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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 53 - Oh for a non-mobile Nirvana devoid of electronic attachments


IN THE first successful speech transmission by telephone in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, the instrumentís inventor, told an assistant in another room: "Mr Watson, come here, I want you."

The French painter and sculptor, Edgar Degas, hearing that modernity symbol tinkle in a friendís house, and seeing him rush to answer it, re-marked to the prideful owner: "So thatís the telephone. It rings and you run."

That peremptory "come here" note has been constant in my dealings with phones, from a ringing, as insistent as a bell summons to a Spanish Inquisition public burning and starting just as foam is engulfing me in the bath and turns out to be a wrong number, to the kind that disturbs me in the middle of polishing some lapidary paragraph and produces a female voice, satin-and-silk-smooth with a tulip for a tongue, that tells me I will be included in a draw for a £20,000 world cruise if I answer questions on my household affairs first.

As a journalist, I have found the phone as vital to my life-support system as a space helmet to an astronaut. All too often, nowadays, I find phoning, not just a swift means of communication but also an unwanted deliverer of music, a test of skill, similar in objective to assessing the intelligence of rats, and often a sheer, nerve-straining, exquisitely-maddening Kafkaesque agony.

I refer to attempts to contact almost any large company. Up comes the dread menu in electronic-voiced delivery, often giving a list of dial number options as long as film credit titles.

By the time you have listened to them all, you may have forgotten the one you considered appropriate, resulting in a rehearing. When you do press a number, you are likely to get a sub menu, sometimes with no suitable options.

Occasionally, a female electronic voice will become testy, hinting that you are subnormal and that an operator will nanny you to your objective.

Music follows - anything from mercilessly repetitive Vivaldi to mind-battering Rock - followed by a silence suggesting that the world has broken down. Cut off? Certainly not because the first menu is back, again interspersed with advertisements extolling the firmís products and efficiency. You have lost the will to live so you hang up.

Such firms, I am convinced, do not want custom. I suspect - I could be wrong - that they are part of a sinister plot by an international cartel of unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies to make people so stress-ridden that they will stoke themselves up with tranquillisers and painkillers.

Stress is endemic in the modern phone world and, for me - and I believe there are like-minded millions - having to listen to people using mobile phones is a significant source of nervous twitches and a yearning to get out of sonic range.

I see people walking the streets as if phones were growing out of their ears. In an unassuageable desire to communicate, they utter gnomic observations such as, "I am walking along Princes Street. There is a hole in my sock. I have an itchy ear and itís raining."

How did people manage to restrain themselves conversationally in that non-mobile Nirvana when phone exchanges had romantic-sounding names like Balta Sound, Battlefield and Peggyís Mill, when human voices answered firmsí switchboards and you did not have to listen, while travelling on trains, to mobile phone users conducting business and drawing you unwillingly into the intricate mesh of company affairs just when you are wanting to relax with a coffee, macaroon and crossword puzzle?

The communication world is too much with us; dialling and receiving, we are not the masters but the slaves of omnipresent phones, often harassed by a constant ringing in our ears.

Escape from such contact is becoming rare. The latest gadget to effect a symbiotic relationship with humans is a stubby, four-and-half inch, vibrating piece of electronic wizardry called Blackberry, a combined e-mail and telephone device, able to update constantly and synchronise with office IT systems.

It is especially useful when staff need to be permanently available to clients, and it has become a new token of dedication to a company. Personally, I will give Blackberry the raspberry. No slavish electronic attachment for me.

Another thing ... sorry, the phone wants me. Must run to answer it.

Degas had the ring of truth. Elementary, my dear Watson.


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