Urban Solitude and the Mobile Phone

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(285)

There are two sides to the communication revolution, as Mike Gonzalez explains.

Standing in baggage reclaim at Luton airport the other day, it struck me that almost everyone around me had taken out their mobile phone. The 'William Tell' overture vied for space with 'A Little Night Music', while everyone spoke at a rising volume to be heard above all the other people speaking at the same time. What was the urgency? From what I could overhear there were two basic conversations: 'I'll be out in a minute - I'm just waiting for the bags' was one. The other just announced a safe arrival. Oh, and then there was the one making extremely loud business deals with what was probably an answering machine at the other end - to impress those around him, I suppose.

It's as if the mobile phone had turned us into people with a terrible fear of isolation and of silence. To reassure ourselves and others we have to find someone out there who will tell us that we're expected. If there's no one waiting for your call with bated breath then you're sad and lonely - a casualty of the instant society. It's the other face of the communications revolution - everyone and everything is accessible. I can get through reasonably easily to the CIA's database and any number of insurance companies and banks can find me wherever the hell I am. And yet this seems to bring no comfort, no security from knowing that everyone I care about is within reach.

It all seems so fragile, as if we cease to be human if we are not spoken to. On the one hand, the advertisers tell us we are part of a community - that we can send a photo from a mobile that arrives instantly on the screen of a smiling friend's machine. On the other, the community is only virtually there, and disappears with the flick of a button. So what should be a public place - a station, an airport, a cafe, a shop - becomes instead a space filled by a hundred tiny private bubbles. We can speak to someone we know - and avoid eye contact or casual encounters with the people standing next to us.

It's another and pernicious kind of privatisation. And is it only my imagination, or has it increased dramatically in recent times? There's not much there to protect you if there is a real danger - just a piece of plastic and a small Sim card. And yet it is marketed as a kind of protection, a shield against the world. Perhaps that isn't so surprising in the atmosphere of pervasive paranoia deliberately fostered by the Gauleiter Blunketts of the world who justify their assault on every kind of civil liberty with dark references to threats, some real, some imagined, surrounding us on every side.

Travelling recently in the US, it struck me that every radio station carried adverts every quarter of an hour or so warning of some imminent danger. There were security issues, there were threats from ageing, too much sun, contaminated water, uninsured travel, illness in a foreign country, unexpected death, breakdowns on the edge of the desert, exploding hairsprays and locusts. It was safe enough inside the car, but we wondered if it would be very wise to get out and risk contact with an outside world prickling with unseen dangers.

Obviously I'm not arguing for some good old days before phone boxes were vandalised and everyone knew your name at the Cheers bar. I'm not that much of a Luddite. What I am saying is that an unexpected consequence of instant communication might be to turn us in upon ourselves - ironically to create the communities that are exclusive and private spaces, to which we deny access to others while tantalising them by letting them know how wonderful it is to be part of that world we can only see one part of.

There is another possibility, of course, gloriously realised in Madrid particularly, but also all across Spain two days after the bombs at Atocha station. After the official demonstration, led (for the half hour of the photo opportunities) by grim-faced politicians whose intention was to mobilise people behind new repressive measures, a second series of demonstrations was mobilised entirely by text messaging and phone calls. Thousands emerged to express their rage and frustration at the politicians they kicked out of power a couple of days later. Now that was a real community, a victory of the collective over the private!


This will be the last of my Cultural Currents columns, for a while at least. I was taken aback to find I'd written them for five years, pleased to have been allowed to rattle on for so long and grateful to all those Socialist Review readers who took the trouble to read them, even if only to passionately disagree.