“All mankind’s miseries stem from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”
– Blaise Pascal
If I had to choose a single object to embody the early years of the 21st century, there’d only be one contender. The iPhone is the emblem, the pinnacle, the Empire State Building of this strange, sun-blinded age whose driving dynamic is the headlong rush towards becoming ever more hyper-connected. And like a King Canute in the digital deluge, I’m stubbornly sticking my neck out into the overwhelming flood. I have come to hate mobile phones. I no longer have one, and, God willing, I’m not planning to get a new one any time soon.
I’ve been mobile-free for about a year now. I was forever losing them and forever getting cheaper, nastier ones, resenting them more with every downgrade, every little loss of dignity, till I ended up with a Hello Kitty-style Nineties Nokia with a cracked screen and no predictive text that my mother had left in a box in her garage. Depressingly, that last phone was the one that seemed to stick around the longest, but I just couldn’t bring myself to replace it. I was stubbornly locked in a see-who-blinks-first struggle with it, and the mobile phone industry in general.
It all started when I lost a 3G smartphone, two months into an 18-month contract. I was legally obliged to pay this contract off, it seemed, 26 quid a month for the next year and a bit, but I couldn’t afford to buy a full-price new smartphone (this was one of the first, extremely expensive generation). The greedy bastards wouldn’t even let me get a shit phone so I could at least use my monthly line rental. It had to be an expensive model with all the whistles and bells and spinning bow ties on. In the end, it actually worked out cheaper for me to rent a shit phone and pay off the 3G line rental as well, which I never got to use again.
This situation irreparably soured my relationship with the phone corporations and set me off on the opposite trajectory to the rest of the culture. I opted out of the communications arms race everyone else was caught up in, going cheaper and crapper while everyone else made exponential leaps towards machines that aren’t even phones anymore, but are more like nodes plugging us into the matrix, portals down the wrong rabbit hole that will lead us to God knows where…
I finally lost the Hello Kitty phone when I was out on the razz in Soho last Christmas. I had imagined that when this one bit the dust, there was nowhere lower left to go, that I’d capitulate and get an iPhone, and get plugged into the matrix like everyone else. But when I thought about the depressing scenario of having to set foot in another phone shop, talk contracts to another kid with an X-Factor mullet and unnecessarily pointy leather brogues, and once again let myself get knowingly fucked over by this kid because the phone was “essential”, the dread set in…
I’d have to venture into the shopping district, like some Cecil B De Mille biblical vision, overwhelmed by the hordes, those slaves who flocked to their own bondage, freely choosing to sign up and pay for this enslavement in monthly instalments … my instinct, like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, was “I would prefer not to.” I decided, as an experiment, to see what happened if I followed this instinct.
After the mild panic of being uncontactable subsided, falling off the edge of an information abyss was unexpectedly elating. A sense of liberation set in, like it had done that golden summer a few years ago when I lived in a beach hut, writing a new book. I had no electricity, no laptop, the splendid, luxurious isolation of that summer was completed by the fact I had no network coverage either. I was unbotherable, just me, a note pad and the big blue beyond, and space enough for the words to start coming and the empty pages to start slowly filling once all the chatter was gone…
I’m a writer: I work in anti-social media. The stuff I want you to see, dear reader, takes many a wee small hour to polish, like a river polishes a stone, or a people polish a proverb. It’s all about quality control. This is also the case when it’s other people’s bumfluff bombarding me from the other direction. When it comes to the hall of mirrors lurking in a smartphone, pearls before swine doesn’t even come close. I remember one Friday evening, my girfriend remarking that a tweet she’d recieved — “A couple of cans of Stella, a stir fry, quality night” — got 64 likes. The social media are for people who don’t even know how to shut up when they’re on their own.
“Of course I’m not on Facebook — I’m a poet,” was a jokey throwaway commment a friend once made that stuck with me. There is truth in it. Like painting and the other nobler arts, poetry, in our current conundrum, is special for exactly the opposite reasons it used to be: frescoed medieval churches were spectacular because they were the only feast of colour and light a peasant might ever see in a muddy brown world.
These days, painting is still a sacred space, but in a way that’s precisely the reverse of the peasant’s chapel. In a mental space shanghai’d by images and ideas of the shallowest stripe (often with the subtext “because you’re not worth it,” unless you spend money on a certain product), the victim of this deluge must struggle ever harder against the false consciousness that threatens to overwhelm him at every turn - on buses, on tubes, on the screen that sucks the life out of his front room, and now on the portable hall of mirrors he pays 30 pounds a month for the privilege of having on his person at all times. The 21st-century citizen must fight as never before to retain the sovereignty of his inner world, of his own thoughts, and the space and time and quietness to think them.
Like slow food for the mind, the value of art is now that it provides an island of quiet and truth in a rising tide of swirling HD hyperreal vomit. Just so with a few lines of deeply considered and beautifully honed prose, words that ring true and leep resonating through the relentless barrage of LOLs and OMGS and quality nights with stirs fries.
There’s an enigmatic painting that casts a brooding presence over a corner of the baroque Italian rooms of the National Gallery in London, a portrait by the painter Salvator Rosa. Titled Philosophy (circa 1645), its subject stares out of the canvas with an austere, challenging gaze, holding a marble headstone with the words: “Be quiet, unless what you have to say is better than silence,” carved on it in the profoundest Latin script. How often would a statement like that get favourited on Twitter?
It’s a symptom of the sickness of our age that we now believe the opposite to be true. When the media interviews the neighbours of mass murderers or paedophile monsters, their observations are always the same: “he seemed like a normal bloke, but he was very quiet, kept himself to himself, really,” as if this was the vital clue everyone had been missing. This sense there’s something deeply suspicious and weird about people who like to keep quiet is something our X-Factor orthodoxy has got completely arse-over-tit. Monks used to take vows of silence. Hermits were revered as holy men. The Gnostics, as usual, pushed the boat out and believed procreation and mirrors were evil because they increased the illusions of the world. What would they make of 3G smartphones?
The Book of Revelation’s most lurid and lasting image is its vision of an apocalypse where no one can trade or communicate without the mark of the Antichrist, 666. Well, I hate to break it to you, but this is an armageddon we’ve already sleepwalked into. Stay with me for a minute… the Hebrew alphabet can be read as both letters and numbers (like the Latin alphabet, where X is the letter X and the number ten). So, in Hebrew, writing www before the name of a Simon Cowell pop star or a price comparison website is exactly the same thing as writing 666 before the name of a Simon Cowell pop star or a price comparison site. Not to get too conspiracy-nutbag about it, but I do savour this little poetic coincidence.
Mainly I’m against the mobile, though, not as a writer, or an ivory tower culture snob, but as a human being. I’m against the terrible bondage of being forever contactable, forever at hand. Friends phone up at odd hours, while you’re deep in the middle of something requiring focused thought, and immediately launch into long monologues without even thinking to ask if you’ve got the time or the mental energy to spare them. It’s taken as a given: this is the new social contract you’ve entered into when you have a mobile: you’re infinitely connected, and therefore you’re infinitely available. You feel compelled to answer the thing as soon as it rings, whatever the time, in a way only GPs used to; you feel guilty ignoring it when you’re just got to the end of a long film with your missus, when you’re in the bath, when you’re having a shit. Hyper-connectedness collapses any sense of personal space. It’s just one more of the tyrannies of technology that mean your time and your head space is no longer your own.
The sly, corrupting seductiveness of this tyranny was laid bare to me when a friend told me, while being put on hold trying to pay a bill, “I want to fuck the woman with the automated answerphone voice.” This subtle, seductive tyranny has pervaded all aspects of our lives. Stopping for a sarnie on a recent long motorway journey, I noticed the service station had a branch of Carphone Warehouse (cars, phones, warehouses: three of the essential pillars of the Ballardian malaise we’ve drifted into). Back in the people carrier, I stared out of the passenger seat window at the drivers around me. Almost every one seemed to be on their mobile. The two things the corporate employer immediately gives its serfs are a company car and company phone, two means of making him instantly, constantly accessible. The employee, who’s aspirational instincts are initially flattered by the new Audi and Blackberry, soon realises they are the tools of his bondage. Technologies designed to liberate us become our gilded cage.
People on their mobile phones while they’re driving: pure movement, pure joined-upness, physically and digitally, the electricity pylons along the roadside, all the energies that yoke modern society clustered together along the same vector… but we drive, watch YouTube and tweet our likes of stir-fries and Stella alone. Atomisation and joined-upness are two slices of the same shit sandwich of hyper-connectedness.
This paradox extends deep into the hall of mirrors of the communications landscape. One of the things that made me come to loathe this industry so deeply is the utter impersonality of its edifice. It’s a depressing certainty, the sure knowledge of being put on hold indeterminately, eventually getting through to some poor provincial in an unemployment black spot who’s only allowed to read back set responses to your misery from his computer screen, who cannot deviate from this cast-iron procedure no matter how riled and rude you end up getting with him. The continually frustrated attempt to talk to another human being who on some level could be held accountable for the constant glitches in the Matrix that you come up against: for an industry based on talking to other people, it’s virtually impossible to speak to another human employee of that industry who can in any way respond to you like one.
I had one phone barred because a domino that had fallen a few steps earlier along the computerised chain that is my financial life meant my monthly standing order with Orange had bounced (a faulty Boris Bike terminal had charged me £300 and got me overdrawn, but that’s another story). Anyway, once I had the cash in the bank again, I tried to pay the bill and sort the barred phone out. I phoned up Orange customer service. After being forced 10 steps down the voice recognition route (maddening when you have a strong Northern accent like me), I finally got the option to speak to a real Indian human. I chose to do so. The phone rang, but the instant the real Indian human picked up, I got transferred to the same sex-android voice from the previous 10 automated steps, repeating again and again that she was “sorry, this number is barred” like she had done at the start of the phone call ten minutes earlier. Orange were so tight they wouldn’t even let me speak to their customer service department to unbar my phone. I breathed in deeply and tried not to swear.
On my next attempt to pay off Orange, seven whole minutes down the “press one for this, press hash for that” route, halfway through the 16 digit code on the back of my bank card, the call suddenly cut out. The studio I called home had the reception of a radiation-proof bunker. At this point, I did swear, violently, and threw the phone hard against the floor. “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange”? The future’s barred and lies in cracked fragments on my damp concrete studio floor.
Talking of the flâneur, that elegant, romantic wanderer of the Parisian streets, twriter and performer Cornelia Otis Skinner suggested we didn’t have a word for this character in English, because, “there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time, which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savouring the multiple flavours of his city.”
I disagree about Anglo-Saxons and about their cities. London is perfectly suited to flâneurie, and I have spent many of my perfect hours following my curiosity down dog-leg streets, losing myself in the infinite metropolis. But the mobile phone destroys the possibility of this elevated, poetic activity. I used to find I could ruin a perfectly pleasant stroll by dithering around in some text volleys concerning when and where to meet the person I was supposed to be seeing in roughly an hour’s time.
Now that this distraction is no longer an option, I do it the old way, and make an arrangement to meet them at a certain pub at 6 o’clock, and have done with it. Once you’ve agreed to meet, just fucking be there. It’s not hard. Phones rob us of our private time and of our ability to be self-sufficient, fostering a needy, infantile kind of dependence on the chattering of others; they also sap us of our strength to make a definite decision, to commit to anything. The tyranny of this technology is one that keeps us childlike in many subtle ways.
I’m not saying my life is now better in every single situation because I’ve rid it of the pernicious influence of the mobile. There are times when my phone-less strategy breaks down, and Canute standing against the tide gets a nasty, ice-cold splash up his crotch. The other night, my girlfriend left the bar we were at, drunk, with my money and my Oyster card on her, and I had to walk home for three long hours through much of London far too late in the morning. Similar circumstances at Glastonbury were hellish.
But these occasional inconveniences are far outweighed by the fact I’m left unmolested, able to think, and to be quiet, if I feel like it, finally the sovereign of my own mental landscape again.
Michael Smith is an author, film-maker and broadcaster. His new book Unreal City (Faber) is out now