Thursday, 16 August 2007

Our Selfish Society 2: Mobile Phone Abuse

This one was prompted by recent commentary I have heard about the use of mobile phones as they are called in the UK. I was very much in sympathy with it. As you can see, yesterday I already commented about the selfishness of using mobile phones while driving. Though 'hands free' kits are safer than holding the phone, research has shown that just talking on a phone tends to send the sight lines of even experienced drivers all over the place. I know that talking on a phone is no worse than having children screaming in the back, but it does tend to be more sustained and unlike listening to the radio or a CD or your MP3 player in the car, it needs you to pay attention in order to respond, attention you cannot give to the road or the traffic. Paying attention is very necessary to keep you alive on the UK's roads given how dangerously so many people habitually drive these days.

What about mobile phone use outside the car? Before I go further, I must say I have no problem with mobile phones, I have no problem with laptops and palmtops, with fancy watches or digital cameras, what I have a problem with is the selfish way that people use them. People can sing or whistle selfishly if they choose, it is not an issue of technology. However, I do think, that as many mobile phone advertisers suggest, mobile phones take the users into 'another world' and they become oblivious of where they actually are. Classic cases that all of you must have witnessed is someone sitting in a 'quiet carriage' on a train (I assume other countries have these) and the person is sitting right under a sign with the symbol of a mobile phone crossed out and they are busily chatting away, usually far louder than is necessary and certainly louder than you would normally talk on a train. There is a sense that it is a human right to be able to use your mobile phone, and conversely that no-one has the right to have some quiet even if they have deliberately gone into a specific place to get it.

I see people using mobile phones in libraries, often, in the case of teenagers, to talk to someone actually in the same building. The worse case I witnessed was back as early as the late 1990s when a librarian came over and asked the young man to stop using his phone and he started narrating what was happening to the person on the other end of the phone 'there's an old biddy getting lary with me...' he said, to quote. To translate, 'there is a middle-aged woman who is in a position of some authority but I do not respect who has asked me to comply with the regulations of this building, but I am too selfish to comply...'. Such attitudes again demonstrate the trend I noted yesterday - a supreme arrogance. These people believe that their, very petty concerns, trump any regulation or any comfort of anyone else on the planet. They do not exist in society, just (interestingly again as many mobile phone advertisers suggest in how they style their adverts) in a bubble of their own importance.

I once visited a government office which had some kind of unobtrusive system that blocked mobile phone signals, causing lots of dismay to some visitors who looked like drug addicts cut off from their supply. I do not know if courts, churches, schools, libraries can invest in such equipment themselves. It would benefit everyone even the potential phone users who might actually pay attention to what is going on.

There is much other use of mobile phones, such as texting which is common and may seem anti-social but generally does not cause much harm. Though I acknowledge that many people texting are oblivious to what is around them so put themselves at risk, especially stepping off kerbs without looking and they do knock into others but are usually moving at such a slow speed as to be avoidable. The fact that people should into mobile phones as if they were a tin can tied to a piece of string or that phone technology has not advanced in the past 80 years, is also a curiosity but really only bad when combined with the phone misuse in places like trains and libraries noted above.

I have no desire to ban people breaking off midway through a conversation to answer their mobile phone even when they know the caller's number will be recorded on their phone in the way it was never done in the past with landline phones and also the person most likely leave a message. Doing that is simply rudeness though born from this feeling that the bubble the owner lives in is far more important than the rest of the Planet. People need to learn manners. They also need to learn that they are signalling to the person that they are talking to that that other person means less to them than a squeaking machine which is incredibly insulting.

The most offensive misuse of mobile phones, though, is their use in bullying. This is both in terms of texts, pictures and calls that threaten people and also of images recorded of people being bullied and attacked. Bullying by mobile phone is particularly invasive for one of the reasons I have outlined, it seems to reach right into the person's bubble. Usually with the worst bullies you can run to your bedroom and bolt the door but with phone bullying they get right in there providing no escape. For young people being without a mobile phone is to be socially dead and yet it makes them vulnerable to this additional, very intrusive form of attack.

As for filming or photographing attacks on people by phone, that is simply a criminal aspect. You might wonder why people would video themselves or their friends bullying or attacking someone and so providing evidence of their crime. Well, it happens, and increasingly they even post it on YouTube. Clearly it is part of the bravado of both young men and women, to show how tough they are and that they are 'in' in terms of youth culture. However, to me, it is scarily reminiscent of the photographs taken by SS and Gestapo units on extermination action during the Second World War. There were thousands of photographs taken of such people torturing and murdering people right through Poland, the Soviet Union and elsewhere, absolutely revelling in their barbarity. This aspect of the war was probably best expressed in a mainstream story in the movie 'Music Box' (1989) which features a lawyer uncovering such photos of a unit of the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian paramilitary unit which also carried out such atrocities during the Second World War. The author George Orwell (1903-1950) argued that the UK could never have a dictatorship of the kind that was experienced elsewhere in Europe, but from what I see of British people's willingness to behave in such similar ways, I doubt his view was accurate. The abuse of mobile phones, it seems, just highlights what an unhealthy, self-centred society the UK is today.

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