Constant Touch: a global history of the mobile phone, by Jon Agar

A small object that wormed its way into our lives

James Harkin
Monday 10 March 2003 01:00

In July 2001, after months of giving the authorities the slip, a French businessman wanted in connection with a corruption scandal was tracked to his hideout in the Philippines. Realising the game was up, his immediate response was to put his mobile chip in his mouth. To the annoyance of his arresting officers, he proceeded to chew it up.

Constant Touch is an eccentric, eclectic little book, but all the more welcome for it. It is full of thrilling vignettes, showing how mobile phones have quietly folded their way into the social fabric and our sense of personal identity. What distinguishes it from one of those pointless coffee-table cultural histories (of the coffee bean or the potato) is that Agar is technologically literate, fully engaged with the possibilities of mobile communication, and full of genuine wonderment about how the mobile phone could become such a small object of desire – and the locus for so many anxieties.

The first mobile phone to arrive in Britain, Agar tells us, was the height of luxury: it was built for the Duke of Edinburgh in the early 1950s so that he could keep in touch with the wife. By the early 1990s, the mobile had become a "yuppie bear" and was associated with a boisterous individualism. Very soon, however, it was being sewn into the fabric of youth culture and used by rave organisers to outwit the police. To refuse to carry a mobile at the beginning of the 21st century marks one out as an eccentric, or part of the élite who can avoid human contact.

Agar is better on technology than politics. Despite the title, his book has little to say on emerging debates about privacy and the implications of perpetual contact. Nevertheless, his entertaining account helps to keep those debates in perspective.

In order not to strain our credulity, he informs us, the makers of the movie The Blair Witch Project were forced to set the film in a time before mobile phones became widely available. Otherwise, confronted with a few spooks in a forest, most of us would have gotten straight on to the police and then sat fiddling with our phone while waiting for a helicopter. Hardly the stuff of dramatic tension, but it's good to be reminded that being "always on" has its advantages.

As our phones morph into all-purpose devices with the third generation of mobile technologies, they will become as essential an accessory to modern life as the wristwatch. Just recently, however, that future looks a little beleaguered. The bankers have gone cold on the new technology, and most network operators are busily postponing its launch.

Meanwhile, among media and government, the humble mobile is charged with everything from frying our brains to precipitating a teenage crime wave. Most recently, it has been blamed for hastening the disappearance of Britain's sparrow population.

Evidence for these allegations is shaky or non-existent. Mobiles are a convenient repository for existing anxieties which have little to do with the technology. Reading Agar's book will leave you a little more excited about the mobile future, and a little more appreciative of what we already have.

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