March 6, 2012

Hearing Is Believing

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How often do you see your parents? Call your parents? Text your parents? What’s easier, making the time to Skype or spotting a friend on Gchat and posting a link on someone’s Facebook wall? The older we get and the newer our toys become, expediency becomes more like a hereditary monarchy than just a king.While the question of emailing or Skyping friends grows more prevalent, today’s central communication debate still rings true: to call, or to text? Calls are reserved for the necessary — an immediate answer, a thorough explanation or an “I really miss you” — while texts fill the grey areas in between, the brief, the funny, the flirty and the flaky. But when did you last consider life way back when, when the question of how to communicate was not call, text or Skype, but just whether or not to meet someone? Sounds a bit like childhood, when you’d run into familiar faces on the playground before friends started calling your house in second or third grade. But I’m talking about life before March 7, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for the telephone. Or, if you’re an international student, consider March 7, 1926, when the first trans-Atlantic call was placed from London to New York. I ask because, outside of sending letters home from camp, passing notes in class and handwriting cards on Hallmarked occasions, I can’t imagine life without a phone  — and I’m the only proud owner of a not-so-smart flip phone I know. There’s no easy answer: It’s rough to imagine life without portable music, and Apple was only granted the iPod patent on March 7, 2006. But it’s not like the iPod came from another world — the spinny-wheel is pretty stylin’, but music had been getting more portable since the days of only seeing orchestras in person. But if MP3s went boom, the telephone was a cosmic big-bang on par with the industrial revolution. Music communicates with my soul like the Internet speaks to my inner child with rampant ADHD. But as many sites, stations and styles I know, none of them know me — that’s what friends and family are for. Has there ever been a device as important to human relationships as a phone? Dissenters will harp on non-verbal communication, the gestures, postures and facial expressions we term body language. Logic could hold that, whether you can picture, even smell, taste or feel someone you’re talking to on the phone, hearing is only one of five senses. Modern studies have shone hearing to comprise roughly 10 percent of communication, while sight accounts for more than 80 and taste, smell and touch less than ten combined. But it doesn’t take Skyping on mute during class to figure out that sitting in the same room as someone in total silence is closer to zero percent communication than is 80. What does a percentage breakdown of senses even mean? At a minimum, hearing and sight are inextricable; no one pays attention to his or her every surrounding while immersed in a phone conversation. Attention fundamentally changes.  But do we understand attention — others’ and our own — better or worse with phones? Most of my family lives in Israel, and I haven’t visited them in four years. Sustaining all of those relationships entirely over the phone or Internet would feel unnatural, the conversations would grow similar and “When are you coming to visit?” would eventually dominate. There has to be a knowledge of “seeing someone relatively soon,” whatever soon means to you, an ultimate destination to use the phone as a bridge. Because if the person on the other line were just across a real bridge, the assumption goes, you’d walk to them. But sporadically calling people who live faraway takes away that thrill of communicating with them for the first time in years, a thrill powerful enough to reignite most genuinely meaningful relationships. In that way, phone calls can also disincentivize visits. So too with friends from home who you no longer see: They live so close, calling would immediately resurrect the “why haven’t we hung out in forever?” debate. Scrolling through your contact list brings these regrets to the fore. Whether it’s Dad juxtaposed with a Dan you still haven’t seen since high school or Mom with a Maria you never called and really could have hit it off with, phones have an element of biographies yet to be written in them.But maybe we’d ignore who we end up ignoring anyway and motivate ourselves to see the people we call and text regularly without phones. Maybe we like them because there’s just a phenomenally pleasant existential illusion about having your world in your pocket. Either way, phones have made us take a stance on just how much one voice can communicate to one ear, and what it means to see people in person. I, for one, will hold off weeks, even months to see rather than call a friend, but I know I’m in the minority. As we consider the uncharted territories of invention, all I ask is that you always stop to consider what communication really means. Otherwise, you might miss it.

Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkose@cornellsun.com. Scrambled Eggs ap­pears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose