I just got a call from a friend in Berlin. She was on a "family heritage" trip to Poland and Germany, which as the child of Israelis was...difficult. So she found a VoIP phone at an Internet cafe and called me to talk. It was cheap; she could afford to tell me about her family’s ancestral town, the drive through Poland to Germany, her need for a good café and a drink.
VoIP to mobile might not be a novelty for lots of people, but for me it was a revelation. The bits went from a microphone in Berlin, through a server, through long cables, through more servers and cables and thence to the cellular network, (somewhere crossing the Atlantic), emerging clear and true from a mobile phone on a San Francisco freeway. I haven't been this excited about a phone call since I first heard a car phone ring in, um, 1992. I think.
There's a point here I'm getting to about the interplay between stability and mobility. Think about all the movement — temporal and spatial and social — that created that one brief conversation:
1) My friend is wandering around Europe (mobility 1: global tourism)
2) And is upset because of historical traumas (mobility 2: memory and time; mobility 3: emigration; and the potential for mobility 4: a one-way train trip in the 1940s to a small Polish town)
3) So she decides to go out on the town to feel better about Berlin (mobility 4: city-based tourism)
4) And calls her friend in America, who at that moment is driving from work to home (mobility 5: daily commute)
Everything and everyone is in motion except the phone at the Internet café. It’s the technological fulcrum around which this story turns. My friend could have used text — email or IM. But it was important, right then, to talk. My vision’s a little blurry from all the plane tickets, family history, close friendships, and street signs whizzing by. But the social effect of cheap and publicly accessible VoIP (like, I guess, cheap and accessible long distance telephone service) still seems miraculous.
I want to hold on to this sense of wonder as long as I can, because pretty soon VoIP will become invisible as technology (as the phone did). Invisibility is (one) ideal, of course. We couldn’t move smoothly through our complicated 21st century days if every minute or so we stopped to savor the pleasure of doors that open automatically, or lights that turn on when we walk by, or hot water pouring from a tap. We need to be in motion, so we have to stop paying attention to all the fulcrums around which our daily routines turn.
It’s nice to be reminded, occasionally. To be mindful of how utterly ridiculous and pleasurable it is to talk to a distant friend, and the infrastructions - simultaneously stable and very fragile - necessary to have made that connection.