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December 18, 2005

'Public mobile–phone conversations [are] a new form of media'


So said Mark Curtis, author of the new book, "Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age," in Gary Silverman's column in this past weekend's Financial Times.

Silverman's column revolved around his recent trip on a London bus while being subjected involuntarily to one end of a woman's cellphone conversation along with another man who became as absorbed in the one–sided conversation as did Silverman as the call progressed.

Here's his most interesting piece.

    Mobile Moans

    A few days ago I found myself part of an unlikely threesome in the back of a London bus and the experience made me realise it is harder than ever to be a saint in the city.

    It was the morning rush hour and I was lucky to snare a seat in the next-to-last row.

    I sat facing the people in the rear, as you do in some of the new buses that have replaced London's Routemasters, the red double-deckers you boarded by jumping on at the back.

    The bus I was taking cuts through some of London's most heavily Jewish areas, and the man directly across from me was an obviously observant sort.

    He wore a yarmulke to complement his business suit, and he was studying a religious text written in Hebrew.

    To his right was a young woman with frosted hair, silver eye shadow and well-glossed lips, dressed in black and speaking into her mobile telephone about how stressful her life had become during the holiday season.

    "I have a shoot Monday, and I have a shoot Tuesday," she said, employing the dramatic stops and starts of a Shakespearean actor questioning whether it is better to be or not to be.

    "Wednesday, there's the art fair. Thursday, I have the AMV party."

    I didn't want to listen - I have problems of my own, you know - but I couldn't help myself.

    I felt like I was Marlow, the narrator in the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, and the woman on her mobile was my river in the jungle.

    I followed her every twist and turn.

    The surprising thing was that I had company in this pursuit.

    Every time the woman made a particularly dramatic point, I would find myself glancing in her direction and, as I did, my eyes would meet those of the observant man in the yarmulke sitting across from me.

    He was listening, too, and that got to me.

    I wondered how it was possible for a righteous man to be distracted from the word of God by a woman talking about a party at an advertising agency (AMV stands for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, a London agency that I cover for this newspaper but which did not invite me to its Christmas party, leaving me to learn about such things on the street, as it were).

    I figured that I needed an informed analysis of the situation and I turned to a man called Mark Curtis, a dotcomer with a social conscience who recently published a book called Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age.

    Speaking via his mobile phone, Curtis did not disappoint.

    He reckoned that public mobile-phone conversations invariably turn into a performance and that made them a new form of media - as hard to ignore as a television set blaring in the corner of a pub.

    "You become subconsciously aware when you are making a mobile phone call that other people are listening," he said.

    "No matter how introverted you are, your phone call becomes a performance. The flip side of this is that everyone becomes aware of your performance."

    The problem with this new medium is that it is inherently annoying and there is little likelihood of improvement.

    In a better world, governments would pay actors to roam around reading poems or singing songs into their mobiles.

    But I'm not holding my breath.

    I suspect the new medium of mobile phone performance will continue to be dominated by the self-involved, the insufferable and, above all, by the tardy.

    You hear them all the time: "I'm on the bus! On the bus! I'll be there in 10 minutes! Calm down! Ten minutes! Wait!"

    What's being lost is the public transport culture that made it possible for people like the man in the yarmulke to study in peace.

    In fact, there are few places in cities more pious than the bus or the train.

    People of all kinds read scripture while they are on the move.

    But the relentless march of the mobile phone users (and I admit that I'm one of them) is putting an end to the quiet of the commute.

    Already, buses have become a disaster for anyone trying to think or read.

    Trains are a mixed blessing, suitable for readers as long as they stay underground.

    From the standpoint of mobile phone interruptions, the only truly safe form of high-speed, communal transportation is air travel.

    A colleague who covers aviation says that will change, and there will be mobile phones on planes, too (I can hear it now: "I'm 10 hours away! You can put the turkey in the oven!").

    But for now, air travel has become the new pleasure of the digital age, at least for me.

    You cannot be reached and neither can the other passengers. You are free to do your work, the Lord's work, or no work at all.

    There remains the possibility of bliss.

    I doubt I'll ever see the man in the yarmulke again but if I do, I hope it's on a plane. That way he will be nearer to God.


I will note that I felt it incumbent to disabuse Silverman (via email) of the notion that an airplane still provides a safe haven from the shared telephone conversations of others.

Mark Curtis has a blog with a link (scroll down) that lets you download (free) chapter 8 ("Deep Media") of his book (top).

Should you wish to brush up on your performance skills, there is no better guide to what lies beneath than Erving Goffman's


1959 classic, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life."

As Jerzy Grotowski memorably remarked, "Everyday life involves endless pretexts."

December 18, 2005 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


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Some of the commuter trains into DC have "Silent Cars" where mobile phone use is forbidden, and woe to you who break the rule since those cars are ardently self-policed by the riders who would be glad to beat you into submission with their Bible or Grisham paperback.

Posted by: Jon Lowder | Dec 19, 2005 10:31:24 AM

I spy Andre Agassi in the first image.

Posted by: cai | Dec 18, 2005 8:30:32 PM

Wouldn't the bus ride itself be the river? And the lady on the phone would be the crazy man at the outstation before he gets to Kurtz or Kurtz's warrior woman. I don't care who the lady is, but in my mind the bus ride has to be the river.

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Dec 18, 2005 7:20:52 PM

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