It’s a catchy, humorous title that makes a point, even if through some hyperbole. The paradox it exposes is, however, no exaggeration.

Because of wireless technology, those who are far are near; those who are near (say, in a shared elevator) are far.

You’re at a bus stop, or on a train, with lots of time before your long daily commute to or from the office is over once again, with a time scale comparable to a long thumb-twiddling wait in a crowded hospital waiting room.

In the old days, i.e., when voices were identified with faces much more than with phones, the time might be pleasantly or comfortingly passed in harmless, maybe useful conversation with at least one of the strangers near you.

The Near as Far, the Far as Near

But that’s all changed: Now most of those who, in the course of a day, are physically very near (e.g., the strangers next to you on the bus) are automatically socially very distant and irrelevant, whereas, those whom you already know who are physically distant but already socially near are the only ones who have any relevance during your commute—thanks to the cell and smartphones and similar devices.

Think about it: Most of those who are physically near are socially far (because we don’t already know them); others whom we know who are physically far are socially near (because we already do, even if minimally, e.g., only through Facebook or LinkedIn).

This is a painful paradox as unfortunate as it is comic, because of the needless erosion and rejection of person-to-person opportunities and connections it sums up.  It can indeed be characterized as ludicrous or tragicomic—especially in an age when so many live lives of seemingly unremitting, not-so-splendid isolation, if not loneliness, or the more extreme kind of distancing—alienation.

The extreme manifestation of this imbalance takes the form of a preference for or default to socially “close”, but physically distant relations—what I call “conversationships”, e.g., those based on Skype, email, mobile phones and/or social media.

A less extreme form of this imbalance is motivated by the impracticalities and time limitations of busy modern life, rather than by a preference rooted in the relative “inexpensiveness” of long-distance conversationships of the kind discussed below, e.g., their smaller time and financial investments required.

The Office as Humanizing Sanctuary

To add a layer of irony to the shroud of paradox, it should be noted that one aforementioned milieu, in which the person who is near is recognized as being a whole person, is frequently stereotyped as being a highly impersonal environment: the office.

True, a lot of customer and client service is conducted remotely, e.g., through call centers. But much—very much—is not, and, on top of that, most office staff interactions are face-to-face, especially in smaller organizations.

Hence the irony: the venue that etched “it’s not personal, it’s business” into our collective consciousness is the same venue that is one of the last bastions of the wonderfully friendly bus-stop chit-chat face-to-face conversation-with-strangers-is-OK mentality (as the bulk of office-based business is, given a revolving, evolving clientele).

The nagging question is why has this happened? Why is it that so many people will not talk to you these days if you are not a phone or someone they already know (to put it as vividly as possible) on that phone?

Yes, obviously, they are still talking to their friends and acquaintances.

But because long-distance conversation is mediated by the phone, because their voices are directed at the phone, because these people will not speak to a stranger unless their lives depend on it (as opposed to their more customary assumption that staying alive will depend on not talking to that stranger), one may be forgiven for forming the impression that these xenophobes would sooner talk into a new phone than directly with a new person.

The Age of the ‘Phonophile’

As suggested above, it may be that many of them talk to their friends as an excuse to use or flaunt their gadgets. They are not merely xenophobes, fearful of or hostile to strangers. They are also “phonophiles” in love with their smartphones, oblivious to the reality that a modern mobile phone is largely an advertising platform designed to promote consumerism.

However, the allure of digital technology and stranger-danger angst do not fully account for the displacement of nearby humans by distant phone-equipped cyborgs (in the form of a human firmly clutching a mobile phone, which makes it as permanent as a cyborg implant).

No, it’s not merely a question of feeling safe with those who are familiar, however distant; nor is it merely the novelty and convenience of the digital devices.

(On the other hand, those who like to make prank, obscene or other phone calls to strangers could be called “xenophonophiles” (“stranger-on phone-lovers”)—including telemarketers, who seem to be the only people who never tire of calling complete strangers.)

There is more—much more involved here that needs to be noted, if the “near is far; far is near” paradox is to be understood and, just as importantly, addressed. Fundamentally, what is involved here is not just a shift to a new technology, but also a shift to a new perception of what it means (to cease) to be human.

The Roots of ‘Phonophilia’

In thinking about this issue and challenge, I’ve identified a number of factors underlying this modern xenophobia-“phonophilia” nexus. Here’s the main list, to be explored and developed in Part II (as the continuation dots suggest):

  1. The rise of the cyborgs: The machines have spoken—they are more interesting than we are in and as the flesh. So an mobile phone trumps the stranger.
  2. Stranger danger: Time on a mobile phone is perceived as a safer choice than time chatting with a stranger (most of whom are dangerous, according to the news and movies on your smartphone).
  3. Time stress: work, family and other time stress and tradeoffs leave little to no time for strangers—anywhere, anytime.
  4. Victory of the machines in “stimulation wars”: Digital communications technology and entertainment platforms have made the prospect of talking with a stranger generally unintriguing, unstimulating, unexciting, and neither exotic nor adventurous.
  5. Homogenization and trivialization of human assets: Although the kind of tribal groupiness that Facebook thrives on suggests homogeneity and sameness of formats and interests, being “special” remains a predominant goal of social media, even if it means being special only within one’s group or being a member of a special group. Discovering that a stranger has all your “toys” trivializes them, you and others who have them. So, talking with strangers pays no dividend.
  6. Customization of strangers: Ironically, concurrent with the boredom or trivialization caused by mass homogenization of tastes and lifestyle toys is the chore of dealing with the reverse situation—customization, especially those of strangers, when trying to relate to them and their idiosyncratic hobbies, preoccupations and tastes would be too much of a chore.
  7. Increased machine-based conversational control:  Because we can turn off social interactions more easily by phone, e.g., by blaming “bad reception”, wireless interactions are more easily controlled and limited than face-to-face interactions.
  8. Superiority of digital to face-to-face information flow: Some forms of digitally transmitted information are more precise, reliable, informative and compact than face-to-face, e.g., seeking hotel information while on holiday with an iPhone or text messaging, which despite all of its limitations and flaws is at least free of the endless “I’m like”s of oral-aural conversation between anyone under 45.
  9. Diminishing marginal utility of strangers: I’ve said it before and will say it again (having first said it when I was a teenager): “People are like fractions—the more you multiply them, the smaller they get.” The greater the population densities to which we are exposed in any given situation or city, the less value each additional stranger has in our perception of and interaction with them. Indeed, beyond a certain population density point, their diminishing marginal utility morphs into negative disutility, e.g., annoyance with them.

A Small Step for an Phonophile

If you are a phonophile and still hesitate to talk with strangers face-to-face, despite whatever consciousness-raising reading this has sparked, you may take one small, safe, compromise step toward bridging the abyss that separates you from them: Get strangers in an elevator to read this article…

…on your smartphone, or theirs.


Next in Part II: the detailed anatomy of phonophile xenophobia and its impact.


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