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
That is going to be hell for all of us.
©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1995