“That stupid woman!” my wife exclaimed, looking out through the front window of our house onto the street below. We were listening to the news, and at first I thought my beloved was referring to some blunder by Julie Bishop or Theresa May. But the object of her scorn was a woman wheeling a baby in a pram down the centre of the street and studying her mobile phone while cars edged past on either side.
It set me thinking about the dangers posed by mobiles – that much-prized and ubiquitous little gadget now deemed essential to the good life. I don’t just mean traffic accidents – though there are plenty of those. It is illegal to use a mobile while driving, and research by the Queensland University of Technology has shown that using one while walking can be just as dangerous. Rather, I’m thinking of the wider social and psychological impacts of mobile phone use and how it is changing our lives.
Perhaps the most striking effect is in the area of children’s reading. According to a research study conducted by Murdoch University educationist Dr Margaret Merga (published in the journal Computers & Education), children with access to a range of e-reading devices, including mobile phones, Kindles and iPads, are less likely to read books. No surprise. Dr Merga concluded, from a survey of 997 children, that e-reading devices encouraged “greater distraction” and had a “detrimental impact on student comprehension and concentration.”
It seems a long time since the first mobiles appeared. They were as big as bricks, and the only people who seemed to have one were policemen and used-car dealers. Then they got smaller, and I was thrilled when I fitted one in my car. My favourite in those days was a nifty little Nokia which allowed me to make and receive calls – and that was all I wanted. Soon it was possible to send texts, which was handy, too – though it puzzled me that people seemed to prefer texting to ringing up their friends and having a live phone conversation. No doubt it was progress. I was mortified when my little Nokia slipped from the top pocket of my shirt one day and dropped into the loo. A few seconds spent drying it in the microwave naturally made things worse – my Nokia’s days were over, and I soon found myself the owner of a fancy new smartphone whose manifold intricacies I have yet to master.
I’m not sure when the mobile became a universal feature on the landscape. Go to any public gathering today and most people will be using one – not necessarily for communication but to scroll through “apps” and internet sites. Commuters on trains and buses are no longer reading the Sun or the Mirror (those were the days!), but studying their phones, often with something plugged into their ear. There was a time when I could walk down a busy street and imagine that all those around me were either hard of hearing or talking to themselves. It’s the same with crowds in restaurants, at theatres, even at sports events. It wouldn’t surprise me to see an outfielder at a Test match checking his mobile between overs. As for that stupid woman wheeling her pram down our street, she’s no different from countless other pedestrians.
Does any of this matter? I think it’s important. If you believe the financial pages, tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook will soon be ruling the world. Steadily, unmistakably, for better or worse, mobile phones linked to the internet are changing our culture – killing the print media, killing the printed word, killing books now accessible on tablets. You don’t have to go to the cinema these days – you can watch movies on your phone. Yet movies were conceived as an art form best shared with an audience. Go into any multiplex and you’ll be lucky to find twenty five people. And you don’t have to go to the shops to do your shopping. Almost anything can be ordered by phone and delivered. Numbers in the big department stores have been declining for years. How long since you visited Myer or David Jones? I can see a time when the department stores will be no more than display centres if you want to look at something before buying it.
There is a common thread to all this. All these trends are diminishing our sense of community, of belonging to a shared society. Can governments do anything about it with their constitutional power over corporations and electronic communications? Perhaps they could, but even if they wanted to they wouldn’t dare.
In Latin class at school (who does Latin now?) I picked up the phrase laudator temporis acti – an admirer of things past. And in so many ways, like so many people, I believe we did things better in the old days. I know I’m revealing my nostalgic old fogey Luddite colours again, but I would prefer to live in a world in which technology brings us closer together rather than fostering a sense of isolation, seclusion and growing self-absorption. So let’s make a start by banning mobile phones in schools – and see what happens.
Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Gough Whitlam and several state premiers, and ran the NSW government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001. He wrote film reviews for The Australian for 33 years.