March 02, 2010

“€˜Live for the here…”€™

That was the unsolicited advice proffered by an aged Beat poet to a restaurant diner at a nearby table who would not leave his cell phone alone. A cigar for the poet. Because far from being liberated by mobile communications, we have become enslaved and tyrannized by them; rather than seeing our lives enhanced, we are squandering time, company, and true engagement and abandoning much of what is precious. 

I am no Luddite, neophobe, nor techno-hater; I see the need for the white heat of progress and technical innovation and easy and efficient contact. But discarded in all of this is stillness and balance and a small and quiet voice of calm. Trust me on this. Just as children now have the attention-span of an amnesiac gnat”€”a condition exacerbated by fast-cut television, cud-chewingly moronic computer games, and all-singing toys that close down imagination”€”so we have succumbed to the barrage of white-noise and background chatter that pursues us wherever we go and serves to drown our thoughts. Collectively, our attention spans too are heading for zero.

For instance: a young mother in the park will not be feeding the ducks with her child or pointing out the delights of flora and fauna. She will have stuck a pacifier in the youngster’s mouth and will be immersed elsewhere in a different conversation with a phone clamped to her ear. Recently, while on an overseas research trip, I was obliged to ask a friend why he had gone to the trouble of boarding a plane when”€” measured by the time he spent poring over his iPhone”€”he so obviously desired to be with his stockbroker, his vintage car dealer, his yacht master, and a myriad other companions back home.

“If people were honest”€”and generally they are not”€”they would admit that most of the time it is largely a case of crap in and crap out. I should know”€”I listen to enough of it expressed loudly in planes, trains and automobiles.”

Somehow, mere brands have become integral instead of adjuncts to our existence. Somewhere, cell phones, iPhones and BlackBerries have colonized our souls. As one wise old saw pointed out, the majority of cell phone calls interrupts business that is more important. Mobile telephony has created a neurotic, almost schizophrenic, state of affairs in which people are barely half-committed and only semi-engaged with whomever they are dealing. It is prioritizing; it is putting the face-to-face conversation on hold; it is the virtual-reality equivalent of looking over a shoulder to scan the room for more appealing guests; it is plain bloody rude.

Those most vociferous in claiming to be liberated by advances in cell phone technology (and often the loudest in their use) resemble most closely a hospital patient hooked up to multiple drips. They cannot do without their fix, can scarcely function without access to the feeds and life-support provided by others. Remove that support and watch them struggle. Ask them to lead a normal life freed of the addiction and diversion of constant ring-tones and they will surely shrivel and die.

Then there is the fickleness and unreliability brought on by easy communication. In this environment of flip-up screens and flippant comment, of glancing relationships and disordered lives, we have created a mountainous overload of detritus, toil and unnecessary messaging. Far from improving efficiency, we conspire to kill it off. Made a plan? Telephone all the way to the rendezvous with updates and sudden changes. Written a list? There is little point, for you can tweak it or phone for further consultation. Possessed by a crazy whim or notion? Feel free to inform or instruct all and sundry in an instant. Undisciplined blather is the rage. If people were honest”€”and generally they are not”€”they would admit that most of the time it is largely a case of crap in and crap out. I should know”€”I listen to enough of it expressed loudly in planes, trains and automobiles. Perhaps there should be room for the old-fashioned concept of having an idea and sticking to it in silence. Oh, and leaving the rest of us alone.

It is the simplest of things to grasp. Yet how we hate simplicity and opt for complication. If you want to meet friends, then damn well meet them. If you intend to converse, then damn well converse. If you want to visit a theatre, a museum, a store, a concert, a gallery or a party”€”do these things. Switch off your phone and switch on yourself. No-one wants the backwash of your conversation, your lack of eye-contact, your passing nod and dismissive gesture, your tilted head, your utter disrespect.

Well, there goes my sponsorship deal. Maybe I will be informed of their decision by text message and a glum-looking face with a down-turned mouth. So be it. I do not preach some strange counter-culture; I argue for a rebalancing, a reconnection through disconnecting the mobile phone. The effect could be startling and civility and civilization might improve. There you have it. Turn off. Tune in. Be human.



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