Saturday, April 14, 2012

Alien Sweetcorn

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.

9 comments:

Martin said...

I tried Twitter, but just didn't get it, so I dumped it. I really enjoy blogging, I'm in the early stages of an experimental relationship with FB, and I often refer to my android phone as the world in my pocket. I guess it really is a question of how/if these things suit our lifestyles. In a recent conversation on the subject of social media platforms, I suggested to an American author that blogging is a bit like visiting someone's house, while FB is more about bumping into a friend or acquaintance in the street. Not a comfortable analogy, I'll grant you but you'll get my drift. On the whole, I tend not to respond to the 'keep up, grandad' line, but that's because the little kid in me finds it hard not to get excited by the shiny 'new'.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

Do you play games, either on your computer or ion a console? I think that is the root of the true generational divide, though there are exceptions. I was floored to discover that my sister -- 8 yrs older than me and a Baptist deacon -- is a keen Playstation user.

Mike

Martin said...

As if to underline the weirdness of the whole human/computer interaction 'thing', I'm writing this while listening, via the internet, to Will Self on J.G.Ballard.

But, back to your question. I have to admit, there is a certain level of competition between me and my five year old granddaughter, when it comes to Angry Birds. I fear there's no hope for me, Mike.

Mike C. said...

Angry Birds doesn't really count as a game, it's what David Cameron mentions when he wants to seem a man of the people. I'm talking immersive role-playing games which require a specialist console or mastering a set of complex key combos to navigate, and hours of dedication -- the latest to obsess my two is Mass Effect 3.

I cannot interest myself in them, but to the younger generations these are the "new rock and roll". A whole new language is being developed to which I am deaf, in the same way my father couldn't "hear" rock music.

Mike

Martin said...

Ah, I see. Well, I'd probably find the gaming a lot of fun...if my fingers, thumbs and reflexes were up to it. I can appreciate the attraction, and would definitely have a go, always in the knowledge that I'd be rubbish at it, for all the reasons above.

I do have a Nintendo Wii, but I mainly use it for streaming BBC iPlayer through my TV.

Mike C. said...

If you have a Wii (!) then the Road to Gaming is wide open... Expensive, though, not least in time.

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

The time factor is indeed the primary determinant when it comes to gaming. Sorry Martin, but you don't "have a go" at gaming. You spend hundreds of hours to get to the point where you're merely competent. It's like learning software. Well, it is learning software.

For me, do I want to read and write and photograph, or do I want to spend those endless hours learning another level of some war game? Which might be useful if one intends to join the military. Otherwise, it's not clear to me the attraction, other than the immersion in a fictional world much more graphic than what can be done with "mere" words. But it's obvious which side of the divide I'm on...

Mike C. said...

Kent,

That's it, exactly -- what baffles me about gaming is the payoff. Even in those games which don't, essentially, come down to a shoot 'em up, the rewards seem incommensurate with the effort involved -- but I clearly don't get it, which is why I think it's a generational thing.

After all, you should have heard my father going on about rock's "three chord trick", but the hairs on my neck rise whenever I hear the intro to, say, "Johnny B. Goode" ...

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

Funny about your dad, Mike. He was right, of couse. The Blues is an endless repetition of the same three chords, but the permutations we have are astounding. Here again, he didn't "get it" probably because he wasn't willing to invest the hundreds of hours (thousands?) those of us who enjoy it have. There was no payback for him. As there isn't for us old farts with gaming.