Landlines, Cell Phones, and Their Social Consequences

Photo credit: Dean Terry

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the pre-cellular days of household phones. One line for everyone, and only one person on the phone at a time. Under the best of circumstances this situation would often lead to more than a few inconveniences. In less than ideal cases, inconvenience could yield to much worse. I’m not entirely sure what got me thinking about the place of the phone in my high school years, but, once I started collecting memories, I began to realize that a number of experiences and situations that were then common have disappeared following the emergence of cell phones. And, it seems to me, that not all of these transformations are altogether trivial.

For the record, my high school years were in the 1990s; cell phones were not quite rare and they had already evolved well past the “brick” era. Yet, they were not exactly common either, and they certainly had not displaced the landline. Beepers were then the trendy communication accessory of choice.

As I thought back to the pre-cellular era, it was the rather public nature of the landline conversation that most caught my attention. The household phone was a not a subtle creature. Placing a call to a friend meant, in a sense, placing a call to their whole family. The ring of a phone was indiscriminate, so it was that your call was a matter of public record. If your friend picked up, they may later be asked who it was that called because everyone knew someone had called. If they did not pick up, then you might end up talking to a family member, hopefully one who was kind and polite. So not, for example, a bratty sibling or a cranky parent. Or both, since there was always the possibility that more than one person would pick up and the awkward process of determining who the call was for and getting them and them alone on the line would ensue.

That possibility alone, of perforce having to interact with someone other than the person you intended to speak to, functioned as a form of socialization. It meant that you got to know your friend’s family, including adults, whether you wanted to or not. Consider that it is not altogether unusual for us now to resort to texting so as not to talk to even the person with which we intend to communicate. Back then, we not only aimed to talk to someone, but we ran the risk of talking to other people as well. This strikes me as somewhat consequential.

Then, of course, there were all of those not quite licit conversations and the devious ingenuity they occasioned. For example, aiming to talk past a curfew or after other members of the family had gone to bed, one would arrange a set time for the call and then sit waiting with hand on phone, maybe even finger on hook, in order to pick up the call at the very first vibration of sound. Or the more serious variety, which often involved the maintenance of unacknowledged and disapproved relationships. Again, if you are of a certain age, I suspect you will be able to supply a number of anecdotes on that score.

This dynamic was recently dramatized in the series Mad Men, set in the early 1960s as both Don and Betty Draper maintain illicit relationships and their phone calls, placed and received, constantly threaten to unravel their secrets.

Also, the landline was public not only in that it made phone calls a matter of public notice, but it was also a shared resource. If you were on the phone, someone else could not be; some equitable system of sharing this resource, that was at times in heavy demand, would need to be devised. The difficulty of arriving at such an equitable distribution was, naturally, directly proportional to the number of teenagers in the house.

All of this together led me to recall the distinctions Hannah Arendt drew in her hefty book, The Human Condition, among the private, public, and social realms. I want to borrow these distinctions to think about the differences between landlines and cell phones, but I won’t be using the terms in quite the same way that she does. On one point, though, I do want to track more closely to her usage, and that is her conception of what constitutes the public realm: disclosure. The public realm was one in which individuals acted in such a manner that they disclosed themselves to others and were, in turn, acknowledge by others. The public realm was a function of scale. Its scale was such that the individual acted among many, but not so many that identity was lost and action rendered unintelligible.

The social realm featured a multiplicity of individuals as well — it was not private — but it took place on a mass scale and even though (or, because) it included multitudes, it was, in fact, a realm of anonymity — its image was the faceless crowd. This differentiation between the public and the social is especially useful now that the digital social realm has emerged over the last decade. Even though we can’t simply elide what we call social media with Ardent’s social realm, the awareness of a distinction among ways of not being by oneself is all the more important.

In Arendt’s analysis, what counted as the private realm shifted its terms according to whether it was paired with the public or social. In relation to the public realm, the private was the relative seclusion of household, a publicly respected zone. But as the household itself became a province of the social, privacy was reconfigured as anonymity.

Consider the landline an instance of the public dynamic and the cell phone a manifestation of the social dynamic, loosely following Arendt’s model. For all the reasons listed above, the landline brought the user into public view. It entailed a necessary appearing in the midst of others, the taking of a certain responsibility for one’s actions, the negotiation of rights to a shared resource, and it yielded a privacy that must be granted by others rather than seized by seclusion.

On that last point consider that while one could lock themselves in their room to have some privacy, the holy grail of teenage life back then, this privacy could rather easily be violated through numerous forms of eavesdropping. To be actualized, this privacy must be conceived of as a transaction of public trust.

By contrast the cell phone allows for a form of privacy that is closer to mere anonymity rather than to a publicly acknowledge and respected right. The cell phone also encourages concealment, rather than disclosure. If my phone is silenced, there is hardly any necessary reason why anyone would know that I have received a call, and if I require privacy I simply take myself and my phone were no one can hear me. I absent myself, I make myself disappear and consequently make no claims upon the civility or trust of others in order to have my privacy. What’s more, the cell phone is typically not shared materially, even though something abstract, like minutes, may be shared in a family plan. No limits are therefore placed on use of the resource, at least for those who can afford high-end plans.

If we take the habits of phone use to be a practice that reinforces certain ways of being, then the differences between the landline and the cell phone are not insignificant. Landlines yielded a public self, constituted privacy as a right premised upon public virtues, and instilled a sense of limits that come from the use of a shared and bounded resource. Cell phones, by contrast, yield an anonymous self, constitute privacy as a function of anonymity and dis-appearing, and instill habits of unbounded and unlimited consumption.

Don Draper on Prozac

John Hamm plays Don Draper (

That is the image that comes to mind while reading Ronald W. Dworkin’s “The Rise of the Caring Industry.” The caring industry consists of the “77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000, mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches” at work in the US today and the additional “400,000 nonclinical social workers and 220,000 substance abuse counselors working outside the official mental health system yet offering clients informal psychological advice nonetheless”  According to Dworkin this represents “more than a 100-fold increase in the number of professional caregivers over the last 60 years, although the general population has only doubled.”

Most conversations about what Dworkin has neatly labeled the caring industry eventually come around to Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1965).  Both make the obligatory appearance, but in Dworkin’s view both are inadequate.  Regarding Lasch he writes,

Many people who go to counselors share nothing with the stereotypical self-absorbed neurotic.  On the contrary, they are average people with conventional values who face real-life problems but have no one to talk to.  Fully a third of the American population has undergone some form of psychotherapy.  It strains the imagination to think that the majority of them are narcissists.

Rieff was simply writing too soon to know the full import of the unfolding sea change in Western culture:

What Rieff had observed were the first stirrings of a new social order, one that would rest on a nation-spanning network of caring professionals.  Today, countless institutions and millions of people  are dependent to one degree or another on the caring industry.  Therapy is no longer just a “culture.”  In the form of professional caring, it has become our way of life.

Now we might question whether Dworkin’s take on Lasch and Rieff is itself adequate, but the main point he makes in bringing them up seems sound:  the profound transition in American life that gave rise to the caring industry predates the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The caring industry is rooted in the “seemingly placid 1950’s, when mass unhappiness and mass loneliness began.”  Dworkin goes on to remind us that

So great was people’s unhappiness during the 1950’s, and so suddenly did it emerge, that both the political and medical authorities called it a “mental health crisis.”  Rates of alcoholism and juvenile delinquency skyrocketed during the decade, which popular magazines dubbed the “Age of Anxiety.”

If you’re familiar with Mad Men, and just now it seems few are not, you’re probably taking exception to my title since Mad Men is set in the early 1960’s, not the 1950’s.  But keep in mind that the early sixties were much closer to the 1950’s than they were to “The Sixties” which really start up mid-decade and spill over into the 1970’s.  In a fascinating essay titled “The Other Sixties,” Bruce Bawer argued that the early sixties as a period had a certain integrity of its own, but it was still a period when “men wearing ties and neatly pressed suits on all occasions” was the norm.

Freud's Couch

And so the image of Draper on Prozac, or perhaps Draper on the couch, to imaginatively capture the period in which far-reaching transformations in American life gave rise to the caring industry.  This is, in fact, a connection made explicit in the first few episodes of the first season in which Betty, not Don, Draper ends up going to a psychiatrist for her “nerves.”  Part of Mad Men’s brilliance derives from its poignant, and sometimes painful, explorations of the growing  unhappiness and loneliness of the era that Dworkin identifies with the birth of the caring industry.  If this were all Dworkin was intending to drive home, that the caring industries roots go back to the 1950’s, then it would be merely an interesting and compelling historical narrative.  But there is more, Dworkin argues that the rise of the caring class was necessitated by the breakdown of peer groups which had previously provided the resources and support ordinary people relied upon to navigate the difficulties and hardships of life.

Today’s caring professionals offer the same service to lonely, unhappy people that friends and relatives once did . . .   People want to be able to go about their daily lives with the knowledge that someone is there for them.  This basic truth led to the rise of the caring industry.  Millions of unhappy people use professional counselors to compensate for having no one to talk to about their everyday problems.

Dworkin details a number of factors contributing to this sad state of affairs:  Americans were increasingly moving to new towns alone, “urban renewal projects that tore down impoverished but vibrant inner city neighborhoods,” decreasing attendance at church or synagogue, longer work hours, a loosening of family ties, and more.  The end result:  “many people found themselves with neither the time nor the energy to listen sympathetically to a friend’s problems.”

We were becoming, as a classic work of sociology from the 1950’s put it, The Lonely Crowd.

Dworkin concludes his essay by arguing that the rise of the caring industry is most significant because it marks the end of a civilization based on an ideology of love.  This is Dworkin’s most expansive and sweeping argument and, consequently, the most controversial and debatable; but there is a certain plausibility to it.  In his view,

Many people today meet their basic psychological needs, including self-esteem, fulfillment, and identity, not through a social system of friends, intimates, and communities, as people did in the age of love, but by working directly with a caring professional.  Although lonely, they are psychological stable, and society is spared the tumult of an earlier era when people satisfied these needs through loving communities.

Dworkin’s thesis possesses a certain explanatory elegance, but it also raises a number of questions.  I wonder, for example, what difference the rise of social media might make to his analysis.  Nonetheless, there is one claim Dworkin makes that strikes me as being quite right.  The chief problem with the ideology of love, as Dworkin describes it, is that it finally encouraged people to love humanity.  “But it is impossible to know humanity in the concrete; humanity is a fiction, it cannot be loved.”

We cannot love an abstraction.  But we can love and befriend the particular people that are our families, friends, and neighbors.  It is a messy business, loving real people; but apart from it, we become faceless members of the lonely crowd.

Parenting and Its Discontents

In an engaging, if also sobering essay “All Joy and No Fun,” which appeared in New York Magazine, Jennifer Senior lays out the statistically grim outlook for parents:

From the perspective of the species, it’s perfectly unmysterious why people have children. From the perspective of the individual, however, it’s more of a mystery than one might think. Most people assume that having children will make them happier. Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so. This finding is surprisingly consistent, showing up across a range of disciplines. Perhaps the most oft-cited datum comes from a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist, who surveyed 909 working Texas women and found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities. (Among the endeavors they preferred: preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.) This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction …. As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.

These are hard words to read for someone who hopes one day to have children and partake of the joys and travails that accompany them.  And yet, she goes on to write, these findings “violate a parent’s deepest intuition.”  So she wonders, “Why is this finding duplicated over and over again despite the fact that most parents believe it to be wrong?”  Senior explores a number of possible factors beginning with the changing socio-economic value of children:

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.

Moreover, she notes the tendency of “middle- and upper-income families” to “see their children as projects to be perfected.”

Annette Lareau, the sociologist who coined the term “concerted cultivation” to describe the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children, puts it this way: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Yet it’s work few parents feel that they can in good conscience neglect, says Lareau, “lest they put their children at risk by not giving them every advantage.”

Even more troubling in an age in which couples delay having children until later in life, some psychologists believe putting off childbearing may be one of the factors contributing to the problem:

“They become parents later in life. There’s a loss of freedom, a loss of autonomy. It’s totally different from going from your parents’ house to immediately having a baby. Now you know what you’re giving up.” (Or, as a fellow psychologist told Gilbert when he finally got around to having a child: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.”)

What’s more,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

And there is more, but I suspect you get the idea.  To her credit, Senior concludes her essay by searching out the more subtle and elusive rewards of parenting that may not show up in social-scientific surveys while also suggesting that the problem may lie in our prior, possibly faulty, notions of happiness.

Here is one assumption, however, that wasn’t questioned:  the self-sufficiency of the nuclear family.  Senior drew attention to correlations between decreasing happiness and broken families, particularly for non-custodial single fathers; but she never questioned whether even an intact nuclear family was sufficient to the task at hand.  At one point, she quotes a couples counselor who, alluding to a documentary called Babies, explains,

“I don’t mean to idealize the lives of the Namibian women,” she says. “But it was hard not to notice how calm they were. They were beading their children’s ankles and decorating them with sienna, clearly enjoying just sitting and playing with them, and we’re here often thinking of all of this stuff as labor.”

Maybe it wasn’t a particular view of what constitutes play or work that accounts for the “calm.”  Perhaps, it was an intact social structure that included a large extended family, blood or otherwise.  Having not seen the film, that is merely speculation; but it seems plausible.

Along these lines consider this passage from Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics:

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing adults and children–that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education. We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by–joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship–they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.

Perhaps parenting has become such a chore because we have isolated the nuclear family from the resources it needs to succeed and even when we have sought help from the outside we have bought it from professionals and experts rather than receiving it from families and friends or even, neighbors.

Just a thought.