Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mobile phones – miracle or curse?

When cell phones were still a new concept in India, many people debated whether cell phones, or mobile phones as they are known here, were really as useful and essential as they were being made out to be. A decade or so down the line, one can clearly say that whatever the outcome of the debate, the public has decided unanimously in favor of mobile phones.

However, since the popular thing is not always or necessarily the best thing, it doesn’t hurt to think things over and decide for oneself if mobile phones are a miracle or a curse. What does a mobile phone mean in your life, both in terms of convenience and inconvenience? Is it all good? All fabulous? Or are there any downsides? It’s not a cut-and-dried, black-and-white issue, most things aren’t. Where they have a number of advantages, they have or cause many negatives as well.

It is an amazing example of technology to be able to call anyone anytime from almost anywhere. And yes, there is a huge difference made in day to day life, all because of these little gadgets. They are useful almost anytime, great in an emergency, and convenient to carry around. There are any numbers of examples I can give of how useful these little gizmos are. There was that time. For example, when we were driving to Mumbai on a hot summer’s night, just after the first toll booth on the expressway, and miles and miles from anywhere, we had car trouble. What kind? Well, we didn’t know. The damn thing just shut down!!! And refused to start again!!

Anyone who has been on that expressway knows how serious such a situation can be. First of all, the road is deserted and literally in the middle of nowhere. There are regular police patrols now, but at that time there weren’t that many, and there were a spate of hold-ups and robberies happening frequently on the entire stretch. So, what was one to do? Well, simple really, whip out the mobile phone and call the highway assistance number. Instant action resulted. In five minutes flat there was a police car at our location, and a tow truck pulled up within twenty minutes.

We got towed to the nearest petrol pump/gas station, where we found everything other than a mechanic. Out came the mobile again, and a mechanic arrived in another ten minutes! In a total of about two short hours we were all set to rights and on our way! Before the age of mobiles, we could very well have been robbed and murdered in that time, at worst, or have had to spend the night among the mosquitoes, at best.

Another time, Mumbai to Pune, we had a sort of run in with a car at Chembur. They cut across, we honked, they got mad at the honking and tried to make trouble … the usual. We dove away, refusing to get drawn into an ugly scene. By the time we got on to the expressway, the car, a quails with about six guys in it, had been consistently following us, overtaking, braking hard, and then speeding away, slowing, following, crossing, braking, speeding and so on. Apprehension wasn’t long in arriving, especially when we realized that the guys were drinking, and there was only me and my man in our car. Out came the ever present cell phone. One call, and the Qualis with the six guys was stopped at the Kalamboli toll booth, and we drove off with a big sigh of relief!

However, it is not all rosy and hunky dory. I hate the constant reach-ability for example. Although I do turn the phone off at night, it’s a little iffy, as I don’t have a landline and may not be contactable in an emergency. But leaving it on all night, or at certain other times doesn’t work too well either, because Indians have no cell phone etiquette. Not only do we not have a clue about things like “timing”, we think nothing of calling up anyone at anytime, without any thought to their convenience.

Any idiot would know that 3.30 or 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, for example, is “rest time” for most. Yet, every single Sunday, people will call, between 2 and 4 pm. Why? Because they don’t think, they are not taught (traditionally) to consider other people at all. It’s a “racial” thing. Our society does not place any emphasis on etiquette and basic manners. And so, just because I am awake at some ungodly hour, I don’t pause to consider whether calling someone now may be a problem, or an irritant, for them.

Another example of the total absence of manners is the phenomenon of the cell phone in the movie. Every time you go to see a movie in a theatre, there are bound to be some half a dozen cretins who will disturb your viewing pleasure with loud-ringing cell phones and louder and inane conversations. That’s one of the most irritating things on the PLANET!!! When you are in a theatre, “TURN THE GODDAMN PHONE OFF!!” After all, Barack Obama is not going to call you in the three hours that the movie will last (an hour and a half in the case of English ones). And if you are so bloody important that you cannot be incommunicado for even that much time, DON’T GO TO A MOVIE!!!! Rent at home or something, or give up films altogether. What you cannot do is ruin my enjoyment.

The levels of this kind of rudeness was brought forcibly home to me at a recent theatre festival. Even more than films, cell phones are an irritant in a play. Not only do they disturb the audience, they interfere with the actors on stage, making them lose their concentration, and create a lot of havoc with the sound system and so on. If you can’t turn of your cell phone, you should not go to a play at all. At a theatre festival I was at recently, the audience was reminded, again and again, to turn off their cell phones before the play began. In the first place, such a warning should not have been necessary at all. Any halfway decent person with a modicum of common sense should automatically realize these things.

But apparently that’s not the case. Not only do people have to be told, and reminded, again and again, some idiots STILL don’t get it!!! Throughout the festival (eight days), every single play had some a***ole or the other, often more than one, loudly informing a seemingly deaf caller “I am in a play, cant talk now, call later”, or better still, actually conducting a conversation!!!

Even if you are insensitive and rude enough to leave your phone on, you could at least put the ringer on silent, if you cant be bothered to do that, at least have the phone somewhere u can reach immediately, not in some inside pocket where it rings 20 times before you pick it up, if you cant be bothered even to do that, at least take the conversation outside!!! Nope….too much to expect from an Indian…one play actually had to be stopped, and the actors walked off the stage, for this unbelievably uncultured behaviour by the audience.

We don’t know how to talk softly either, volume controls are absent. If one has to have a mobile phone permanently stuck to ones ear, (and Bluetooth technology has made that description literal), one can, at least, cultivate the habit of speaking in an undertone. But no, ambient noise, often faulty technology, and native Indian brashness combine to fill the air with overloud conversations you DO NOT WANT TO HEAR, but have no choice but to listen in on. From inane to ugly, nasty to stupid, I suddenly become privy to everyones secrets, like it or not!

Needless to say, to me, these little gizmos are often more trouble than they are worth! There’s a lot more I want to say about the whole “mobile” movement, but that will have to wait until another day.

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