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The hell of constant availability

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Norway Now
, 1996

(colour courtesy of Steve Hillage)

"What? Don't you have a mobile phone number?" the woman asked, shocked. She had an efficient, slick, professional voice. I replied, confidently, that I didn't need one - and I couldn't resist the temptation to add that as a matter of fact, I would probably never acquire a cellular phone. She shook her head audibly at the other end of the line.

Regrettably, her incredulity was well placed. In our age of hypermodernity, we run out of things our parents had never heard of, and moreover, we seem to be about to develop a society based on the premise of instant availability. Those of us who resist the mixed blessings of the cellular phone (and who, perhaps, even resist the answering machine) are forced to cope with sullen callers who complain that we are "so difficult to get hold of".

My response is this: So be it! Let us continue to be difficult to get in touch with, and let's start, while we're at it, lobbying for a new paragraph in the UN Charter for Human Rights, stating that every person has the right to be unavailable outside office hours!

An initiative of this kind is long overdue. The Nordic countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway have the highest density of cellular phones in the world; they are the only countries where the "mass market limit" of ten per cent has been surpassed. Vendors of mobile phones and subscriptions have been offering phones virtually for free (starting at NOK 0.50) to get us hooked, just as drug dealers offer the first syringe/pill/joint for free.

Needless to say, their campaigns have been highly successful. As from this summer, you cannot enter a tram or a cafe, walk on Oslo's main street Karl Johans Gate, wait for your dentist appointment or in a cinema queue, without unwillingly being entangled in the private lives of strangers. A theatre critic even complained recently that buzzing cellular phones were becoming a regular nuisance during the play. Poor actors, who have to compete for attention with spouses and business associates who require the attention of the spectator right now. Not after the first act; not this evening; certainly not tomorrow morning!
Poor all of us, actually. Not least the addicts themselves. The moment you give in to the pressure and hook yourself up to the wireless community of itinerant phonaholics, you have committed yourself to a life devoid of empty spaces. You shall forever be the slave of others, imprisoned in the hell of constant availability.


Something has gone terribly wrong in our society. The overt purpose of new technologies is to liberate time, to increase happiness and to enhance efficiency. Instead, they have lead to perennially growing backlogs, bad conscience, stress and ever tightening time budgets.

All over the world, resisters have been telling each other that the "yuppie teddybears", as the Swedes call them (yuppienaller), are only used for status display, and that the well-groomed executives who can be observed talking in them generally use them for dinner arrangements with their wives. This is clearly not true. The cellular phone has by now become so widespread that it no longer conveys high status - indeed, some of the most avid users are teenagers.

An Oslo based writer, asked recently about current trends, said that as from now, talking in and about cellular phones is out. The device, he insinuates, is no longer chic, avant garde, modern. It is already outdated, he claims.

I must confess some doubt concerning this optimistic view. Cellular phones may no longer be chic since they have lost the lustre of novelty. Instead, they have become a commonplace. And unless a substantial number of us stand up and voice our distress, cellular phones will soon be as common as wristwatches and cashcards. Not to have one will render one susceptible to accusations of immorality and irresponsibility. It will be every good citizen's duty to be available anywhere at any time.

That is going to be hell for all of us.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1995