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Posted at 05:15 PM ET, 05/06/2011

An elegy for Yammering Man: smartphones and the spread of silence


Robin Smith plays an obnoxious customer who talks on his cellphone throughout his order in a "reenactment" video shot last year at the General Store. (Courtesy of Gillian Clark)
He was once the terror of public spaces.

Airport lounges quailed. Restaurants shushed. People harrumphed loudly when passing him on the sidewalk.

He is Yammering Man, the One Who Speaks Loudly On A Cellphone In Public.

And now his kind is practically an endangered species.

Once they were all over restaurants, sprawled in movie theaters, standing behind you on the bus or at the taxi stand, ubiquitous, yakking. You’d sit on the airplane when they said you could use your phones again, and the hum of conversation would spring up all around you.

Now listen.

Do you hear it too? The silence, modulated only by a vague clicking. It’s almost eerie. Talk about hive-minds. There is no more insect-like sound than all that tapping on glowing screens, like the sinister clicking of the claws of a silent lobster.

Those ads at movie theaters about not talking on your cellphone during films feel vaguely old hat. Talk during the movie? What are we, 80? We’re texting, or tweeting, or some new verb I haven’t heard of yet!

Congratulations, everyone! We’ve rid ourselves of a pest: phone conversation. Our phones are too smart now for us to use them to talk to anyone, ever again.

It’s where all this new communications technology has taken us. It’s what we thought we wanted.

In a way, it’s a relief. Since acquiring a smartphone, I have been living in First World bliss, which is to say that I haven’t heard the sound of a human voice besides Adele for the past eight weeks.

Unlike teenagers of a generation before, I am palpably terrified by the news that the phone is for me. Telephone conversation is awkward and inconvenient! Instead I text. I e-mail. I Gchat. These allow you to use grammar, and you are not required to listen to anyone breathe. Voice recognition? Please! My friends are the people I talk to the least. To me, these people are image files to whom I send 140-character strings of text repeatedly throughout the day.

Conversation has always been a bewildering art. It dates back, like so many arts (violin concertos, action painting, wine appreciation, action painting violins after appreciating too much wine) to a mysterious and bygone epoch When There Was Nothing Better To Do. You had to figure out some way of sharing the mammoth, so you wound up talking to the guy in the next cave. You had to figure out who was going to go repress the serfs, so you wound up talking to the guy in the next castle. You had to figure out if Roxane would date you, so you wound up having Cyrano write you some lines and going to chat up the ladies’ balcony.

But it took effort. And it could be awkward. Those silences over the phone — the need to pay attention — having to set aside enough time to converse — superficially, all of this was most irritating. And don’t get us started on Yammering Man, telling some stranger what he had for breakfast! Surely there was an app for that.

But technology is a malevolent genie that takes all our complaints at face value.

It doesn’t understand: You don’t always complain about a thing because you want to get rid of it. Sometimes, you complain about it because you have to live with it and complaining makes it easier.

It’s our modern tendency to mistake mild inconveniences for actual obstacles.

Traveling by wagon, or having close relationships with your extended family — all of these things are mildly inconvenient. Sending postcards. Writing letters. Dating. Talking on the phone. Ditch them all!

But we’re gradually sensing our mistake. Some hindrances are necessary. “The duration of passion is proportionate with the original resistance of the woman,” Balzac said. That applies more broadly. Some things, it turns out, should put up a bit of a fight.

Now we’re seeking to inconvenience ourselves a little. Hipsters flock to vinyl. We toss our televisions. Online markets announce that they’re opening Real Stores. The typewriter blew up last week when everyone thought the Last Typewriter Factory had shut its doors, inspiring enthusiastic paeans from all and sundry. All those hours spent untangling ribbon and unsticking keys — suddenly, it turned out that this was the stuff on which character was built!

That is the funny, brutal little irony of it all: Not that the old ways were the best ways, but that the inefficient ways were the best ways. You learn words better from the effort of looking them up in a dictionary. You read faster on a glare-free device that allows you to mark your place, is easily portable and doesn’t require batteries. There’s a word for that. And you might have to talk to some people, after all.

Yes, the familiar complaints of civilization always pass. But it’s all becoming more and more silent. The irritating jangle of dial-up gives way to the noiseless web of wifi. Yammering Man surrenders to iPhone Guy.

And my initial relief at not having to talk to anyone is feeling more and more like panic. I miss the slivers of conversation that you’d hear in an elevator. I miss the days when the people around me were engaged in anything other than checking their phones repeatedly. I miss when I wasn’t doing the same. I miss the voices. I miss the awkwardness.

So the next time I hear someone yammering into his phone on an escalator, I hope my face will light up with a beatific smile. “Good for you, sir,” I will intone. “At least you’re talking.”

Beside the feet of Ozymandias is an illegible inscription telling everyone to keep it down.

This is what we thought we wanted. Peace and quiet. But all you can see is empty sand.

By  |  05:15 PM ET, 05/06/2011

Tags:  elegy, cell phones, kids these days

 
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