Mobile phones have made us more civilised

One can make a quick call, executing a gesture of friendship in spite of being busy and miles away
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The Independent Online

A new form of little death was announced this week. For many people, it seems, losing a mobile telephone is an emotional experience akin to bereavement. Interviewed by researchers from the Henley Management College, almost half of a study group of men and women in their twenties and thirties revealed that they "could not live without" their little plastic friend. Meanwhile, a publicly funded body called the Learning and Skills Council has launched a course called "How to Use Your Mobile Phone".

Pathetic, you might think, this dependency on a small technical device – a scandal to spend our money on something which represents the tyranny of technology, the tedious vapidity of ubiquitous chat, which is not so much communication as an aural version of comfort food. Not so long ago, I would have disapproved with the best of them; now I am not so sure.

It is true that these devices have done little for us as social beings. Trains full of people engaged in noisy self-conversation, newsagents serving you blank-eyed while chatting to someone else, self-absorbed prats striding along the footpath talking animatedly into their palms: they all play a part in making modern life more irritating and stressful than it need be.

But, if the mobile has become an emotional crutch, is that so terrible? Is it not possible that, in our intimate as opposed to public lives, it has made us better, more thoughtful and maybe even happier people?

The speed and pressure of contemporary living militate against small acts of kindness and friendship, but being able to communicate with those we like or love at almost any time, however briefly, reminds the caller and the called that important, private things are not being forgotten in the rush.

Of course, most of the conversations that take place on mobiles are inconsequential and trivial, but then accepting another person's ordinariness is almost a definition of friendship. Until the mobile came along, an element of formality accompanied a telephone call – any exchange that was too brief or hurried could seem impolite. Being able to make a quick call now, executing a gesture of friendship in spite of being busy and miles away, must surely be counted as civilising in the way we behave, as well as a useful way of keeping pressure at bay.

In another of the week's surveys, this one conducted by the Samaritans, it was revealed that 40 per cent of us feel more stressed than we did five years ago. The accepted wisdom is that a pitiless exposure to communication has generally had a nerve-fraying effect on our mental health. But then what was the antidote to stress used by over a quarter of respondents in the survey? Talking to a friend or relative.

It is no surprise that, for the young and easily influenced, the mobile has become such an important part of their self-image. Just as the personal computer has become a visible, external representation of our brain, history, memory and of knowledge, so the mobile can feel like our emotional life contained in a small box. "People see their phone as a reflection of themselves and their status," according to Michael Hulme, the author of the Henley Report. "They use it to communicate how they're feeling, and to improve the everyday experience of life."

Given this emotional dependency, it is no wonder that the habit among schoolchildren of personalising mobiles has extended to adults – mine, for example, is grey, squat and nondescript and occasionally makes a low, whining sound.

Unfortunately, we live in a showy, insecure age where the division between private and public has become blurred and so the more shameless mobile-users now deploy their pocket phones as a sort of self-advertisement, talking loudly and parading their personal life in front of strangers – the equivalent of snogging in a crowded restaurant. Alternatively, allowing a conversation or even a meeting to be interrupted by a call is often used as a way of reminding colleagues or friends just where they stand in the hierarchy of acquaintance – lower than anyone who happens to call on the phone. An etiquette book for mobile users is badly needed.

But older people who, for understandably technophobic reasons, have been wary of this revolution in communication can now catch up by enrolling in one of the Learning and Skills Council's courses where the emphasis will be on texting. Far from being, as a hyperventilating Tory MP claimed, an insult to the tax-payer and to cash-strapped schools, this is an excellent initiative which will introduce those in late middle age to what is essentially a foreign language.

Those who communicate by text swear it offers yet another exciting way to keep in touch as well as the chance to vote off celebrities on the latest reality show. Soon text English will be influencing how we write just as the mobile has changed – and improved – the way we behave.