Charlie Brooker’s anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ could easily have been called ‘Play for Tomorrow’, dealing as it does with an unspecified near-future in which personal technology has taken another leap forward; and each leap taken is uncomfortably believable in the most sinister fashion. An earlier episode, such as the one where a cartoon character enters the political arena, was judged by some to be a precursor to Russell Brand’s spell as an internet activist; and as for one in which the Prime Minister is forced into having sex with a pig – say no more.
Having recently transferred from Channel 4 to Netflix, ‘Black Mirror’ is now something that can constitute binge-viewing, with the whole series available to download in one go, rather than the more traditional practice of having to wait a week between episodes, as dictated by the broadcaster. I saw the opening episode of the new series a couple of nights ago and knew Brooker was playing with our fears for the future once again. In this one, the ratings system familiar to anybody who routinely monitors their views on YouTube, their re-tweets on Twitter or their number of friends on Facebook, had become the means by which an individual’s value is judged in all walks of life. Purchasing an aeroplane ticket, a hire car or even a house was utterly dependent on how high one’s online ratings were. Failure to adhere to the system could result in pariah status and second-class citizenship.
Naturally, this system revolved around the ubiquitous mobile phone, with the object possessing even more power than people credit it with in the present day. The fatuous and facile, style-over-substance mindset so prevalent in numerous online outlets may have already made the lives of millions a vapid popularity contest, but here it was the difference between being an accepted member of society and an utter outcast. The authorities’ punishment for a minor indiscretion was no longer a fine, but a deduction of online points that henceforth barred the unfortunate miscreant from participating in the communal summer camp society had evolved into.
I know it shouldn’t, but whenever I watch an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ that deals with this kind of thing it merely confirms my lingering suspicions over the mobile phone. I have a confession to make. I don’t own one. I never have and I never want to.
I must stress this isn’t a Luddite protest. Being online has had huge benefits for me that I could never have dreamed of just a decade ago. It has enabled me to garner an appreciative audience for DIY videos which aren’t to everyone’s taste but are enjoyed by many; it has given me a platform for my writing via blogs such as this and my other, ‘Looking for Alison’, that I never previously had when all my efforts were read by a very small circle of friends as well as publishers that rejected them; it has facilitated cherished friendships with people I’ve never met in the flesh due to their geographical distance; and it has made communications easier in ways that the old expense of the telephone conversation or the waiting game of the posted letter couldn’t compete with. It has widened my world considerably, and I have managed all of this without ownership of the tool we are led to believe life isn’t worth living without.
Not being on friendly terms with any Yuppies in the 80s, the first people I knew who had mobiles were drug users and drug dealers in the 90s. Paranoia over the tapping of landline phones (or just phones as they were known then) made the mobile the perceived safe option when it came to arranging exchanges. They were also handy as a means of speeding up an exchange when ‘waiting for the man’ and the man was late in getting to the rendezvous. The neighbourhood I lived in back then had a high student quota, yet this was still an era in which the beginning of a new university term would see queues outside public call boxes as the latest crop of fresh arrivals needed to ring home and assure their parents all was well. When was the last time you saw a queue outside a public call box? Few students I knew then could afford a car, let alone a mobile phone. How times change.
We now, of course, have a generation that has reached adulthood (in theory, anyway) that has never known life without their electronic equivalent of a baby’s dummy and cannot imagine such a surreal scenario as being out and about alone and rendered unreachable on the other end of the line. What – going for a walk or shopping and nobody can actually get hold of you until you get back home? Not only that, just think of all the things you’ll miss on social media in your absence! You won’t be able to chronicle your exciting journey with a selfie recording the great event either, never mind inviting the world to marvel at your pasty or to announce which coffee shop you’re having your cuppa at. What kind of caveman are you?
I recall a salesman from my internet provider trying to flog me a package with which a free mobile phone came. He had clearly been trained to believe that such an offer could not be resisted by any customer, so when I informed him I didn’t want it he went into a hysterical meltdown, responding to every rejection on my part by extolling the virtues of the object with an increasingly manic sales-pitch; I suspect he probably had to take a few days’ sick-leave to recover from the shock of a polite refusal. I suppose it was that experience that made me realise how odd I was in not worshipping at the enslaved altar of the zeitgeist, but I liked the feeling.
I don’t need a mobile phone any more than I need a carrier pigeon or smoke signals; I just need a landline telephone so I can be reached when I’m at home and I can’t when I’m out. I like the liberation from being voluntarily tagged and monitored when not at home. I can’t do anything about the surveillance state in terms of CCTV cameras, but I do have a choice when it comes to the mobile. I can just say no. And I do.
© The Editor