It used to be that if you called someone and he didn’t answer (and there was no answering machine), you could almost see the silence yawning at you. You placed yourself in that imaginary office or kitchen or bedroom and conjured either a void or something going on that was mysteriously alluring and that you were somehow being excluded from. Your wife, friend, or lover might be betraying you in that silence, but there was always an anchor, a place to which the ringing belonged.
Now the landline is going the way of the old Royal typewriter, thank-you notes written in cursive, and the un-air-conditioned car. Remember the smell of the ocean after driving for hours through choked highways to get to the beach on a summer’s weekend in a sweltering sedan? Now cars are like spoiled trust fund babies who don’t need anyone. The music is blasting, everyone is on a smartphone or iPad, and nobody even needs the sea.
The old rotary, which looked like a miniature cash register, the Princess, the touch-tone, even the battery-powered handset that you could walk around the house with are all victims of unplanned obsolescence — their half-lives foreshortened by Moore’s Law and the tsunami of cellphone technology that followed in its wake.
But the death of the landline is creating a revolution that was prefigured by developments in relativity theory and quantum mechanics many decades before. The idea of quantum entanglement is predicated on the notion that a particle can be in two places at the same time. A quantum universe, if such a phenomenon could exist not only among subatomic particles but human bodies, would give new meaning to adultery and cheating since in theory a certain equanimity would mitigate against favoring one body over the other. Promiscuousness itself would be rendered fairly benign as we would all inhabit a universe of multiversic perversity!
Pretty soon few if any telephones will be ringing in a place. A phone number will be assigned to a person but that person will be the equivalent of a moving particle. In the past you could envision the geographic spot in which the phone was ringing. In the not too distant future, it will be literally a Pandora’s box in terms of possibilities. I might be persuaded you were picking up in Paris, London, or Moscow when you were, in reality, en route to Nice, Liverpool, or Leningrad.
The phone, which was a creature of Newtonian l9th-century technology, has finally come into its own. The old version plugged into a jack in the wall created the illusion that space could exist alone. There was something stoic and intransigent about these anachronisms. Now the possessor of his cell truly navigates the space-time continuum, a moving body receiving electronic signals from other moving bodies whose positions are continually changing and whose final resting spot (if such a condition truly exists) is ultimately dependent on the motion of other bodies.
I might, for instance, be drawn by the inertial force of an economic windfall sucking at me with the magnetism of a black hole. Its gravitational spell might be preventing me from making a desired appearance in London. At the same time I could be involved in a conversation with a new lover while catching a plane at Heathrow for the South of France.
And where is the admissions office for the online university I have just enrolled in? Not even on the cellphone of a human being, but in the robotic intelligence digitally vetting my application in the ether of cyberspace.
Francis Levy, a Wainscott resident, is the author of the comic novels “Erotomania: A Romance” and “Seven Days in Rio” and of the blog The Screaming Pope.