About Us

Contact Us





First Chapterss


Helen Gilchrist

'Mobile phones have changed the limitations of time and space: we are never alone anymore What does it say about our culture that we will turn our phones off to go and watch a film, but not to spend uninterrupted time with a friend?'

Is there anyone who doesn’t have a mobile phone these days? If so, they certainly don’t live in London. Walk down any street, sit in any park, or stand outside any station and all you see are people talking or sending text messages on their mobiles. Sit in any café or on any train, and all you hear are other people’s conversations and the ‘bleep bleep’ of new text messages arriving. And these people are only the ones who have their phones out at that particular moment: think of the countless more who have them in their bags, on chargers at home…

Once upon a time, mobiles were only really used by high-flying executives, yuppies, car salesmen and dodgy wheeler-dealers. The rest of us would tut and roll our eyes back when a phone would ring on the train and its owner would say in an unnecessarily loud voice ‘yes, darling, I’m on the train…’. Now however, no-one even bats an eyelid: they just carry on reading their papers, staring out the window, or (most likely) pick up their own phones and make a call, send a message, play a game, find out the football results, read their horoscopes – the possibilities are endless.

It’s more unusual not to have a mobile than to have one these days. People do not ask if you have a mobile, just what your mobile number is. As a 24-year-old female, I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a mobile (even my grandpa has one… and my flatmate’s 8-year-old sister!). And it’s not as if we’re all rolling in cash with high-powered jobs; most of us are still struggling to make ends meet in this ridiculously expensive city. Nor is it a city slicker thing; everyone back home in Cornwall has them too – the ‘bleep bleep’s have even penetrated The Harbour pub in Porthleven. From social arrangements to job-hunting, stock market updates to surf reports, catching up on gossip to calling for help in an emergency, everyone finds a use, a need for mobile phones… and everyone has them. And with BT removing the London phone boxes now, what choice will people have anyway?

With mobiles being so widespread across age and social and economic groups, it’s hardly surprising that they have changed our lifestyle and behaviour. You don’t need to be a sociologist to work this out – just look around. People seem to use their phones all the time, whether they’re alone or in a group, walking down the street or sitting in a bar, going around the supermarket or driving their cars. We don’t need to make detailed arrangements anymore; just take your phone with you and you can organise as you go along: ‘where are you now? – OK, ring me when you get to the station and I’ll tell you where to go from there…’ blah blah blah. Running late or the bus doesn’t turn up? Having problems following directions to somewhere new? Get separated from friends in a crowd, when shopping or driving in convoy? No worries – just pick up the phone. Even at music festivals - the traditional playground of ‘alternative’ types, hippies and punks - more and more people are using mobiles to find their lost friends. At the T in the Park festival last month, I couldn’t believe the number of mobiles I saw pressed to the ears of damp festival-goers in the soggy fields, straining to have conversations over the loud music.

There’s no doubt mobile phones can make our lives easier, but are they are a totally positive thing? For a start, it’s easy to become stupidly reliant on them. We don’t bother to make sure we’re on time and know where we’re going anymore. We just assume we can speak to people whenever we need to. Just last night I got caught out when I went with a friend to meet another group of friends in a random part of town we didn’t know. We had no idea where we were going, but just figured we’d ring when we came out of the Underground and take it from there. However, ***SHOCK HORROR*** our friend hadn’t got her phone with her and we didn’t even know the name of the bar where they were – so in the end we had to give up and go home.

Then there’s the way mobiles affect our social interaction. Just because friends are physically in the same place doesn’t mean they will actually talk to each other. You see groups of people walking or sitting together, but all having separate conversations to other people on their mobiles. In Leicester Square the other day, I watched a couple obviously meeting for a date. The man was on his phone when the woman turned up, and, after nodding and smiling at her, carried on talking for another five minutes or so while she stood there looking awkward and self-conscious. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a few drinks with a couple of mates; if your phone rings then invariably you answer it and chat away to whoever it is who has interrupted your conversation. And, if you’re the one who’s been left staring into space and looking gormless, trying not to listen to every word of your companion’s conversation with someone else, what do you do? Pick up your own phone…

The omnipresence of mobiles mean that it’s much harder to focus on the present company, time and place without being interrupted by ridiculous ring tones and ‘bleep bleep’s. The fact that so many people have the same phones and alert tones also means that we are constantly checking to see if it’s our phone or someone else’s ‘bleep bleep’-ing or sounding the Star Wars theme tune. Nevertheless, however annoying we all admit it is, we are still increasingly reluctant to actually turn our phones off – what if someone wants to contact us and can’t get through? Huh! Our changing culture means that more and more people feel they have to be contactable more and more of the time. I saw an advertisement on television the other day for a mobile phone/emailer/fax/personal organiser: an unrealistically happy-looking businessman was sitting on the train on the way to work checking his email, voicemail and sending faxes. The slogan was ‘Why wait til you get to the office?’

Well, I can think of lots of reasons actually. Essentially, because it’s sad and unhealthy to be working so many hours in the day. Can’t the journey to work just be downtime when we can relax, gather our thoughts, read a book or paper, or even have a face-to-face conversation with someone?

Mobile phones have changed the limitations of time and space: we are never alone anymore – a huge network of people can be connected at the press of a button. Even when physically alone – waiting for someone, eating a sandwich in the park, standing at the bus stop – calls and text messages mean that you can be interacting with a number of people. In the past, the sight of someone laughing out loud on their own might be a little odd; now it’s perfectly normal – they’ve just received a funny text message that’s all. People love sending jokes and silly banter around via text messages. Texting also enables us to communicate with people without actually having to talk to them: great when a) you don’t feel like speaking to them b) you’re lying and don’t want it to be obvious c) you only met them last night and are too shy to actually talk to them d) you’re at work and, strangely enough, supposed to be working… and so it goes on. Whatever, it’s great to receive lots of messages and calls, but what about when your little grey (or black or pink leopard-skin or Union Jack) friend is silent? Isn’t it a little deflating knowing that you are totally contactable all the time, but that no-one has actually phoned or texted you for a couple of days? Or if you’re with a group of friends and everyone else’s phones are going off apart from yours?! ***OH NO, NO-ONE LIKES ME!*** Mobiles, designed to make our lives easier, have now acquired the capacity to make us feel unpopular. Very sad indeed.

When you actually stop and think about it, look around, become aware of your own habits and those around you, the extent that mobile phones have changed society is quite disturbing. What does it say about our culture that we will turn our phones off to go and watch a film, but not to spend uninterrupted time with a friend? And what about the long-term health risks? Just like the warnings about the link between tobacco and cancer, a whole generation of mobile phone users have heard the warnings about potential brain tumours and swept them under the carpet. Besides, you can use your phone to find out the lottery result from wherever you are…

© Helen Gilchrist 2001

More from Helen Gilchrist here

More lifestyles

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article