From the Deputy Editor’s Desk .
The comedian Ernie Wise was famous for “bringing us sunshine” with Eric Morecambe as one of Britain’s best- loved comedy partnerships. But, 30 years ago, “Little Ern” helped launch a technological revolution. It’s true! Eric’s diminutive other half — the one renowned for his “short, fat, hairy legs” — was the personality chosen to make the first public mobile phone call in the UK. It might sound an unusual choice and could resemble the far- fetched plot of one of Ernie’s plays “wot I wrote”, but on reflection it was prophetic to link an entertainer with technology. It also demonstrated the universal appeal of a gadget that was set to change our lives in countless ways.
In the three decades since Ernie made that call, on a muscle- straining 11 lb phone, it is incredible how far we have come in embracing this technology. Initially a must- have accessory and status symbol for the 1980s yuppie ( young urban professional) generation, the early brick- like devices, with a price to match their bulk, were highly prized by David Jason’s character Del Boy in the television comedy Only Fools and Horses.
Nowadays, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly, we nearly all own one, 93 per cent of us in fact. Some households are entirely dependent on them — no longer having a traditional landline — and there are more mobiles than people in Britain. Forget the yuppies, everyone from schoolchildren to senior citizens has become upwardly mobile. As society has engaged with a plethora of networks, advancing technology has brought us successive generations of phones which are now, as their name reminds us, smart.
We have graduated from push button to touch screen and, perhaps most significantly, we no longer simply talk on them. Scrolling through myriad screens and menus reveals an array of mind- boggling capabilities. It is like embarking on a technological voyage of discovery. We can text; email; access the internet and social networking sites; get maps, directions, pictures and
videos; listen to music; use them as cameras, alarm clocks and calculators; and download apps ( applications), which enable us to do everything from checking the weather to subscribing to Evergreen ( see details of our new website on page 123). All this — and more — can be done from a small device in the palm of your hand. It is remarkable.
The public appetite for gadgets — fuelled by clever marketing — means that every new mobile is launched upon the world amid a mass of flickering flashbulbs and media hype. This type of reception, once reserved for film and pop stars, illustrates how these devices have become idols or treasured jewels, with their shiny cases and screens glittering in the spotlight.
Combining a phone and camera has proved irresistible in today’s imageconscious, celebrity- obsessed culture. We now have the “selfie” — a photograph taken by and featuring the phone’s owner. Look out for individuals grinning, huddled alongside friends or famous faces, with their smartphones at arm’s length. Eager snappers can prevent their limbs aching by using a “selfie stick”, but the intrusive and dangerous nature of these accessories, brandished like 21st- century lances, has resulted in many arenas, venues and museums banning them. Equally annoying are audience members who film performances on their phones, which they hold at eye level or above, throughout the event.
Our surroundings have been altered by the mobile age. There are fewer public phone boxes and some of the old- fashioned red ones, which were, coincidentally, phased out 30 years ago, have been imaginatively transformed into art galleries, libraries, information kiosks, or contain life- saving defibrillators. While the boxes have disappeared, mobile phone masts and shops have proliferated.
Admittedly, I use my smartphone more than I ever expected because it is so convenient. However, I suspect that our reliance on and attachment to these devices comes at a cost. Face- to- face conversation and genuine sociability have suffered with so much communication taking place via a screen or device. At the dentist’s recently, I noticed all six people in the waiting room — aged from about 10 to 60 — were sitting, staring at and swiping their mobile screens. No one spoke or made eye contact; all you could hear was the dentist’s drill whirring ominously in the background. Worse than this though, are those families who cannot resist the lure of their smartphones even as they sit together at mealtimes.
It strikes me that although the mobile phone heralded an amazing communications revolution, the irony is, silence and isolation prevail as people interact with their hand- held worlds rather than the real world. But what message does technology send out to you? Are you fascinated, fraught or flummoxed? Let us know your thoughts. In the meantime, I just wonder what Little Ern would have made of it all?