I made my first trip to Australia in 1997. Australia is a long way from anywhere – even neighboring Indonesia is an eight-hour flight to Sydney. Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, is a solid fifteen hours in the air – about the limit of endurance. Although very far away, I knew a few people living in Sydney, and after I’d finished my business, I called one of them from my hotel room to arrange dinner. We agreed on whom to invite (ten friends and friends of friends) and time and place to meet – Friday evening, 6.30 pm, in front of the massive IMAX theatre in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
Ten minutes before the appointed hour, I stood in front of the theatre, waiting for my friends to arrive. They drifted up, in ones and twos, but by quarter to seven, only half had shown up. The others — well, wherever they were, they weren’t with us.
Coordinating a large party has always been a nightmarish exercise in logistics. As more people become involved, everything gains viscosity and congeals, unless predefined processes lubricate the ambiguities surrounding any sort of mass action. If people know what to do when the unexpected eventuates, they will respond accordingly, continuing to move toward the goal of the group. Corporations have perfected this flavor of necessarily routinized, bureaucratic activity, and so can harness the energies of hundreds or thousands of individuals in a common task.
Going out to dinner is a task of an entirely different sort. Its informality makes inflexibility anathema; dinner is not work, nor do people willingly confuse the two. There are no rules to follow, so when plans fail, they can fall apart completely. That’s pretty much what I believed, that evening in Darling Harbour, as I waited for the rest of my friends to arrive. Either we would go on without them, and would not see them, or we would wait (who knows how long?) for them to arrive.
While I sat, stuck on the horns of this dilemma, one of my friends pulled a mobile from his pocket – a smallish thing in bright blue plastic – dialed one of the missing party-goers, and arranged to have them meet us at dinner. Crisis resolved instantly, smoothly, and effortlessly. The evening was saved, all friends eventually united.
This story has two points worthy of note: the first is that this episode is utterly quotidian. These days, this sort of thing happens so frequently, we barely even notice that now adjust our social schedules on-the-fly, because we can. Individuals connected are individuals coordinated, capable of adapting themselves to any eventuality. The connected act not as two, but two-as-one, because in the act of communication, each becomes responsive to the other. Each surrenders a bit of their own desire in pursuit of a common goal.
In itself, that surrender is nothing new. The dance of connection has always been about surrender: the trusting surrender of the child listening carefully to the parent; the anxious surrender to authority; the playful, back-and-forth surrender in love. We listen and learn, we talk and teach, we commune and collaborate, inhabiting all three of these worlds simultaneously, bound together through relations and connections.
These relations had always been bounded by space; even the landline telephone, tied to a particular spot, only extended the reach of the individual’s ability to connect. The mobile made space an obsolete element in relationship, removing all constraints of where. The only determinant now is who we choose to connect with and relate to.
This shift from place to person marks a fundamental transformation in human relations, but one which has gone almost entirely unnoticed. Although human connectivity it may be the single most significant quality of the 21st century, it is also among the least remarked upon. We are so comfortable with human relations that amplifying them enormously provokes little more than a sigh of relief and (occasionally) a squeal of delight.
We now inhabit a world where no one is late anymore, just delayed. You can always phone ahead, or send a text message, keeping everyone informed and aware of your progress toward the common goal. There are no gaps or rough edges of ambiguity where others have no idea, in your absence, what should be done. The mobile has given us a very tangible taste of omnipresence. It may not be a bodily, pantheistic omnipresence, but we can put our ears, minds and voices together with others wherever and whenever needed. We can act omnipresently, and that is enough.
The second remarkable feature of this Australian story concerns my own reaction to the situation. As an American, I had no understanding of the mobile, nor any experience of the omnipresence it provides. I could not imagine any action to solve the dilemma of the missing friends. I believed nothing could be done about it. My ignorance limited my potential. In this, I was similar to the rest of my countrymen: we did not yet understand how the mobile transformed human relations.
For that understanding to dawn, enough of the population must possess a mobile that movements toward omnipresence are reinforced by repeated experience. You must connect – again and again and again – before you can truly comprehend this sudden omnipresence. Until there is sufficient uptake within a given group of people – a community or a nation – the mobile is useful, but not fundamentally transformational. When enough people have enough mobiles in enough numbers, people begin to accept the reality of omnipresence and act upon it.
The Australia I came to visit in 1997 had just passed the halfway point in mobile adoption. Over fifty percent of the nation carried mobiles with them. Meanwhile, in America, barely one in six used a mobile, and it would be another four years until mobiles connected half of the population of the richest nation on Earth. Already equipped with an excellent wired infrastructure, America came late to the party, and late to an understanding of omnipresence.
The rest of the world took rather less time to find their way into this new state of affairs.