I recently accompanied my elderly father to the optometrist in the local high street for his overdue eye test. On the wall of the waiting area was a sign proclaiming “Do not use mobile phones” – not “We ask our customers to kindly refrain from using mobile phones” but “Do not use mobile phones”. The message was unequivocal – they were, understandably, not permitted in an area that contained highly sensitive equipment.
I suspect you know what’s coming next – yes, half of the people congregating outside the consulting rooms were in conversation on their handheld devices, most saying nothing more illuminating than that they were “at the optician’s”. A young man sitting next to me loudly responded to a call whilst a nurse tried to explain her treatment to the woman sat on the other side of him. It never occurred to him to move away or – heaven forbid – turn off his phone.
Another sign declared “No food or drink”, which was being observed perfectly, other than by small children in buggies (strollers) who ought to have constituted an exception anyway. How ironic that we are prepared to forego the staff of life for an hour or two, but cannot survive without the comfort of that little piece of plastic and lead for just a few minutes.
But before my momentary outrage triggers a rant about the decline of respect and civility, I need to relay another shocking discovery – all the while I had muttered about, and frowned at, the widespread flouting of a quite explicit and rational instruction, I had been checking my e mails and Twitter timeline on my own phone. Now I don’t know whether, aside from the obvious distraction and discourtesy, surfing is less forgivable than speaking (I suspect the radiological damage is the same), but I do acknowledge the hypocrisy of my stance.
What it does illustrate, however, is the utter dependence we place upon the simultaneously liberating and tyrannous grip – literally – of our smartphones. androids and tablets. I tend to use my ageing Nokia N93 primarily for texting and surfing and have never understood the fascination with playing games on computers of any size or specification.
But I doubt that I could live without it. When I commuted to work it enabled me to let my wife know if my train was running late, ensuring that dinner would still be edible when I finally made it home. It allows me to track the progress of my favourite sports teams when I am out and about. And it prevents me from missing an important meeting when my usually reliable memory lets me down.
I like to think that I don’t abuse the privilege of having one. I will remove myself from a crowded public space to return a call, and, even then, talk almost too quietly (natural English reserve meets respect here). Nor do I walk the streets with it cupped in the palm of my hand, as if expecting at any moment a call from Barack Obama asking for my views on the Syrian crisis, or a text from Bob Dylan inviting me to open for him on his next tour.
Sadly, however, too many of my fellow citizens appear to believe that ownership of any sort of handheld electronic device entitles them to declaim loudly and tediously on public transport and in restaurants, and go about their business with their faces buried in the contraptions, oblivious to the world around them, sometimes causing danger to themselves and others.
I am getting perilously close to ranting again, so here’s a new game for you. Next time you see someone heading towards you on the street, head bowed, nose caressing the screen display on their iPhone, iPad2 or e-reader, rather than leap out of their way into oncoming traffic or scrape your back against a wall, just hold your ground and shout “boo!” as they career into you. It’ll frighten the hell out of them! And sometimes it even elicits an apology!
But one note of caution – choose your target carefully. It’s not advisable to select someone who is bigger or meaner looking than yourself.