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On mobile phones

I'm thinking of getting a mobile phone after many years of holding out. It's worth writing down my thoughts so I don't forget.

Why have I resisted mobile phones? A vague bundle of things, mostly the following diverse bundle of reasons:

  • Mobile phones and the internet came along at almost the same time, and they represented two very different ways of joining the world up. The internet was open, collaborative and constructive, and designed with ideals such as archiving human knowledge. Mobile phones were proprietary networks in which people could communicate with each other but on a strict fee-paying basis, and with no collaboration or creativity - not building anything, just paying some company to be allowed to talk to your friends. I didn't want to support the latter view of the world, and in particular, I didn't want it to push the former view out of the arena.

Things are slightly different these days but not much. If it hadn't been for some of the most genius web developments (namely: Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, RSS) it's likely that the internet would slowly have been sidelined. But actually these developments have been amazingly productive and have made a lot of the collaborative, creative aspects of the web completely irreplaceable in modern life. So phone-network technology and web technology is mostly converging rather than competing, for the time being at least.

  • Ringtones are awful. Perfectly sane people, friends of mine, have such garish and horrible ringtones that you start to doubt their taste. Presumably people get used to their own ringtones very quickly and don't notice? But whether in MIDI or MP3, the first three or four seconds of some pop or classical tune is extremely irritating. Sound effects (a gong, thunder, whatever) are less irritating but a bit more embarrassing.... As a musician and/or someone who works with sound, ringtones for me are mostly audio pollution and make me want to stab people. I'm intending to make sure I can customise my ringtone and load sounds I've designed myself. The intention will be abstract sounds that are neither sound effects nor music: abstract enough to be meaningless and therefore not irritating for people. (I still need to be able to hear it though :)

  • Always-on life is not good. To be out of contact for half an hour or an hour - and, even more, to have nothing to do for half an hour - is a good thing. It forces you to think things through in uninterrupted stretches, for example. Or read a book. I really do pity people who sit on the tube twiddling away at some crappy java game where they have to make coloured blocks vanish. If they just put the phone away and stared into space instead they'd think more. And no, those java games aren't training your mind or your thumb in any useful way. (In the same way, TV makes you feel like you're not wasting time but then you realise the whole evening's gone.)

  • I like email. It's brill. For really short co-ordinating messages (like "just leaving now") texts are definitely more appropriate; but for almost everything else, emails are blatantly better.

  • A very geeky reason: over the past couple of years I was waiting for a decent open-source Linux phone that I could program. Those things almost exist (OpenMoko) and they'll be pretty common within a couple of years at most, so eventually I'll get one. But for the moment I'll just get some standard mediumish handset. Actually maybe it's not so geeky. The main reason is that I don't like the closedness of phones stopping you doing things - if I want to transfer my contacts to my computer, or to another phone, why shouldn't I? etc. These things are now more possible than they were.

  • When I was younger I used to spend ages on massive phone conversations with friends. I really liked that aspect of landline phones, spending hours chatting and very privately, as opposed to a brief check-in with someone while you've got five minutes on the bus. I'm not as convinced of that difference as I used to be, though. I have less of those massive conversations anyway; whether it's cos I'm in a different stage of life or cos everyone's on mobiles, who knows. Slightly related: the sound quality on mobiles is still awful after all these years. Presumably quantity rather than quality is the rule. Remember landline phones when you could hear what was going on at the other end? Mmm nice. Not like mobiles where you have to guess whether the background noise is a kettle or a bus.

  • I always used to like payphones. But that was back when it was much cheaper to make a payphone call than a mobile phone call, and these days it's ridiculously expensive to make a one-minute payphone call.

Fine. So why have I given in now? Partly because it's been frustrating trying to arrange to meet people (specifically, for my experiment at uni) and that would be much easier with a mobile. Partly because it'd be much easier to make arrangements with Philippa (e.g. when someone at uni suggests going to the pub). Partly because of the accumulated handiness of a phone that can act as a memory stick, a crappy camera, a crappy MP3 player, a crappy calendar, (...etc) - various slightly crap functions that added together are fairly handy. Partly to keep in touch with certain friends. But it's mainly the frustrations outbalancing my reservations, some of which have faded or can be mitigated.

So, if I do get a mobile, I really hope that I don't end up fiddling around with crappy java games, I hope I turn it off often enough to be out of reach occasionally, and also that texts don't take over from emails too much. I also hope my weirdy ringtones don't annoy any of you out there :)

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