Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Not so many years ago, I heard about a bar that offered drinkers a rather special service: the use of phone booths. Not the old-fashioned, pretty much obsolete kind with telephones in them, but sound-proof cubicles in which different sorts of ambient noise were on offer. Thus, for a modest fee, an unscrupulous punter with a mobile could call a husband/wife/boss/parent/minder and claim to be delayed in the office/on the train/on the bus/in traffic with greater conviction than if a sound of revelry by night were audible in the background. I don’t know what people did if their 20 pence worth of ambient sound ran out before they finished making their phoney excuses: perhaps the quicker-witted abruptly ended the call and later claimed to have been going through a tunnel. Anyway, if the establishment in question is still in business, the booths will soon fall into disuse, with the arrival of mobile video phones. The idea fills me with horror, not so much because I like to slope off to the pub after curfew as out of vanity. No doubt I’ll come round: 40 million of us have got used to the audio-only kind.

Jon Agar’s Constant Touch: A Global History of the Mobile Phone (Icon, £9.99) considers the social as well as technological aspects of the phenomenon. The conceptual breakthrough that makes mobiles possible was the work of D.H. Ring – born, you might think, like Alexander Graham Bell, to make telephonic history – at Bell Laboratories, New Jersey. There are only so many radio frequencies available; Ring’s brilliant notion was to see that the same frequencies could be used over and over again if each covered only a small geographical area, or ‘cell’ – hence ‘cellular phone’. This causes other problems, such as negotiating the handover of the phone from one cell to the next, but the principle is still the one on which mobile networks are based. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that Ring came up with the idea in 1947; though the earliest ‘mobile phone’, it could be argued, was the one that Lars Magnus Ericsson put in his wife Hilda’s car in 1910, even if it had to be physically connected to overhead telephone wires. (‘Hello? Lars? It’s me, Hilda. I’m in the car. Going to be a bit late: yes, traffic’s pretty bad – and it took me a while to hook the phone up, too.’)

There are many reasons why it took half a century for mobiles to become near ubiquitous (in the parts of the world where they are; Agar doesn’t neglect to mention the clandestine trade in capacitor-grade tantalum from the mobile-scarce Democratic Republic of Congo, and its unhelpful contribution to the civil war there): batteries had to get smaller and more powerful, for example, and state-owned telephone systems had to be broken down and privatised. Then there’s our change of attitude – as much a result as a cause of the encroaching state of permanent communicability. Orange’s advertising their products with the grotesque promise that ‘you can e-mail from the beach’ shows how far we’ve come, or gone. As a sociological precedent, Agar suggests the pocket watch. In the 17th century the device was a ‘rarity’: a hundred years later, it was ‘baroque high technology’. One difference, however, is that pocket watches enabled people to be on time, whereas mobile phones mean it hardly ever matters if we’re late.

Andrew Wilson, a poet, will be publishing his first collection, Text Messages, in the autumn (Smith/Doorstop, £5). Readers are encouraged to send poems to friends’ mobiles. From September, it will be possible to receive five free by texting yes to 07781 486499; quite how free depends on the contract you have with your network.

A number of the sayings of the US Secretary of Defense have been collected by the journalist Hart Seely and set as verse. Most of the poems in Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld (Simon and Schuster, £8.99) are short enough to be sent by text message. Here’s ‘In the Red Sea’:

The Red Sea begins and ends.
And then there’s an area
Just beyond the Red Sea,
And it may very well be
That people choose to do it
Before they get in the Red Sea
Or after they’re in there –
Possibly, probably, certainly.

In ‘Doing the Capable’, Rumsfeld says:

The United States isn’t going to do anything
That it’s not capable of doing:
And if we do something,
We’ll be capable of doing it.

It isn’t clear if the philosophical context for this is Kant’s categorical imperative or Pascal’s wager. Most chilling is ‘End Zen’: ‘How does it end?/It ends,/That’s all.’ If it does end soon, with Rumsfeld playing no small part in the apocalypse, I just hope that this witty book isn’t the only trace of him left for alien archaeologists to unearth.