30 - Telephones and why I hate them

 

I have decided that I hate the telephone. Not the idea in principle, but the result of their use.

For five years or so while I worked in Cambridge I lived my life on the phone. That exciting job was basically academic research and largely one spent the working day collecting information to share in several forms. This entailed a lot of every day on the phone – even in 1978 our office phone bill among just five of us reached £1000 a month. Among other things, it wore out my liking for the instrument; it was lovely to be wanted, but the level of interruption when in the throes of attempting creating a literary masterpiece, or at the very least a work using precise language, made one wish for peace. Which is probably why we each did so much work on the train.

As a teacher in an environment where the mobile is prevalent and all the children rely on their phones for all sorts of trivial knowledge, the response of the institution is to ban the phone. So it is only just & proper that staff should have theirs off, or at the least in silent mode. The very success of the mobile and the ease of use has made it altogether too easy to fail to plan, to organise and to think. Examples: the almost-found person in a crowd says “Where are you?” into their mobile, when “I’m under the clock” would be helpful; the static supermarket shopper ringing home to ask which of several near-identical products to pick (as if it matters, says he, the uncaring male); the incessant idiots on the train “I’m in Biggleswade”, “We’re going into a tunnel”: each case makes us foolish and exemplifies the way the ease of contact has made it possible to apparently avoid any advance thought. And to display public stupidity.

Such is this case, that now it is entirely normal habit, when going to meet someone, to plan only vaguely. A good example occurred today; invited to meet a new colleague, we arrange to go to her house; I know roughly where in the city to within 200m and so will go at the appointed time and be approximately correct geographically. When I get there, I will ring and be physically ‘found’ by the resident. You could argue that this is effective use of the instrument, since on this occasion I don’t know enough landmarks (and never have known enough common landmarks).

In a crowd, when contact with friends is lost, the phone will help meet up again and here I have issue only with the conversation. Where the objective (Starbucks, say) is known, do you need to use the phone? So why do so many do just that? Is this herd instinct at work, or a fear of solitude? If so, is it that fear of potential loneliness (note the several levels of ‘perhaps’ there) which drives so many into inane chatter? Is it ‘easier’? Really?


The perception of a lack of safety of the streets in Britain has ensured that all women carry a phone with the speed dial set and ready for a panic attack (I wonder which number is selected, whose panic attack and whether it would or could actually be used if needed). The actuality is or has been more that phones are the targets, not their owners. There are effects around the world at having so many phones (and with that, cameras of various sorts) that the very nature of our society is changing. It is the immediacy offered by the phone that is spoiling our ability for thought. There is a disturbing correlation between success at school and a lack of access to communications. Now, there is an issue to explore. Essays, please.

There are further consequences. When you ring me (someone) there are assumptions you make at the point of transmission. Too often these assumptions include that the called is in the same state as the caller – willing and able to talk; in the same mood, mode and modality as the caller; particularly, in the same state of mind. That the called person might be occupied is rarely ascertained and the fundamental assumption of most observed mobile calls is that the called person has an infinite supply of patience, of time and very definitely nothing better to do. Given then that the content of these observed calls is near to zero, I wonder at the direction of our society. Perhaps we are becoming the much-anticipated consumer society; perhaps we have even arrived in such a sorry state since we accept that retail therapy is a reality¹, that shopping is a pastime (even a necessary one). I despair at this, except in one regard: it means that the few who do manage to achieve some thinking will be exactly that, a few, and therefore we few may be able to profit from that residual ability.

What happens to the status of those few? They might become the new intellectuals – in the original sense of thinkers, not as dilettantes: however, what would their status be? Two extremes seem likely to me: either the massed ranks exclude them as being in some pariah state, or they rise as the patricians of modern society. If the latter, we may be heading to a society where the intellectual rises in status – a position generally not so in Britain since the days of Newton. [You might find conflict here with talking heads – public intellectuals; intellectuals allowed to be so in public.] On the other hand, many so-called intellectuals were holders of arcane knowledge, not thinkers, and the modern mobile, with ready access to that fount of knowledge, the internet, makes us all instant experts². If we are opinion holders though, it is only because the phone is in hand. The distinction lies in using the available knowledge to generate analysis and thought; there lies the probable future of education.

Which, as a sequence of dubious logical argument, is quite a long way from hating the phone.

DJS 20080930

Incidentally, by reading this at all, you may qualify as an intellectual !!

Small edits, 20100824 and smaller still, mostly below, on 20121009 See also a later essay, Landlines to go .


1 I note that the 6 letters of retail are all seen in reality.

2 It is very difficult to be paid for thinking. We ascribe a good deal of positive measures of success (money & fame) to those iterative talking heads; we give credibility to those who work in academia and can make their work accessible to the public – but I suspect the same respect is not accorded them when at work in Halls (of Academe), we give respect to those people who mange to write a book that catches the public eye (having first caught the eye of a discerning publisher). I feel a Freakonomics essay coming on... 20121010

© David Scoins 2017