The hottest (lost) property of the decade

Why do Londoners leave more mobile phones than umbrellas on the bus?
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The Independent Culture
SAMSUNG, THE giant Korean electronics corporation, has been taking out half-page advertisements in the national press, to announce the hot news about mobile phones - the new generation of phones with cameras, phones with colour screens and Internet access, voice-activated phones, Dick Tracy wristwatch phones, phones that play music through the earpiece ... "It is only a matter of time," Samsung smugly concludes, "before the cellular phone becomes as essential a tool to mobility as shoes."

This is cutting-edge, breakthrough stuff - or it would be were there not some even hotter news this week concerning mobile phones in the UK. Namely that they have become, officially, the objects most left behind on London's public transport. For years the umbrella was undisputed king of the lost property office.

Londoners, it seemed, could not hang on to their furled parasols for more than a couple of days before forgetting about them and abandoning them to their fate in far-off Cockfosters. Now it is mobiles that cram the LPO shelves. The essential communications tool, style icon and must- have accessory of the Nineties is proving the most forgettable thing we possess. We're shedding our Nokias and Samsungs at a rate of 45 a day, or 13,000 a year - and many of them are never tracked down or claimed from London Transport because it's easier just to collar the insurance and put in for a new model. So 4,000 "mobes" a year sit, deserted and forgotten, in the lost property office, like so many Christmas shih-tzus in Battersea Dogs' Home.

What does this say about our attitude to phones? That we don't much care for the little idiot boxes clamped to the ear of every careless driver and every loud-voiced boor in the metropolis? Or can it be that we're such terrible show-offs, we have to carry around in our hands what could easily travel in a pocket or briefcase, except that if we concealed the phone there, we might miss the splendid, self-defining moment when it rings and everyone on the train or the bus knows we're an important, switched- on, a la mode kind of person who is answering an urgent summons, despite the awkward truth that no a la mode person ever travels by bus, and mobile phones are useless on the Tube because the reception is so bad?

Such an interpretation would explain the unprecedented horde of nomadic handsets in London. We want to display our public importance to our fellow travellers, but then we go and leave the most potent symbol of it on the seat beside us. Perhaps we secretly resent the whole gizmo culture that daily garlands our heads with wires and our laps with machinery. I suspect we're secretly trying to get rid of its manifestations by a process of gradual neglect. If so, it will take a while. With 14 million mobile phones now in circulation in the UK, and 13,000 a year finding themselves on the shelf, it would take 1,000 years to complete the job, even if Nokia never made another one.

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