A CNN report on the Aurora, Colorado shooting on July 20, 2012 where twelve died in a movie theater noted the “eerie sound of cell phones ringing, over and over again.” Another story on a night club fire in Santa Maria, Brazil where over two hundred perished focused on how the ringing were particularly unnerving for first responders. Confronted with a scene of unimaginable tragedy, the media are repeatedly compelled to note what is a comparatively trivial point: the presence of ringing cell phones. Here I am interested not in confronting the cause or scope of these tragic events, which vary in their international context and cause. This would be a disservice to the victims. Rather, I am just hoping to unpack: why is this detail particularly disturbing? Why is it even noteworthy for the media to report this minor fact in a culture suffused with cell phones? Isn’t the scope of these tragedies horrifying enough?

Cell phones are attached to individuals as personal technologies. As has been frequently noted, you no longer call someone’s phone, rather you call them. A mobile phone does not exist on its own in space. This is a difference from previous generations. A ringing land-line phone would simply indicate that nobody was home. The place, a house, would be empty – not a particularly disturbing thought. Furthermore, use of mobile devices as phones is something of a rarity. Young people in particular use their multifunctional devices for coordination and communication through anything but voice: SMS text messaging, email, web surfing, geolocative services, micro-blogging and so on. The sudden ringing of cell phones in tandem is a rare event that throws us off-guard. I’m reminded of the end sequence in the (admittedly, schlocky) “cyberspace” thriller Lawnmower Man; it isn’t clear if the antagonist survived, until he fulfills his promise of making every phone on earth ring simultaneously, an action so rare that it couldn’t happen naturally.

Fears about the simultaneously enabling and constricting nature of cell phones reflect the integration of mobile devices into society as an extension of paranoias about technologies as a whole. Allison Whitney noted that in films using landline phones, “while people grew to appreciate the telephone’s efficacy in supporting personal and public safety, modern societies’ growing dependence on this technology also aroused larger anxieties about the system’s potential contingencies and failures.” Films routinely use mobile phones as plot devices, showing characters talking on cell phones only to keep movie-goers on edge when they break or go out of range. A ringing cell phone after a tragedy reminds us how technology is often useless to prevent these kinds of tragic events.

Mobile devices are seen as both enabling and constraining. Although we are tightly-integrated into networks of friends and families on mobile devices, technology is seen as paradoxically isolating. Nowhere is this more visible in the current obsession of psychologists creating diagnoses around technology usage. Young people are described in the media as simultaneously technology-savvy (“digital natives”) and at increased risk for a host of unhealthy habits.“Facebook addiction” describes how users are helpless to resist their desires to check in on their social media networks, which can even cause depression. The theory here is that social networks are a constant reminder of how much better off others are doing, and we feel worse about ourselves.

 A ringing cell phone next to a body is also “an instant reminder that this person is human.” Humanity here is oddly associated more with the technology than with the person. The uncanny valley effect describes our revulsion to a person that appears alive, but are also noticeably not alive. Zombies, for example, let us flirt with this sense of horror. On one hand they are literally the living dead, but on the other, would never be mistaken for being literally alive. Ringing cell phones next in the site of a tragedy force us to consider the connectedness and humanity of victims.

This is also an example of how we are forced to blend previously disparate steps of notification and mourning that used to be clearly-defined. Decades ago, a tolling bell was a signal to a community to come together to mourn, rather than reminding us of friends and family who haven’t yet been notified. 

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