Thursday, August 23, 2007

Coleridge in the Digital Age: Cell Phone as Porlock

Who's Porlock?

Well, just about every literate person will recognize "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, A stately pleasure-dome decree..." and most will have heard the story behind it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in an opium trance. He started writing that beautiful poem. Fifty-two equally splendid lines came forth- but Coleridge was interrupted by a knock on the door, from a "person on business from Porlock," according to Coleridge's notes...

And by the time he got back to his poem, he had lost it - leaving us just the fragment.

Some cynics claim that Coleridge made up the whole incident to explain his unfinished fragment - that there was no person from Porlock who interrupted him. Others, seeing some high moral ground in the story, accept it, and point to the pitfalls of drugs as its primary lesson.

I don’t know whether the story is true or false. But it has always struck me as having a completely different lesson: the vulnerability of the creative impulse, indeed our thoughts at any time, to interruption from the outside world.

And I’ve long held that this capacity to interrupt - to shatter our inner world when a call comes in at an inopportune time - is the one real drawback of the cellphone. The very power that the cellphone gives to make a call, to express ourselves at the instant we wish, is turned against us when we receive a call we would rather not have - or, even if we receive a call that would otherwise be welcome, at a different time.

Of course, we can turn off our phone - but that incurs social penalties, such as having to explain to callers why our phone was off.

But, optimist that I am, I can see a route to hope: had the iPhone or any cell phones with Internet connections existed back in the late 1790s, the person on business from Porlock might not have needed to pay a call on Coleridge in the first place. He might have received what he needed on the Internet, the access to which is entering a whole new realm of ease via cell phones. And maybe Coleridge, had he been writing "In Xanadu" on his iPhone or Blackberry, might have been able to retrieve more of his memory with the visceral stimulus of the device in hand. And here's the really crucial point- hold it, there’s someone knocking at my door-Cellphone by Paul Levinson


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