Sunday, August 27, 2006

Collective Insanity

I was on the train to London. There was a man sitting a couple of seats up, facing me. I’d noticed him when he’d first got on, glancing up from my book as he took off his overcoat and folded it into the luggage rack. He was an ordinary looking chap, with a suit and a briefcase. After that I’d not paid any more attention, carrying on with my book.

It was about five minutes later when I looked again. I could only see half of his face and his reflection in the window. It was the sound of his voice which had alerted me. He was looking at his reflection, smiling and talking to himself. He seemed to be enjoying his own company very much.

My whole view of him changed. Before I’d seen him as a sober business man on a trip to a meeting. Now he looked completely mad, staring at his own reflection, talking and laughing. I was embarrassed and looked away.

But I was fascinated too. I couldn’t help taking the occasional peep, to see how his ongoing relationship with his reflected image was progressing. Was he enjoying the joke he seemed to be telling himself?

It took a few more minutes before I realised what was happening. His voice suddenly quietened, his face went blank, and he stopped looking at his reflection. He looked sane again. That’s when I realised he must have been talking to his mobile phone. I couldn’t see the hand to his ear because of the seat in front.

It gives you pause for thought, doesn’t it? A few years ago the only people talking to themselves in public were mad people. The rest of us might let slip the occasional thought, but we’d stop when anyone heard us. These days everyone‘s doing it.

This has been made even more strange by the introduction of hand-free sets. These days you see people wandering around all over the place, standing in shop doorways, talking to themselves, without even a phone in their hand. Imagine if you arrived here from some past date and saw this: you’d think everyone in the 21st century was mad.

Maybe they are. Maybe all that radiation being funnelled directly into people’s brains has boiled them, turning their grey-matter to soup. Maybe people really are talking to themselves. In fact, how can you be sure that there’s really another person on the end of your phone, and it’s not just voices in your head?

Mobile phones are symptomatic of a collective insanity.

Here’s something else I’ve noticed. The tone of a mobile phone ring is so piercing and all-pervading that no one can tell where it’s coming from. Whenever one rings in a public place, everyone has to check whether it is theirs or not. This happens all the time. There’s a high-pitched, rhythmic squeal, like someone’s repeatedly sticking a pin into a pig’s bottom, and then half the people in the room stand up, fumbling for their phones, before putting them away again disappointedly. It’s one of the sorrows of modern life, having a phone which no one rings.

Personally I always found them very intrusive. You might be having an important conversation with someone. But then their phone rings, and it’s your conversation which gets interrupted. No one answers their phone and says, “I’m sorry, but can you ring back? I’m having a conversation with someone else right now.” They always break your conversation so they can talk to the other person, as if having a mobile phone, and the ability to press buttons in the right order, immediately makes you a far more interesting person.

Actually I managed to do without a mobile phone for many years. My attitude was, if the conversation is important then it can wait till I get home. All of this changed when my land-line went down due to a technical fault. I was off-line for over a month. So there was no phone when I got home either, which meant I may have been missing some very important conversations in the meantime. So I got a mobile phone. A very cheap mobile phone. It has a black and white screen, can’t take photographs, can’t take video clips or record sounds and has no games on it of any note.

Nevertheless, I must admit, I like my mobile phone. It’s a Nokia. It’s small and neat and it fits into my hand with a sort of ergonomically satisfying smoothness. It is exactly the right weight and size. Obviously it was designed that way. I use it as a clock, as an alarm clock and - occasionally - as a phone.

I am particularly enamoured of its texting facility. Learning to text was like learning a brand new skill. I use predictive text which means that occasionally I have to teach my mobile phone brand new words. Like the time I taught it how to spell “Hypostasis” and “Archons” (which I wrote about before) while sending someone a text about early Christian literature. I guess there won’t be too many times when I will have cause to use these words. Indeed, I only used them that once. But you never know, do you? One day maybe, people will be saying “Hypostasis of the Archons” all the time in which case - ha! - I’ll be ready.

I’ve just had a thought. Maybe I should add a new word to my mobile phone dictionary every day. I could send texts to various people to try out new words, to see if they are in my dictionary or not. And if they are not - well hey - I will just have to add them. So it won’t be just a mobile phone any more: it will be the most erudite mobile phone in existence.

I wonder if “erudite” is in my mobile phone dictionary?

Yes it is.

The one problem is that I keep forgetting to carry my mobile phone around with me. I stick it in my jacket pocket to go out, and then, when I return, I take my jacket off and hang it up and forget about my mobile phone, which can often mean that my mobile phone is down stairs in the hall while I am two floors up and unable to hear it. Thus I get a lot of answer-phone messages.

I had a message on my answer-phone the other day from a friend of mine. He said, “Chris, can I tell you how to use a mobile phone?” He said, “the point about a mobile phone is that it is mobile. That’s why it’s called a mobile phone. So the point is you are supposed to carry it around with you. That way, when people ring you up you can answer the phone and they wouldn’t have to keep leaving you messages.”

Maybe he has a point.



Chandira said...


I have to share a story about Robert's insane mobile phone usage.

Picture a still, silent ocean, a flat grey sky, starfish and anemones in the clear bluegreen water. We were Kayaking in the Puget Sound, home of killer whales and porpoises. There we were, in a double kayak drifting.

Suddenly I hear talking. Robert is on his phone, making a call. Not recieving one, making one.

I wished for Neptune Himself to rear up His Fishy Self out of the deep,and throw that thing away!! Grr..

Anonymous said...

The curse of the 21st century. I agree with your points about insanity - I'm not so sure people don't phone themselves up to make it look like they've got friends instead of being sad bastards who have to let everybody know where they are all the time.

Whatever happened to chance meetings, coincidences, synchronicities?

I love the story of the man on the London-Brighton train who got so sick of the idiot sitting near him shouting (another thing - why do people have to shout into the things - is it broken or something?) into his mobile that he snatched the thing and threw it out of the window. Maybe an urban legend but if I found him I'd give him a medal.

Peace and quiet - things of the past, it seems. Now I love LOUD things, music etc. but in its place and not inflicted on persons who do not wish to know the life stories of terminally boring people. Have you ever overheard an interesting conversation from one of these addicts or is it just 'Where are you?' - 'I'm on the bus....' ZZZZZ......

Regards, J.
(Not a misanthrope all the time)