Neil McNicholas: Why there's more to life than the mobile phone

WHEN so-called 'mobile phones' were no longer the size of building bricks and started to be something you could fit in your pocket, I always thought I would like one of those with a cover that flipped open like a Star Trek communicator.

Have too many people become addicted to mobile phones?
Have too many people become addicted to mobile phones?

Eventually I did buy one, though I’m not entirely sure why. I never use a mobile phone, but simply carry one in the car in case of emergencies or in the event that I’m running late for a meeting. Thankfully no emergencies have ever arisen, and in terms of punctuality I’m always fanatically early – in fact I usually arrive before I’ve set off!

A friend eventually bought me a mobile for Christmas that wasn’t so embarrassing to them, not quite a smart phone but smarter than me. Still it went unused – in fact so unused that the last time I topped up the SIM card, coins had Queen Victoria’s head on them. The only function I ever used was the alarm clock and even then only on holiday, but because I could never remember from one holiday to the next how to set it or stop it, I could never trust the thing to wake me up as required.

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And so I decided to buy a decent phone. I wasn’t going to waste £400 on the latest bells and whistles device, and so I settled for a much cheaper Chinese version. It took me several days to work out how to get the back off so I could put my Victorian currency SIM card in, but to this day I have never figured out how to operate the thing properly. If there ever was an emergency it would be all over by the time I accessed the keyboard and placed the call, and as for texting or using apps – forget it. Being a celibate priest I don’t even have the advantage of having a small child about the house for whom this phone would be, well, child’s play.

So I’m going back not quite to the Star Trek phone, but to something similar – one of those little retro phones that came out just before Christmas. It promises to be simply a mobile phone and simple to use and I’m hoping it lives up to its name – if I ever need to use it.

Why I’m mentioning all this is because I was just looking out of my office window at three twenty-somethings standing in a huddle on the street corner opposite. All three of them were on mobile phones texting other people, oblivious to one another and the world around them including the toddler who was entertaining himself perilously close to the kerb edge and the traffic while his mother was chatting with someone on Mars.

I’ve written in these pages before about this “cyborg” factor in our society. Everyone (and especially the younger couple of generations) is constantly plugged in to the universe like members of the Borg collective – and not just “is” pugged in but “has to be” because it is self-evidently a compulsive addiction. If you took their smart phones off them, people would become incoherent in about five minutes, desperate for a telecommunications fix.

I recognise it even in my un-mobiled self. Whenever I pass my office there is a compulsion to check my emails, but at least when I go out on parish business, the laptop stays where it is. Out of my office, I have no need to be in constant touch with the universe.

But so many sad souls do. They can be walking along talking to someone, but if their mobile rings they have to answer it immediately rather than letting the caller leave a message while they continue talking to the person they are physically with and who was there first after all.

Theatres no longer need floodlights because they are lit up by all the hundreds of mobile phone screens that people are incapable of leaving switched off because checking for texts and texting back (not to mention illegally taking photos and making recordings) isn’t why they have come to the theatre.

People on mobiles in restaurants and in meetings, and MPs in parliament texting while fellow MPs are speaking, are all symptoms of the ignorance and rudeness and lack of manners that result from the addiction and compulsion of the Borg collective.

Meanwhile my little Nokia will sit silently waiting for an emergency, or the first time this century that I end up running late for a meeting.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.