It Was Good To Talk: Mobile Phones and German Philosophers
If you want to keep pace with the changing environment
the global economy of the day, you need a fast means of communications, says Tansa Musa.
The BBC has just asked a citizen of Cameroon to explain what it calls mobile phone frenzy which is hitting the country. The answer is twofold. Mobiles are practical, they have their uses. But beyond the practicality, the mobile is the object which most closely embodies the spirit of the changing environment. If you want to assure yourself that you belong to the new century, this is the object to have in your hands unless its a hands-free. This brilliantly concise response points towards a big question: how has the once anodyne telephone become the new must-have mobile?
At the moment, as the new millennium starts, we are witnessing, and being addressed by, a ubiquitous campaign to promote the mobile phone. This mobile propaganda is extraordinary in its energy, its resources and its cultural impact. There are the old-style ads, but there is also a torrent of information released through diverse media, on the web, via other products and sales outlets. You can hardly tune in to a major sporting event without finding the logo of a mobile company featured either among the competitors or over the occasion as a whole.
The promotion is twofold: its subject is first of all a whole new technology, and then an individual brand. This doubleness must pose interesting dilemmas for publicists of the individual corporations: can you promote your brand specifically or are you really just promoting the whole technology? There is plenty to say about the mobile campaign. You can deconstruct the images, as with all such publicity. You can find stereotypes and ideological undercurrents. But in this Postmodern Encounter, I propose to look at this mobile hubbub from a more surprising perspective, an alien perspective.
Our encounter will be between this new mobile culture and two leading thinkers of the 20th century: Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas. (See Appendix for brief profiles.) In his great work, Being and Time (1927), Heidegger initiated one of the most important 20th-century discussions of talk or, as he also called it, discourse. These ideas were taken up, criticised and developed in different ways by many European and American thinkers, notably among German philosophers of communication, of whom the latest representative is Jürgen Habermas, whose Theory of Communicative Action (1981) has shaped two decades of debate about dialogue and modern society. The nub of this encounter is the idea of communication itself, for, in their different ways, both the 20th-century philosophers and the 21st-century mobile persuaders claim to be redefining what it means for human beings to communicate.
What makes this encounter a postmodern one? In architecture especially, postmodern often means the mixing of old and new, futuristic and archaic styles. This encounter is postmodern in that architectural sense: here the old thinkers come together with the new cultural wizards. Apart from striking sparks off one another, these alien perspectives also reveal as they collide something significant about the break between the old and the new centuries. Both the philosophers and the mobile campaigners are interested not just in routine communication, but in the road to utopia. For all their differences, the two discourses share the view that modern utopia will be about ideal communication.