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Seinfeld Versus the iPhone

Feb
15
2008

Love it or consider it an overhyped piece of future landfill, you’ve got to recognize that the iPhone has had its impact since being introduced last summer. It’s shown us that some of these sci fi movie type devices really can exist (how about those cool hand gestures you use with it?). It can inspire flickers of desire in even the non-gadget minded. And most of all, it means we’ll never see the likes of Seinfeld again.
The iPhone has made it cool and really convenient to have web access in your pocket wherever you go. That means when you’re sitting around having a friendly conversation, it’s you, me – and the Internet, all seated together at the table.
Sure, BlackBerries (when they work) and their ilk also give you really portable Internet access, but they’ve got a workaholic, type A aura to them. The iPhone, which also ups familiarity by accessing regular rather than truncated web pages, has eased the way to making it acceptable to pull out the devices in private life (if that divide between work and private life really even exists anymore).
I’m not talking about checking email or making calls when you’re in a social setting, although it’s harder and harder to resist as devices are more and more at hand. Those acts are governed and vaguely repressed by whatever etiquette rules we’ve still got. And grownups aren’t at the European teen level. In part because some European landline systems had a history of problems (expensive, bad service) and in part because mobile phone systems were better than in the U.S. (relatively less expensive, cool services, no paying for calls you receive), Europeans rapidly embraced mobile service. This style seems to have caught on with U.S. kids too, but since at least the mid to late ’90s you’ve been able to see groups of European teens who were in theory hanging out together, but who were each quite happily texting or talking away on his or her own cell phone.
Instead, the problem is with simple conversation – and good conversation needs an intimate, enclosed emotional space. Where, for example, do you find the best chat at a party? The cozy kitchen, of course. But stick an iPhone on the table and you’ve got another party to the conversation pressing to join in. The whole World Wide Web is opened up to you and always there, beckoning with the possibility of checking, reading, chatting…something.
Seinfeld, which ran from 1989 to 1998, was all about a bunch of friends with the time and inclination to hang out together and talk about nothing much, humorously, off in their own dysfunctional reality. But imagine that Jerry had had an iPhone. Goodbye to the Seinfeldian conversational mode – Web access makes pointless conversation even more senseless, and tough to sustain just for its own amusing sake.
No need to wonder if there really aren’t any houses available in Tuscany, as Jerry did in one episode, and speculate on whether his acquaintance the Maestro didn’t want him nearby. Instead, sitting right at the table of the diner, he’d Google Tuscany rental villas, while George, what?, stares into space and plays with the sugar packet? That really is nothing to make a show out of.
Or instead of debating how much to tip a maid, and asking a serial killer in the back of a police car about it, George could just look it up – plenty of suggestions are out there.
Or remember when Jerry, George and Elaine spent an entire episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, while the time got closer and closer to the start of a movie they wanted to see after dinner? George of course would have been able to get through to the girlfriend he wanted to reach by pay phone if he had had any kind of cell phone. But with an iPhone or something similar, Jerry and company would also have been checking for other movies to go to later or looking at another restaurant’s menu and been out the door right away – no standing around betting whether Elaine will steal food from a stranger’s plate. Another episode killed.
Seinfeld sprang in part from the whole noble, European cafĂ©-inspired, American diner-adapted history of sitting around shooting the breeze, a tradition that is in grave danger thanks to the iPhone and its rapidly developing competitors. “No, no, Gustav, you cannot say man has free will.” “Oh yes, Henri.” “No, you are wrong. Look – Google it, let’s see what other ideas are out there.”
There is one conversational turn that probably has been killed off for the better, although it too has its sort of charm. It’s those disputes of facts – “No, Washington’s false teeth were really ivory.” “No, they were wood.” – where there’s a more or less polite disagreement and then each party goes home thinking the other’s an idiot and checks it out and sends an email if they’re really obsessive, and right. Well now, no need to wait – just pull out your phone.
And let me know when you’re done, would ya? Then we can talk.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 8:41 AM | Permalink

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