In 2009, cell phones were far from new. The iPhone turned two that year. Smartphones weren’t quite ubiquitous yet, but as a culture, we were thinking consciously about our phones. Although we relied on them and used them less than we do today, that didn’t stop “Telephone,” the iconic duet by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, from becoming a chart-topping hit (and internet sensation in early 2010 thanks to its associated Quentin Tarantino-inspired music video).
It’s interesting, then, to consider what “Telephone” tells us about the function and cultural significance of cell phones at the time. With lyrics like “stop callin’, stop callin’” and “call all you want, but there’s no one home,” our culture was seemingly reflecting that phones were still, well, phones, for talking. Beyoncé’s annoyance with the distraction of her phone culminates with regret:
I shoulda left my phone at home
‘Cause this is a disaster
– Beyoncé, 2009
Fast forward seven years to 2016. Lizzo bursts onto the scene with the incredibly catchy “Phone.” After a night out, the lights come on at 2:15am, and she realizes she’s lost her phone and doesn’t know how she’ll get home.
Where the hell my phone? Where the hell my phone?
Where the hell my, where the hell my phone, huh?
How I’m ‘posed to get home?
– Lizzo, 2016
In less than a decade, our culture went from viewing phones as an annoyance while out, enjoying life (to the extreme that one might have even considered leaving the device at home while one was out for the evening — a situation that would be virtually incomprehensible to today’s youth), to an essential technology around which we structure our lives, including in how we spatially navigate the world around us.
In 2009, figuring out how to get from one place to another looked a lot different. Uber, which launched its ride-hailing service in San Francisco in 2010, didn’t yet exist. Digital maps with instant directions weren’t quite widespread. Transit apps telling us when the next bus or train will arrive were still an evolving technology. Getting around required a working knowledge of how the places we visited were spatially connected as well as a general understanding of transit frequency in those places or where to catch a cab.
But today, with an Uber or Lyft a tap away, traffic-optimized directions available at a voice command, and the ability to track a train or bus in real time, having a spatial understanding of our surroundings is less necessary. Lizzo, after she’s left the bar and has started walking home, even admits, “I don’t know where I’m going,” even though she’s trying to get to her own home, in her own city.
Technology has long been a defining factor in how cities function and how cities are organized spatially. The easiest example of this is to contrast the urban forms of cities built pre-automobile with those built post-automobile. But smartphones, and the effects they have on our cities and how we navigate them, are somewhat different. The effects they have on our cities occur not because of a need to accommodate a new transportation technology in physical space, but rather because of the individual relationship each of us has with the built environment around us. What does it mean for cities when residents never have to develop a sense of spatial awareness? What does it mean for cities when its residents conceptualize of their home as only a series of unconnected places rather than one geographic entity? What does that mean for a city’s culture and economy? And what does it mean for the future of the urban form of cities?
These are just a few of the questions raised by the cultural change demonstrated by these two songs separated by just seven years. How we seek to answer them, and other questions like them, in terms of both culture and policy, will have a significant impact on the future of our cities and our lives.
About the Authors:
Nate Seeskin is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where he concentrates in transportation, land use, and environmental planning. Hailing from the midwest originally, Nate can often be found perusing around Carrboro on his bicycle.
Travis Crayton is a dual-degree master’s candidate pursuing degrees in city & regional planning and public administration. He is professionally interested in transportation planning & policy and is personally passionate about pop culture.
Featured Image: Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons