Mobile Realism

By Norbert Ruebsaat | April 11, 2013

In my Media and Communication Studies college classes the students sometimes look into their laps when I’m talking. I asked one day what they were looking at and a few said, after some fidgeting, that they were texting. I asked them whom they were texting with, and why, and, since this was a media class, if they might read their texts out so we could talk about messages and their media. They refused. I said what one did with hands and eyes in one’s lap was indeed one’s own affair, but having such an affair in a classroom distracted persons sitting nearby and distracted the teacher. When I lost eye contact with them I forgot what I wanted to say to them.

Some students giggled, and most slid their mobiles into pockets or handbags, and we began discussing private versus public spaces, embodied and disembodied speech, and the differences between visual and acoustic communication. A lot of them said they preferred texting to talking on their mobiles because—besides the fact you can’t talk secretly on your phone in class, ha ha—texting was cheaper, it enabled you to craft the message before sending, it saved you from getting distracted when listening to someone on the other end who might be interrupting your train of thought.

I talked for a while about Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan’s claim that print was the world’s first fully disembodied communication form, a technology that rendered speech as visual data and made the eye the dominant human sense: we exchanged an ear for an eye, was how he sloganed it. I talked about McLuhan’s further claim that electronic media extended our nervous systems and we lived in a global village and that he foresaw but did not live to experience the internet and wireless personal technology and social media, but had correctly imagined how digital communication changed relationships.

Some students had heard about McLuhan and nodded, and so far no eyes were looking into laps. A few students chuckled about the wired part. I said I was surprised to learn they were replacing talk with text, an “old” technology, albeit one dressed up in new digitized designer clothes, and asked if this was a retro thing. Nobody responded. In McLuhan’s wired world, I said, electronic sound communication replaced print communication, and for my transistor radio, personal record player, TV, and family telephone generation disembodied listening and talking was the cool thing. Sound was where it, and we, were at.

Some eyes glanced at laps, and hands twitched, and one student explained that mobile texting was not about coolness, it was about efficiency and convenience. With text, one didn’t have to communicate in real time, one could time manage and send and receive messages in accordance with one’s schedule. What about voice messages? I said. The student shook her head and said the persons you’re messaging will feel pressured to respond right away.

I said that McLuhan had made similar statements about the advantages of print with regard to time and place organization, had related it to the growth of “individualism,” and then I said that my grandmother had, in 1911, in the small German town where she grew up, come home from school one day and discovered a new wooden cabinet attached to the wall in the family parlour. Her father, a plumber and hardware storeowner, had installed a telephone, one of their town’s first. When the bell on top of it rang and my grandmother was erschrocken —shocked, alarmed–he told her to pick up the earphone that hung on the side of the wooden cabinet and listen. She edged over, fingered the alien object, put it to her ear, and when a voice inside started talking she dropped the device and ran away shouting “that thing on the wall talks!” The experience convinced her that listening to voices that came from things, not faces, made you crazy, and she refused throughout her marriage to allow my grandfather to install a telephone in the family home.

Some students laughed, and I said for my grandmother the techno-induced problem was that telephones, things that talk, separate voices from faces, persons from their bodies. You guys, though, seem to want to get rid of not only the faces and bodies, but the voice itself. You want to turn talk into literature. Many students said no, they still enjoyed interpersonal face-to-face conversation, but when it came to media, text was less intense and potentially overwhelming than face-to-face talk. And, these days, one couldn’t always be in the same place and time when one wanted to talk.

We understand your grandmother, a girl said. Your grandmother didn’t want to be interrupted and forced to listen to someone whom she maybe didn’t want to talk to. I agree, I said, but what you are suggesting is twice removed, it seems to me, from what she wanted. She wanted togetherness, in one place, not absent speakers, but you seem to want to separate speakers from listeners, space from time, and cancel live speech.

The students looked at me. Nobody said anything. A few smiled. What was my point, their eyes asked. I told the girl who understood my grandmother that I was delighted to hear her say so. I said that when we had moved to Canada when I was a child I had tried, in bed at night, to reproduce the sound of her voice and the look of her face. I said I had loved the sound of voices, live or mediated, ever since then, and I missed, today, the voices of my friends who didn’t phone anymore but sent emails. I talked about the long phone conversations my generation had in our teens with our boy or girlfriends when we communed, invisibly, flirtatiously, for hours, nested in the separate fixed locations assured by our parents’ land line phones affixed to walls by wires whose bandwidths delivered a vocal spectrum richer by many Hertz than the compressed fidelities wireless mobile connections deliver. I loved imagining the faces attached to my girlfriends’ voices.

The girl who had said she understood my grandmother said, Why didn’t you Skype with your girlfriends? You’d have been able to hear their voices and see their faces, not just imagine them. It would have been more realistic. Your grandmother might have liked this also and gotten over her fear of bodyless voices.


Vancouver, April 11, 2013


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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