Give me the wide open spaces, full of mobile phones

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Let us rejoice at the folly of corporations. They've just paid £22 billion for the right to pester us to death - in the street, at our lunchbreak, on our holidays, in the toilet.

Let us rejoice at the folly of corporations. They've just paid £22 billion for the right to pester us to death - in the street, at our lunchbreak, on our holidays, in the toilet.

Whoever dreamt up the idea of licensing these mobile phone mega-frequencies to the highest bidder (hello Gordon) was an evil genius of wealth redistribution. He has neatly fleeced the new economy on behalf of our children's children.

Have these telecom giants bought a pup! Did any of them stop to think whether we wanted anything more in our phones than telephony? Whether the ability to have familiar faces pop up in your palm-top - a paranoid boss, say, or one's whiny offspring, perhaps even the lovely Dale Winton - was in the slightest way desirable?

If this scepticism sounds a little theatrical, it was intended to be. At least 18 months had to pass before the mid-Nineties put-down - "isn't-the-internet-just-like-CB-radio?" - could be properly dropped into the conversational trash-can. The new mobility is going to be about as ephemeral and transient as the World Wide Web - which is to say not in the slightest. Rather than polish up our after-dinner quips about braying yuppies, we should start thinking about what we want to achieve with these devices

Their essential function will be to shroud their owners in an intoxicating personal haze of information. Any business that you could conduct at your work or home - from watching soaps to paying bills, from morning meetings to killer memos, from holiday videos to action movies - you'll be able to conduct wherever you are. And that place could be anywhere on the continent of Europe, two or 2,000 miles from home. Here come the new nomads, massing on the hills.

Except they've already arrived, in a way - and they're not a very encouraging precedent. In America, they call them "road warriors". These are the salesmen and pitchwomen of the information age. They perch with their laptops and mobiles in airport lounges, hotel lobbies and roadside laybys. And they are as pale and hollow-eyed as a flexible labour market can make them.

Wrap all their cables and wires into one neat hand-held package, and these heroes of capitalism might never get home to see the family. Or start one, for that matter.

Yet it's a poor futurist that blames his new technology for the wrong social outcome. These nomads don't have to be enslaved to big business. Creative communities, particularly on this island, have always been early adopters of mobile technology: ravers with their pagers, musicians with MP3 players, street auteurs with their digital cameras. It's their particular work ethic - or, one should say, their "play" ethic: self-motivated, collaborative, open to the new - that shapes the way they use their tools.

I predict that the new mobility will simply accelerate the recent rebirth of café culture in our big cities. This was already partly driven by the rising numbers of knowledge freelancers - those who actively choose not to have their feet under the same desk everyday, asserting their lifestyle militancy.

They would rather get their projects pulled together over a decent coffee and some ambient noise, with the full vanity fair of London or Glasgow parading before their café window as both diversion and inspiration. Taking your work with you isn't so oppressive, if it's work that you actually "want" to do. The hand-held revolution will blend effortlessly into the enterprising lifestyles of these new independents.

The thing to remember about Europe's take-up of first-generation mobiles, vastly advanced compared to America, is that it's been partly driven by the social cohesion of our national cultures - the blarneying of Ireland, even a Britain where it's still "good to talk". So rather than turn society into one great cybermarket, it's just as likely (at least on this continent) that the new mobility will strengthen society.

The foghorn-voiced team-manager, poring over his Nokia oracle, might occupy one corner of the coffee-shop of the future. But in another corner, an elderly green activist might be updating her data on road pollution levels before her crunch meeting with the council. And somewhere else, poems might be under composition, long-distance lovers soothed, diasporas connected, video-diaries compiled...

I'll spare you any further rhapsody. But the essential point is that there's nothing wrong about new technology that an old-fashioned dose of political vision won't fix. And if we want these gadgets to be the central tools of an active 21st-century citizenry - rather than just a fancy new ball-and-chain for our employers to snap on to us - then that's our problem to solve. We shouldn't blame the new mobiles for our intellectual immobility. That would be folly.

Comments