The most important philosophical question of our times is this: Can we live without a cell phone? The 17th-century philosopher Descartes (‘I think, therefore I am’) said that the hands were our most important tools (unless he said it was our knees, I read his stuff a long time ago) but the cell phone as an extension of our hands and eyes and ears is a modern development that has raced ahead of philosophy.
In fact, philosophy is still struggling with the question asked most often on cell phones: where are you? It is a literal question that demands a literal answer (‘I am at the mall’, ‘I am at the office’) and not a philosophical one (‘we are where we are’, ‘floating in the cosmos somewhere’), yet it seems to have changed everything.
When cell phones first arrived, they were seen as natural gizmos for doctors and adulterers, the people who needed to handle emergencies most often. Hence that question. That’s how it began. Now it has become a part of cell phone etiquette, rather like ‘hello’ was in the days of land lines.
A couple of years ago, a new expression was coined: ‘phantom phone vibration syndrome’, which is ‘thinking your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not’. Most friends I know suffer from PPVS (see above); it is not a sign of anxiety so much as a sign of boredom. When you are in a group and don’t know when your next yawn might come, it is a good tactic to pat your pockets and walk out of the room purposefully. Researchers who coined the phrase were studying how technology affects our behaviour. But sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.
The cell phone involves all our senses bar one, smell not being crucial (they are probably working on this as we speak, with the smell of a perfume emanating from the phone to tell us that our wives are calling). I read somewhere — it was probably an exaggeration — that today’s smartphone is more powerful than the computers that landed man on the moon. The idea of pointing one at an irritating phone-talker at a movie theatre and sending him to the moon is an attractive one, though.
With so much involved, is it any wonder that philosophers are stymied? The answer to the question we started with is: ‘No’.
‘I text, therefore I am,’ as Descartes might have said, can also be extended to ‘I selfie, therefore I am,’ or ‘I check my mail, therefore I am’ or simply ‘I cell phone, therefore I am’, which includes all of the above, and some more. The cell phone might have made philosophy redundant.
More from Suresh Menon"
A gentlemanly rant about pointless vulgarit: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t