An hour to spare on a sunny fall day in the mountains of western central Virginia. Leaves are changing, the air is brisk. Big, bright sky. Why I brought along Robert Grudin's American Vulgar: The politics of manipulation versus the culture of awareness to read this weekend I don't know.
Thus the cell phone, for all its intrusive potential, is not a vulgar instrument until it is put to vulgar use. On the other hand, we can call the cell phone a vulgarizing idea, because it carries with it the temptation, even the provocation, to behave objectionably in public. ... [The cell phone belongs to] a nuisance group of machines: devices that invite their users to disturb nature, disrupt public space, or do both.A month or so ago Mary Ann and I splurged and went to a wine-tasting dinner at L'Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, Va. We sat at a round table set for six and were soon joined by a pleasant couple and started the usual pleasant small talk. Just before dinner started we were joined by a second couple who, it must be said, were also quite pleasant. But as they sat down, they did something that, to me at any rate, was quite remarkable – though probably to most people today there was nothing remarkable about it at all. In unison, they both took out their cell phones and placed them neatly above their place settings, just above the desert spoon, as if the cells were an integral part of the array of eating utensils. Thankfully, throughout the meal, neither of them made or received a call. But periodically, the man of the couple would pick up his cell and google something that he thought would explain or color some point in the conversation. For example, the topic turned to ballet. They had met some ballerina who was dancing in Russia. He then googled the ballerina and passed his phone around so we could see pictures of her.
Two things occurred to me about this at the time, and I spent dinner biting my tongue. One was the similarity of the old saw about Americans on vacation taking pictures of themselves everywhere: if you don't have a graphic record of your visit, how will anyone know you were really there? Is the presentation of a googled image proof of a relationship? interest? knowledge? But even more interesting to me was the similarity to countless experiences from the 60s-70s when people would sit down to a meal at a fine restaurant, and the first thing they would do was to take out their packs of cigarettes and cigarette lighters and place them ritualistically beside their place settings, just above the desert spoon.
It's difficult to remember a time when the cigarette was not considered a "vulgar instrument," but an essential social accessory every bit as important as the tails and gown worn by Nick and Nora Charles. If you could go back in time and point out to everyone that not only are they physically killing themselves, but that the cigarette itself is a vulgarizing idea, you would be laughed out of the party. Likewise, without going back in time, it would be entirely useless to point out that the cell phone – now the "smart" phone – is our own vulgarizing idea – our cigarette substitute to help cover our fear of being discovered as socially inept. The cell lights up and the uncomfortable silence goes away.