Zombie watch with W H Auden
Now that I commute into work again, I’m back on the planet of the phone zombies. Waiting for the 7.23 into Leeds they’re lined up and lit-up all along the platform, furiously dabbing, swiping and scrolling; all peering into their I-phones like crystal balls. Even the two ‘customer service operatives’ at the ticket barrier are mesmerised by their mobiles, looking up impatiently when anyone needs their help. We’re not people anymore. We’re zombies. All under the spell of our tiny illuminated screens.
The mobile phone habit: it’s like smoking used to be. Once upon a time it seemed as if everybody did it. Some of us still remember that cloying fug that hung over us on public transport and in the cinema? Or when people smoked between courses in restaurants, reluctantly stubbing out their ciggie when the food came as if the business of eating got in the way of a good smoke? So even if you didn’t much care for the idea of swallowing toxic fumes for pleasure, it was so ubiquitous and so alluring that at 13 you gave it go. You coughed and spluttered and your eyes watered but you persevered, and soon, if you were like me, you had mastered the shallow puff.
No way was I ever going to be a serious smoker, I simply never got the hang of inhaling, but I could fake it well enough to join in. At one point so many of my friends smoked that not smoking felt like some kind of statement. And it wasn’t just about feeling cool and sophisticated; mostly it was about being sociable, being included. The cigarette was social currency; smoking was a shared experience, a shared ritual. As awkward teenagers it also gave us something to do with our hands and to hell with our lungs. Smoking may not have connected us with the world but at least we were connecting with each other, face-to-face and in real time.
While it’s true that mobile phones have put the world at our fingertips, still you can’t help feeling that they are slowly diminishing our humanity. Now that we carry entire entertainment systems in our pockets, why take the trouble to connect with real people?
At least mobiles don’t endanger our health like smoking you say. Well I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been almost knocked to the ground by someone so deep in communion with their phone they forget to look where they’re going. And despite being illegal to use while driving, we know that they are still the cause of countless road accidents, sometimes fatal. And what about that tragic case recently in the Grand Canyon where a couple plunged to their death when they accidently stepped off a precipice to take an ‘extreme’ phone selfie? Just like smoking, phones can be a dangerous, even fatal addiction, and it doesn’t just seem as if everyone is hooked, we really are. The world is full of phone junkies.
If you’re in a public space now look around you. In my train carriage about 90% of the passengers are in thrall to their phones. From the platform they barely glanced up to step onto the train and now they are completely absorbed in the phone zone. They could be sitting next to someone wearing nothing but a cocked hat with a feather in it but they wouldn’t notice. We don’t see each other anymore. We’re too busy dib-dabbing at our illuminated control panels like so many programmed robots.
What happened to us? We used to notice each other? Notice what someone was wearing? What they were reading? We used to sometimes smile at each other and maybe pass the time of day. We might mention the weather or the appalling train service. And sometimes we even used to look out of the train window at the passing landscape. As we’ve opened up to the virtual world it seems as if we are shutting down to the actual one.
“The lights must never go off/the music must always play” wrote WH Auden in his poem ‘September 1, 1939’. He was commenting on the disconnectedness of people with what was going around them as we plunged into the Second World War. He wrote it while sitting in a New York bar watching people desperate to distract themselves with a drink, bright lights and music. That was almost eighty years ago. Today there’s a good chance that most of the customers in the bar would be wholly involved with their phones. Not just a distraction more like a virulent mass obsession. And you have to wonder what would Auden have written today?
“Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day
The lights must never go off
The music must always play
All the conventions conspire
To make this fortress assume
The furniture of home
Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good”
Excerpt from WH Auden’s ‘September 1,1939’