losses, but, unlike many cultural critics, rarely falls into the trap of assuming that her — or her generation’s — cultural currency trumps any others.
In last Sunday’s essay, she does employ the standard idioms for talking about old and new. The past is “warm” and human; the present “shallow” and impersonal. With cell phones, she writes:
You no longer have the luxury to listen for over- and undertones; you listen only for content. Calls have become transactional, not expressive.
And if the essay had ended there, I would have been citing this article as just one more example of a writer fetishizing technologies past. But she understands that hers is a generational perspective (that self-awareness I was talking about), that those who never got to experience the particular voice-in-ear intimacy of a long drawn-out conversation with a best friend on an analog telephone, will have another kind of experience tied to another kind of communications device. Who knows? In 20 years, next generation’s Virgnia Heffernan may write an incisive, wistful paean to thumb-typing text messages.
Or in Heffernan’s words: “We haven’t lost intimacy. We have lost only telephones.”