I was supposed to meet him in the park at 3:00 pm. At 2:15 I got a voice message; he was running late. Was it alright if we met at 4:00? I happened to be running late as well, so I texted back “OK, no prob.” When I arrived at the prearranged location, there was a new text from him: “Sorry...taking longer than I thought...will b there at 4:20.” Finally at 4:30 he showed up--out of breath and very apologetic. I was unfazed, even sanguine. He had called, after all. Thanks to the miracle of cell phones, there was no “Where the hell is he?” moment. I never had to suffer, even fleetingly, from the notion that I had been stood up, nor did I worry that something might have happened to him.
But then I started thinking: Without cell phones, might not our meeting have been more efficiently carried off? Without the inexorable reliability of wireless communication, would we all be as late as often as we are nowadays? And would we be so very loosey-goosey about our plan-making? Don't cell phones, in fact, make us socially lazy?
For one thing we have all completely lost the habit of remembering phone numbers, so that when we forget or lose our phone we are immediately cut off from everyone we know. But more important, cell phones breed in us a tendency to be noncommittal. Never before have we been able to get away with being so vague about the details of our rendezvous. Modern communication technology provides us with the luxurious freedom to “zero in on things” later. We are always reachable, so we have total flexibility (or the illusion, at least, of total flexibility). And total flexibility equals total wishy-washyness.
For example, if you are making a plan to meet someone at the museum, why bother setting up a specific place and time, when you can simply call each other when you get close? As a result, what seems like an efficient way to operate ends up being incredibly inefficient, by the time you have both called each other six or seven times (“Where are you?” “Over by the gift shop.” “The gift shop? But I’m in the gift shop.” “Wait, not the big gift shop--I’m in the small gift shop… hold on, I’m getting another call…”) If you had just set a time and place in advance, you could have had one conversation about it, and then spent the rest of the time actually looking at the art.
Now, with foursquare and similar applications, we can take our personal plasticity one step further. We can make no plans at all, but simply show up somewhere and then use our mobile devices to figure out who’s around. (Foursquare lets users "check in" to a place when they're there, tell friends where they are and track the history of where they've been and who they've been there with.) Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is the ultimate “being in the moment” experience that Buddhists and similar truth-seekers have been talking about for centuries. Maybe humanity has merely been waiting for the smartphone to attain spiritual enlightenment.
I myself am dying for Verizon to offer the iPhone. I am practically salivating for it. However, there is a part of me that longs for the old days of appointment books. You would open your soft, leather-bound book, with a pink silk ribbon marking the day. “Algonquin at 5:00, drinks,” would be written there in dark blue ink. And you had to show up. If you were late, you hurried. If you had changed your mind, too bad. Some times you waited, and wondered where he was. Sometimes you met someone else while you were waiting. It was all part of the fun.