Mobile phones and the FUD factor

The second of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Summer 2019 issue. Now the Autumn  issue is out, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text, here with added links but without the Tony Kelly cartoon and without the wonderful production values that BECTU members have come to expect as standard.

Stories have again recently [i.e. in May 2019] been appearing in the papers about the health and social impacts of our mobile phones.

We have had Madonna worrying about her older children and whether her giving them a mobile phone at 13 had ‘ended their relationship’ with her.

Last year, a paper was published by the researchers at Imperial College engaged in the important and wide-ranging SCAMP study on sleep deprivation among teenagers resulting from their night-time use of mobiles. There has also been a separate Oxford University study which concluded that social media use has only a ‘trivial’ effect on teenagers’ happiness.

And there have even been stories from the perspective of whether our digital lives and the handiness of our mobile devices are leading adults to have less sex.

Some of these stories have been rather sensationalised. But similar stories about mobile phones and various aspects of health have been appearing now for decades.

There are some aspects of mobile phone use which do give cause for concern. The SCAMP study is drawn from the lack of certainty among scientists about the impact of the radio frequency waves emitted by devices on children’s developing brains, and whether they are more vulnerable than the adults about whom the World Health Organization dismissed such concerns some time ago. The peer pressure on teenagers to send intimate photos of themselves – so-called ‘sexting’ – should also not be under-estimated (one reason why the Oxford University might well have understated the likely impact of mobiles on teenagers’ happiness).

It’s right that we are as convinced as we can be about the safety of our devices; and clearly we also need to talk to our children more about theirs and what they do with them. Whether mobiles result in impaired relationships with us: well, if teenagers are more interested in their mobiles than us, we need to find something more interesting to say to them. They said the same about television; and no doubt they said the same about The Dandy before that, too.

Stories of the ‘always-on’ worker, whether they stem from a reluctance to carry around two devices – a personal one and a work one – or from the need for freelancers and ‘gig’ economy workers not to miss a call or a text, are one of the reasons why we look to trade unions to protect us. In the latter case, current research shows us that they provide workers with a strong reason to unionise.

Furthermore, concerns about the ‘spy in our pockets’, given some aspects of our social media use and our apparent inability properly to investigate, and change, the defaults on the apps we download, may also be nagging away at the way we think. (And rightly so.)

More generally, though, I wonder whether it is the FUD factor (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that explains why these sorts of stories keep coming around. Perhaps the continuing concerns about the impact of mobiles, doing the rounds for thirty years now, reflect the uncertainty in our own lives and particularly our uncertainty about the changing shape of the world around us. Given the individualised, atomised circles in which we move and think, and when so much of the outside world, and indeed the environment, lies beyond our control, it seems only natural that we transfer that uncertainty to the device that almost all of us carry around with us permanently, and which may have come to symbolise that absence of control.

Or, better said, the appearance of that absence of control, since where uncertainty is the driver, we do have the answers when we analyse what brings us together. The answer is plain to all of us as trade unionists – we organise. And, about the issues we cannot individually control – then we collectivise them. When we realise that power, we can deal with most things.

Are we hanging up on landlines? (text)

A little while ago, I blogged about a column I had started to write for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU.

It appears I didn’t disgrace myself totally, and the union was kind enough to invite me back to the house for a second column which has now appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the journal. So I thought it about time to post the text of the first. It’s just the text so, for the graphics and a cartoon by the wonderful Tony Kelly you’ll need to log in. Working in the media and entertainment industry – then you will be a member already, right?

Are we hanging up on landlines?

In 1998, when I first joined the staff of STE (later Connect), the union for professionals in communications, I received several industry briefings penned by Roger Darlington, then head of research at our sister organisation, the Communication Workers Union, and more recently your former columnist.

Roger’s briefings helped me get to grips with the technical issues I would be dealing with as a novice. One provided facts and figures on the shape of the industry and the growing influence of mobile and the internet. Another described the UK’s telephone numbering system, based on area codes drawn up in the 1950s from the first letters of the town where the call was placed and their location on the telephone dial (or keypad).

So it is with a sense of the circularity of things that I write my first column on… telephone numbering.

I’m no mathematician and nor, I suspect, are many of those reading this magazine. But in an increasingly digitalising world, numbers do, indeed, make the world go round.

For example, whenever you type or click on a URL – the language-based website address of somewhere you want to visit on the web – your device converts that language into a string of numbers before delivering the page you require. It’s increasingly true of telephony, too, Already, more and more people are using apps like Skype, Messenger and WhatsApp to make phone calls.

Switched Off

By the mid-2020s, it’s likely the analogue Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be switched off completely with the intention of you – seamlessly, of course – making all your phone calls over the internet instead (in effect, talking while using 0s and 1s).

That is, of course, if anyone is still making telephone calls by then.

Ofcom has recently published new research on the future of the UK’s telephone numbering system, realising that, over the last six years alone, our time spent on landlines has halved while our consumption of mobile data has risen exponentially. In fact, we used 10 times more mobile data in 2017 than in 2012.

There are 610 area codes in the UK; and the numbering system has facilitated the availability of 1.3bn telephone numbers – enough for nearly twenty for every man, woman and child among us.

So, does a numbering system oriented towards area codes still make sense? We live in a world in which there is no need to remember telephone numbers, since our devices do this for us. An increasing number of us, especially younger people, prefer to have our contact with the outside world based on text rather than talk.

In truth, we have been moving away from this sort of world for some time: the 01734 for Reading, for example, makes sense to an aficionado in a way in which 0118 9xx xxxx (ever since 1998) does not.

It is also possible to buy telephone numbers in a different area – a trick known to cold callers to make their origin look familiar.

Meanwhile, our devices convert that sometimes only half-familiar sequence of numbers belonging to someone on an incoming call into a recognisable system based on their name – a helpful way of allowing us to screen our calls and, thereby, exercise an element of control over the numbers that prompt our world.

Perhaps it is time, then, to say goodbye to a system based on geographical numbers – and hello to one based on a little creative abstraction.

Are we hanging up on landlines?

I’m delighted (actually, I’m as proud as punch) to announce that the first of my columns for Stage Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect – is now available. In it, I boldly propose to an audience composed substantially of creative professionals that numbers make the world go round before concluding that, after all, perhaps it is time to say hello to a world based on creative abstraction.

BECTU members – we think the content of Stage Screen & Radio is so good that it should be privileged for those who pay their membership subscriptions each month – can download the magazine here (after logging in). I’m on page 26. Happy reading!