Can we create public spaces that are navigable without cell phones? Would we even want to?

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Before cell phones, travelers would agree to rendezvous beneath Grand Central's famous clock. (Wikimedia Commons)

At The Aporetic, a provocative post raises a vital question: Are our undifferentiated and anonymous public spaces a response to the ubiquity of cell phones -- or is it the other way around? Have cell phones become ubiquitous in part because of the featurelessness of our public spaces?

The post, written by the über-thoughtful uninomial Mike (who notes that he is one of our society's Great Holdouts -- he doesn't have a cell phone), seems to opt for the former, because it is built around the concept of "cell-phone subjectivity":

The architecture of the landline era was ordered and hierarchical: arrive here/go there/wait here. There were reception desks, ticket booths, clocks, doormen, statues; places that and landmarked and ordered space. Cell phone subjectivity disregards that hierarchy and order.

Consider a modern airport, which is architecturally hostile to prearranged meetings: Washington's Dulles airport is an excellent example. Passengers get dumped out at random undifferentiated doorways, in a long concourse of repeated equally undifferentiated features. You can't really ask someone to meet you at "whatever that nameless and faceless chain coffee shop is that about three quarters of the way down from the international arrivals." There's no obvious rendezvous spot.

And who needs one? Cell phone subjectivity is based on the idea that the person arriving will call you when he lands, and you'll both update each other until you come within mutual visual range. Or better yet, you will wait in your car, and they'll call you as they are leaving the building. There's no need at all for a grand, landmarked social space. The architecture of the cell phone is dispersed, placeless and oddly uniform.

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All very thought-provoking -- but doesn't Mike have the causal direction reversed? After all, featureless public spaces like Dulles Airport pre-date the cell phone era by some decades. Might cell phones have become so ubiquitous at least in part because they help us to orient ourselves to spaces that, in their endless repetition of national and international chain retailers, transform America into Generica and leave us too few unique identifiers of where we are in the universe? In Generica, cell phones orient us primarily not to place but to one another -- which, perhaps, and to be fair, has its benefits.

Some years ago the architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas commented that culture changes faster than architecture: "Any architectural project we do takes at least four or five years, so increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture." This is surely true, but the stability, the immovability, of built environments require that we adjust to them long after we might want to do something else. Perhaps, then, what Mike calls "cell-phone subjectivity" is really "airport subjectivity." And I wonder whether we can, or even want to, create public spaces that we can navigate without reference to our cell phones.