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Too much freedom: How the mobile phone has changed us

Mobile phones entered the mainstream in the early 1990s and gave us a new form of freedom that we didn’t even know we even wanted. Over the last twenty years, we’ve steadily moved towards the point where it’s unusual if someone doesn’t have a little plastic communications device in their pocket. So, how has this unprecedented phenomenon changed us?

Let’s get physical

Cast your mind back a couple of decades – if you needed to make a phone-call, where did you go? The kitchen, the hallway or a grown-up’s bedroom, no doubt. Want privacy? No dice. If you were lucky, the landline had a long enough cord that you could squirrel yourself away in a room with a door and sit against it.

Countless teenagers petitioned parents for a phone for their bedrooms but if they were anything like my parents, they were having none of it.

Getting a wireless home phone was a real technological investment and a leap towards the future – gradually we were becoming less tied-down.

When out and about and needing to make a call, you’d use a phone box. Phone boxes now stand empty and vandalised in city centres, while their rural equivalents have been re-imagined as libraries and adopted by communities.

Now we make calls whenever we want from wherever we are – we craved privacy at home, yet now we have phone conversations in the most public of places. The mobile phone has become a part of our lives so completely that we feel as though we’ve lost a limb if we happen to misplace them.

Like the diarrhea sufferer keeping an eye out for the nearest conveniences, I’m always checking for the nearest plug to re-juice my battery-hungry handsets. Public power-points – in cafes, trains, and departure lounges, are more prevalent now than ever before, specifically reserved for charging mobile phones and laptops.

Causing stumbles because you’ve been walking along the street with your head buried in a handset is a common cause of pavement-rage and that head bent over a phone look isn’t doing our postures any favours either.

Yet no other device has managed to become so essential. When you leave the house, what do you check for? Your wallet, your keys and your mobile phone.

It’s all in the mind

Mobile phones are also responsible for changing the way we think and act. How many of us now are less concerned about punctuality because we know we can send a quick text message to let our friends know we’re running late? I know I am.

But the flipside of this is that we worry a lot more when we don’t hear from someone – it starts small, hoping they haven’t got stuck in traffic. Gradually I move on to hoping they haven’t been kidnapped, to hoping they haven’t been mortally wounded. I usually have most people dead and buried before they show up twenty minutes late.


While I’m sitting in the pub worrying, I’m unlikely to be casually watching the world go by. I’ll be straight on my phone to check my email, Facebook, Twittering, texting a couple of people – or even calling my mum to kill the time.

Of course, once my friends finally arrive, I’ll inevitably ignore them for 30% of the time because I’ll be repeatedly checking my phone. Twenty years ago this would have been unacceptable behaviour but it’s seen as the social norm now – for some reason, whoever’s contacting you on the phone is always much more compelling than the people you are physically with.

The mobile phone has brought more serious negatives about too – exam cheats have embraced it, love cheats likewise. Countless road accidents have been attributed to mobile phones – whether the driver is making calls or a pedestrian hasn’t been paying attention when crossing the road due to a gripping text message.

Or perhaps it wasn’t a juicy text message, but a map – we’re relying more and more on navigation by our handsets. If our batteries die when we’re only half way home we may well be screwed. We could ask for directions, but fear of being stabbed often diverts this course of action.

“Soylent green is people”

When it comes down to it, the mobile phone isn’t responsible for any of these behavioural changes – it’s us. We’ve molded our etiquette and actions around it, and given in to temptations to do bad things. We know it’s rude to check our phone in the middle of a conversation, but we do it anyway because we want to. Of course we all know we shouldn’t cheat, but with the means made so readily available more and more of us just give in.

So when will it end? Now that mobile internet and apps have really taken off, can the situation realistically improve? Although the physical changes may remain, behaviourally it can only get worse. With greater distractions available, our attention will become more and more fragmented. Will we lose singular focus altogether?

I, for one, am anticipating a mobile phone tipping point at around the time technological advancement grinds to a halt because no one can concentrate on anything for more than eight minutes at a time. The moment at which society rejects these poor manners and reverts to archaic finishing schools to teach responsible mobile use in polite society. We probably deserve it.

[Image credits according to Creative Commons license: Flickr users tallkev, Hexadecimal Time and Sean Hickin]


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