Hung up on our phones, we’re losing the ability to be alone

Could you survive for long without your mobile phone, or is that your idea of hell? Sheena Hastings (accidentally) tried it.

ON a work-related trip to London the other day, I realised before I’d even got on the train that my mobile phone was missing.

It was probably at home, but could have dropped on the ground somewhere. For the first ten seconds I thought: “So what? I’ll survive for 30 hours.” Then a vague sense of unease set in and, had time not been really tight, I might have popped home. But the voice of sense in my head told me that I’d survived for decades without owning a mobile, so doing without it for a short time was hardly a crisis... Anyway, there was nothing to be done about it just then.

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Settling back to read and prepare for the work ahead, I tried hard to relax, but found it enormously difficult. Shockingly, my brain was whirring and palms slightly sweaty. I spooled through the disasters that might ensue from not being umbilically connected to the world by a small rectangle of plastic and electronic wizardry.

What if, for instance, my husband, daughters or elderly dad became seriously ill or had an accident? Well, I reassured myself, someone would contact me via the friend who was putting me up for the night. I had a teatime interview set up and another in the morning at the opposite side of London. Suppose they needed to change the arrangement? I’d just have to call the office, check for messages, then hope for the best.

Actually, for most of us who are not surgeons on-call, a fact we’ve forgotten is that the mobile is dispensible. It has travelled a long way, though, from being a handy means of communicating when your train is late, your car has broken down, the traffic is gridlocked, your waters have broken or someone has collapsed half-way up a fell. As I sat on the train, thoughts meandered between the job in hand and random reflections on how we’ve harnessed the phone as an extension of our personalities and allowed it to infiltrate almost every corner of our being.

One particular friend won’t mind me saying that his first thought on waking is not about kissing his partner or running towards the kettle but about grabbing the smart fiend (sic) kept only inches from his head while sleeping.

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He can’t start the day without knowing who’s texted, left a voicemail, tried to call him, emailed or posted a passing thought on Twitter.

What proportion of our communications, particularly the tweets, are essential or life-enhancing is a moot point. We use the technology because it’s there, but it’s highly questionable how many of the activities it is a portal to serve any kind of purpose that is that helpful or even fun. They’re just there, cluttering our minds and eating up time, creating “a world of idiotic observation and narcissism”, as someone put it.

I like having a mobile, and wouldn’t be without it. But it’s a smart idea that’s turning us all into its poodles, and robbing many of us of our ability to be alone and think without feelings of isolation and paranoia quickly taking over. The world is messaging and tweeting without you for 24 hours? Get over it – no-one died.

The sow’s ear of other people’s mobile conversations on the train is not the kind of thing that even master-anecdotalist Alan Bennett could transform into a silk purse.

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It’s typically a grating mixture of managerial types calling the odds in a Big Brother manner to the minions back at base, the socially-challenged resorting to discussions of what’s in the fridge at home and the bored-rigid who pass the time by bothering friends who are possibly busy trying to do something else and too polite to tell the caller to get off the line or stop texting and read or have a snooze. Are we all so addicted that we fear the sound of silence in our heads?

It’s amazing how disinhibited phones have made us, too.

People who would never, you’d assume, dream of talking so loudly (or so ripely) about their sex lives when not on the phone, let it all go when talking into the ether, as though an invisible bubble is creating privacy. Privacy: now there’s a notion we’ve thoroughly compromised through our relationship with phones.

I had no way of telling my friend when I’d arrived at the Tube station so she could pick me up. It was a dry evening and a mile isn’t that far to walk. She hadn’t heard otherwise, so she assumed I’d arrive intact. Hey, that’s how we used to think and it worked back then.

When I got home I found the phone in a coat pocket. Nothing cataclysmic had bothered it. I think we’d both enjoyed the rest.