Friday, 29 June 2012

Man was born free, but everywhere he is chained to a mobile phone

Mobile phones (cell phones in the U.S.) are one of the inventions that have changed our lives profoundly. They work in sync with the internet, e-mail, kindle and others to pass information (or misinformation) faster and easier. The phone itself, of course, can now be a camera or a mini-computer.

The benefits, even to those who use them conservatively, are enormous. They've saved many lives, especially of climbers and hill-walkers lost, trapped or injured alone (if they had network coverage, of course). People threatened by would-be robbers or rapists have been able to phone the police. Less dramatically, how helpful it is when delayed on the way to a meeting some way away to be able to phone the person you're supposed to be meeting and not only explain you'll be late, but check whether, say, they can see you an hour later or whether you might as well turn around and rearrange. Last week I set off to visit a nature reserve some way from my home, one I'd not visited before. On the way I realised that while I'd brought maps, I'd left the notebook with directions at home. I found the place - but how welcome it would have been to have been able to use my phone, which in fact is basic, to visit the website and record the directions plus their phone number!

But... Here is a true story.

I was in a queue to be served at a Subway. The person two in front of me gave his order and moved on. The large woman in front of me took a step or two forward and stopped. She was having a conversation on her phone, one of those long ones where the speaker complains over and over again to a third party about someone else's unhelpfulness. The staff member (in my experience Subway staff in the U.K. are remarkably polite, which may be company policy or may be because they seem to have employed a lot of Africans) asked if he could help her. She completely ignored him. Thinking she might not have heard him because of her conversation, and not wanting to push in front of her if she did want to be served, I spoke to her and asked if she was wanting to be served.

"No, I'm waiting for someone," she said resentfully, returning to her conversation to remark in a very loud voice, "Some people are so rude!"

"Yes, they are," I said, but left it at that and gave the staff member my order.

Now I could not help thinking:
I suspect no-one else in the shop wanted to hear her loud complaints, but in fact everyone could;
If she was waiting for someone who was being served, she had no need to go into the queue;
To be treated as if you don't exist is very upsetting to nearly all people and that was precisely what she did to the staff member.

The story highlights a few points - for example, that people on mobile phones often seem to be completely unaware - or uncaring - that lots of other people have no choice but to hear them; that people getting into such a conversation often become oblivious to what's happening round them. That can be a danger to them: I've seen people deep in a conversation stepping into the road without looking or barging into people - though many seem to have a sixth sense to avoid this.

This isn't to say that people should never have such conversations. Maybe before long we'll have technology that could make such conversations silent to outsiders as texting is, but for now, that's not possible. I remember on a railway platform listening (as I had to unless I walked a long way away, which might have been conspicuous) to a young guy who had just come out of prison and was having a painful conversation with his girlfriend. I don't know the rights and wrongs, but she was clearly in repeated attack mode and he was trying to calm her down and find common ground. It was very obvious that the whole thing was very painful to him, but clearly he needed to have that conversation and compared to that, others' wish not to hear it should take second place.

Using a phone while driving - unless it's hands-free - is hugely dangerous but most often kills other people, not you. Fortunately it's illegal in the U.K., but people still do it. Even hands-free has been shown to make as much difference to attention and reaction times as drinking over the U.K. alcohol limit.

So there are dangers, but there's a subtler problem. Do we really want to be able to access everything immediately? If something happens that you want to describe to a friend or loved one, in most cases, would it be worse for waiting a few hours, during which you could consider it? When do we learn through silence, calm, contemplation, if there are stimuli begging us for attention all the time? When do we think?

Apparently most people in the U.K. would be seriously worried if separated from their mobile phones. That bothers me! I struggle to understand how one could get so dependent on being constantly contactable and constantly able to make contact. Me, I enjoy times when I'm not contactable and can't or won't make contact with others!

There is obviously an age factor here, but I'm reassured to find some young people who also want to treat the phone as a convenience but not a master. All is not lost. And by the way - if you've been trying to phone me, it's switched off.

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