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.
12.09.17 12:00 AM ET
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.
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.
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.
Excerpt from Chronicles of a Liquid Society by Umberto Eco. Copyright 2017 by Umberto Eco. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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