October 24. Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the merits and demerits of the digital phone. The early excitement of a device that could free the user from all structures of power has been overtaken by growing pessimism. It exposes the owner to commercial and state surveillance, abolishes privacy, erodes face-to-face contact, destroys conversation, locks the individual into a private bubble of fantasy and disinformation.
What was not apparent until the present pandemic was the virtue of the digital phone as the cleanest possible form of making contact between people. It can of course carry germs on its crevice-free surface (for which there are a range of cleaning liquids on the market), but unless you are very careless, they will be yours, not someone else’s.
In an earlier entry (‘Smoking the Mail’, September 10), I cited the description in Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year of the London merchant who went to ever more elaborate lengths to avoid getting the disease from his post, before abandoning letters altogether. In Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak in Oran, “a new decree forbade the exchange of any correspondence, to prevent letters from transmitting the infection.” (Penguin, 2013, p. 54) Letters remain under suspicion. In my household we place incoming mail in quarantine for a couple of days, except on the rare occasion, such as the recent envelope of drawings from two grandchildren, when we choose to open and sanitise, rather than put on one side.
By the time Camus was writing, the corded, landline telephone had been in use for more than half a century. But in the 1940s, it was still only to be found in businesses and middle-class homes. It was intrinsically a shared device. One instrument was accessible to all members of a household. In an office anyone could pick up a handset lying on a desk and insert their finger in the dial. This came to be recognised as a health hazard, and until lately there were firms offering services to clean regularly all the phones in a building. Multiple cordless handsets in the home allowed calls to be made in greater privacy, but the equipment was still available to different potential sources of infection. The digital mobile, by contrast, is essentially a personal possession, protected by increasingly sophisticated security devices which ensure that it is only capable of being used by its owner.
More basic forms of communication are viewed with still greater suspicion. Uttered speech transmits droplets of virus. Hence the two-metre distancing and the face masks which curtail but do not wholly abolish risk. Public houses are shut early, because the later the time and the less restrained the drinkers, the greater the danger of raised voices and increased transmission. The still more fundamental mode of making contact, physical touch, is generally forbidden except between intimate couples.
The i-phone rescues us from silence and isolation. Had Steve Jobs been as far-sighted as he is seen to be, he would have held up the first device in 2007 and simply said:
“Behold, here is what we have been looking for since Biblical times, the world’s first plague-free mode of communication.”