The "mobile phone" -- as in, a portable telephonic device you can use anywhere, except on the train between Winchester and Southampton -- has been with us now for some years. There is no denying that in its current evolutionary state as "the smartphone" it has become a wondrous thing. To carry a phone, a camera, and the entire internet in your pocket in the same sleek gadget is a truly future-tastic Dan Dare moment. However, these devices have had an impact on behaviour which is not entirely benign.
From its earliest days, the annoyance of having to listen to one half of a mobile phone conversation was the stuff of "observational" comedy. "I'm on the train!" became a watchword for inane, inconsiderate behaviour. Do you remember the story about the guy talking loudly and obnoxiously on a mobile phone in a train carriage, which -- when he was asked to use it to get help in a sudden medical emergency -- turned out to be a non-functional toy? Back then, a decade or more ago, that story was all about "us" versus "them" i.e. a non-mobile-phone using majority vs. a minority of selfish, infantile show-offs. But now, when according to Ofcom's figures for 2010 over 90% of the adult population of the UK owns a mobile phone, it has become quaintly historic.
But the issues of how, when and where to use a mobile have not gone away, however, they have simply become more complicated.
Walking around town and the university campus, I am struck by how hard it is to distinguish "phone-driven" behaviours from mental disorder or distress. I see people talking animatedly to themselves, waving their arms and gesticulating in various corners. I see people frowning down at their palm and muttering, as they page through mails walking along. I see people laughing, shouting and sometimes crying at no obvious stimulus, as they do something as innocuous as fill a bag with potatoes in a supermarket. The genuine lunatics must feel aggrieved at having their act stolen like this.
A lot of overseas students are particularly fond of hands-free earphone-and-microphone sets, which only adds to the confusion. A bearded man of Middle-Eastern appearance with a loud angry voice comes striding towards you, both hands waving energetically, eyes fixed in the middle distance -- you have seconds to decide whether or not to take evasive action. A Chinese girl is smiling broadly at you through the shop window and nodding vigorously -- no, don't wave at her, fool, she's only on the phone!
There seems to be a new version of "privacy" under construction -- Privacy 2.0, perhaps*. Call me an uptight boomer but, personally, if I wanted to discuss my financial situation or my recent operation, or to have a row with a builder, I would probably wait until the room was empty, close the door, and try to keep my voice down. I would certainly not do it loudly and uninhibitedly in the street, on the bus, or in Tesco. Nowadays, it seems, no-one is expected to pay attention if a person's life appears to be falling apart before your very eyes. What business is it of yours? Why should you care if someone is in tears amid the alien sweetcorn, or of exceeding wrath in Poundland? Get a life, stickybeak!
One of my colleagues complained to me the other day that she had been phoned, on an "urgent" work matter, while away on holiday at Easter. I sympathised, but thought, More fool you, for letting senior management have your mobile number. To me, my mobile is a private matter, shared with about five other people. I only turn it on when I need to use it. But this progressive, consensual and mutual erosion of privacy via electronic devices seems to be a generational thing. My kids will receive and reply to texts from their friends under the restaurant table, even while engaging me in conversation at, ahem, an extremely expensive celebratory meal at Monsieur Blanc's establishment in Oxford. It's the next step up in the evolution of multitasking, I suppose, from the way they did their homework while watching the TV, something I always found incomprehensible.
The barriers that I and my generation erect between activities, that serve to compartmentalise our lives into "work", "leisure", "friends", "family", "public" and "private", are clearly dissolving. This is how I know old age is approaching: too many fundamentally new things are starting to be beyond my ken. Twitter? Facebook? There is no obvious place in my 20th century life for these 21st century things. Try as I might to stay au courant, my similes and metaphors are losing purchase on the world. Face it, those of us over 50 are hard-wired with a little icon in our brains of a proper bakelite handset with a dial, the one that lights up when anyone says "telephone".
Do you still raise your voice and ask "Can you hear me OK?" when using a mobile? Do you worry endlessly about the battery running out? Does the idea of tossing £50-worth of hi-tech gadget in the bin outrage you? Do you wonder what on earth all these people find to talk about, constantly, just because they can? Are you mystified why youngsters under 30 prefer to text rather than speak to a friend on their phone? Don't worry, you're just getting old, baby, and so am I.
* Actually, given Privacy 1.0 was "everyone sleeping in a cave", we're probably onto the beta version of Privacy 4700.1.76.54.2 by now, but you take my point.
Humble Retraction 19/4/2012: A certain young man has strenuously denied using his phone on a recent occasion, and I humbly retract my unfounded allegation. However, I'm pretty sure there was some brisk keyboard action going on in the seat next to him, so the rhetorical truth of my illustration still stands... For the record, I should probably also point out that the meal was not "extremely" expensive, as the Brasserie Blanc is actually quite reasonable, given the standard of the food, though my advice is not to choose the liver.