Monday, April 09, 2007


My home broadband connection has been down for the last week or so with, as it happens, not entirely negative consequences. To begin with, I've managed to get quite a bit of work done on the new book, mainly because I wasn't distracted by e-mail and the general pfaffing about that I seem to do now that I have always on, Internet access, or at least as always on, as it can be when it keeps breaking down.

I also managed to get some reading done, a pastime that has become considerably more valuable to me now that the last refuge for those of us who like to read without being disturbed by inane cellphone conversations is
about to be taken away. As of the middle of this year, a number of airlines are to allow cellphone use on their flights, making life considerably more disagreeable for, well, just about anyone with an ounce of decency and humanity left in them.

It's strange to think that the most technologically advanced means of terrestrial travel should also have been the last place to have held out against the cellphone scourge, although it was always a matter of time before that happy situation came to an end. It was one of the reasons why air travel, despite its many inconveniences and frustrations, was still something to which I rather looked forward. Where else could I have, depending upon the destination, up to 24 hours of uninterrupted reading time, broken by the occasional movie, nap, bite to eat and, when necessity demanded, a little writing? Separated for a time from their cellphones, and from Internet access, people had to find other things to do with their time: reading, sleeping, even work, albeit work that could now be concentrated upon without fear of other passing distractions, such as the lure of the red flag in one's inbox or the insistent buzz of a cellphone. Hell, one could even stare out of the window at the clouds below and enjoy a moment of reflection, or engage in conversation with the person in the next seat, whether a loved one, a friend, or a stranger. And where better place to do this than high in the air, as close to God (or our gods) as we were likely to get while still bound by mortal chains?

From July, all this is destined to cease, because there are people out there whose lives are so empty that they cannot bear to be separated from their cellphones, not even for an hour. (And it's not as if all these people are brain surgeons or death row lawyers either. Frankly, if you're so important that you can't turn off your phone on a plane, in a movie theatre, or at a play, then it may be that you have no business being in those places in the first place. Lives are clearly depending upon you. Don't let us keep you . . .)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Irish bargain airline Ryanair will be among the first to leap into the fray. On a certain level, I have no particular difficulty with what Ryanair offers - cheap flights to destinations that may or may not be within easy reach of where one might actually like to be - although I make a point of politely refusing to use its services unless absolutely necessary, as is my right. Politeness, though, is not part of Ryanair's vocabulary. More to the point, it is not part of the vocabulary of the company's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, a man who has yet to learn that there are still some cultures in which basic civility is not viewed as a sign of weakness, or that one can disagree without being disagreeable. "If you want a quiet flight, use another airline," he recently told a British newspaper when the subject of cellphone use on aircraft was raised. "Ryanair is noisy, full and we are always trying to sell you something."

(Incidentally, I suspect that Michael O'Leary may be contributing significantly not only to cheaper air travel, but to the cheapening of public discourse generally. Also, on the subject of selling things on aircraft, am I the only one who finds the sale of lottery tickets by flight attendants somewhat crass, and perhaps slightly worrying? The words "lottery" and "air travel" should not be found in close proximity at the best of times. Who in their right minds buys a lottery ticket on an aircraft anyway? "Stewardess, I have scratched my card to reveal three little aeroplanes crashing. What does this mean, exactly?")

But we have found ourselves slightly distant from our desired destination, an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has flown with Ryanair to, say, Paris. The fact is that there won't be a choice in the matter very soon, as where one airline leads, the others generally follow, especially when there is money to be made. Soon, the less-than-gentle tinkle of cellphones will be heard all over enclosed aluminium tubes filled with recycled air. Initially, short-haul flights are being targeted, but it's inevitable that longer flights will also begin to provide cellphone access. What then? Ds anyone really fancy being kept awake on a flight from London to Sydney by the witterings of the person next to them, or the beeping of incoming texts? Do the words "air rage" spring to mind? And it's not as if we can rely on the good sense and general politeness of the offending party to keep the conversation low, and to a minimum. Good sense, politeness, and cellphones do not mix.

Why is it, I wonder, that cellphone conversations are so much more intrusive than general conversations conducted without the benefit of an electronic medium? In part, it may be the volume at which cellphone conversations are conducted, as though users cannot quite believe that the technology available to them can actually be working as advertised, and a little extra lung power is necessary to get their message across. But I also think that humans are used to conversations involving more than one party. Our brains recognise the too and fro of normal speech and simply tune it out if it's not relevant to us, or we're not feeling nosy, but when one half of a conversation is hidden from us it throws our perceptions out of sync. It's a little like tossing a penny in a well and not hearing a splash. One has to wait patiently until it comes, otherwise the whole experience is rather disturbing.

So I'm going to make sure that I enjoy the remaining untainted time I have left to me on aircraft. I'm going to make a point of reading my book, or simply enjoying the silence, because soon I'm going to have to reconsider the wisdom of the whole travel experience. I'm going to be poorer for what is to come, but I suspect we will all be. It's just that some of us will be too dumb to notice.

This week John read

The Swarm by Frank Schatzing
The Life and Time of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

and listened to

The Bird and The Bee by The Bird and The Bee
Drums & Guns by Low
Quartet by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau


KayKay said...

Thanks for another wonderfully written article John.
Cell phones on aircrafts..Ye Gods!!
That's a scarier prospect than meeting The Travelling Man and Elias Pudd's arachnid pets in a dank basement!
Sigh! It gives me a whole new(and unwanted) meaning to your much anticipated novel:

The Unquiet..The Future Of Air Travel

Blincky said...

I just came back from the Easter Holidays whioh I spent on a Greek Island, relaxing under the sun while reading The Book of Lost Things. I have to say, i could not put the book down, I was totally consumed by David's adventures! I must say it has been an absolute pleasure! I am an aspiring author myself and my first attempt has been more of a Tolkien-esk story, I went head first, still, I am aware how hard it is as an author to write in a linear context and at the same time to have to consume the readers without being too busy and all over the place. What i want to say is, I appreciate your writting however I admire your imagination and creativity.
I am inspired by you...Thank you!

Josh said...

I think I should start up a medical center that specializes in surgically removing cellphones from people's hands and ears. Right next to this will be the psychotherapy center that deals with people who are either hearing voices (and aren't writers) or experiencing technology overload. I do wonder what hidden human compulsion cellphones and email tap into and make these things so addictive. Is it our need for something to validate our existence? Just the busy-busyness that it provides, filling those quiet spaces up in the day so we don't have to think on our own too much? Staving off loneliness?

Thanks for the thoughts, John. May your wires be crossed for a few more days of bliss.

Mairi said...

You can buy lottery tickets on planes? Why would you tepmt fate in such a way? You know that if you win, Murphy's Law will have something to say about it. Like making your plane crash into a rather picturesque mountain. The last time I was in a plane I was three, flying to Malta and being cooed over by the cabin staff because my mother had unwittingly dressed me in red and white, the national colours of Malta. My whole notion of flying is therefore quite nice. I think I shall stick to holidays I can drive to, God bless the Channel Tunnel.

Debi said...

You having a rant, John? Wonderful!

Oh Yes! Delighted to see a wordsmith such as your esteemed self use the term 'faffing'! It's one of my favourites, usually applied to long-suffering husband or dithering daughter with a certain attitude behind it. (I of course deny that I ever faff, though I suspect they would tell you a different story!)

As for technology, well, it has its good points; sometimes they are just difficult to locate. Having been a staunch, confirmed and fully paid up Luddite until recently I have to admit it's hard to imagine life without the computer now; though it's bitchin' what these things can do and they often frustrate as much as enchant, especially with a novice at the controls. (The learning curve's a steep one when arrived at through trial and error!) I've acquired a reluctant fondness for this machine, after all it opens fabulous windows such as the one I'm presently in.

Unfortunately the ubiquitous cell phone is surely The Devil's Own Invention and those who use said instrument constantly - to the annoyance of the sane who neither consider themselves, nor would want to be considered, indispensable - will eventually dine amongst princes, kings and popes as Machiavelli stated. It wasn't so long ago that we managed perfectly well without the horrible toys, it just FEELS like a different age. Communication is largely a good thing, but in the right place, at the right time and between mutually agreeable parties.

I liked what you had to say about the rhythms of two-way conversation - how overhearing only one side is more distracting because it is less natural to listen to; and, as observed, the volume some feel it necessary to employ ensures enforced eavesdropping. In a world full of noise with little respite it's sad that ear plugs may be the last recourse of any who require peace and quiet. Courtesy is a wonderful thing, but we can't always rely on those with whom we share space to show it.

Hmmmmm! Mr. O'Leary comes across as a charmer; a real prince among men. Not much courtesy from that direction then. Still, we know where princes go and I suspect it's most likely he'll be joined there by the unquiet.

As mentioned by Josh, if solitude is what you need and an occasionally blissful state may your computer play up just a little longer.

Due to loss of the comfort presently offered it could be that in future it will be better to reach your destination than travel. Still may your journeys always remain safe.



Mark Terry said...

To quote the wise Jimmy Buffett:

"Now I just can't go anywhere with out my sacred cell
I think that I might die if I miss anything at all
Text me, send me an e-mail, bring me up, give me a call
I'm ADD on AOL tryin to read the writing on the wall

Everybody's on the phone
So connected and all alone
From the pizza boy to the socialite
We all salute the satellites
Let me text you with your master plan
You're loud and clear but I don't understand"

klaire said...

By the by, I just arrived back in the U.S., and found, much to my pleasure The Book of Lost Things while in a New Zealand book store. I have to say, I picked it up with some trepidation, because I had no idea what to expect. I fell in love with the book enough, that I intend on buying a few copies for the closest of friends. I really enjoyed the read, admit to re-reading it while on continued holiday in Tasmania. I left my copy there at the hotel, in hopes that someone in need of a good book would find it as entracing as I had.


Tom Hyland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hyland said...

I own a cell phone.

But not because I like it and not because I use it; and not because I take pictures with it or download with it (this model doesn't sport 'extras'); and not because I text message (wouldn't know how or why or... even want to).

I own a cell phone because I have a grandson who's age is measured in months instead of years.

And... because he is oftentimes with me... I have the damned thing because I have to!