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The inconsiderate use of mobile phones is a form of collective madness

I vividly remember my first experience of hands-free mobile phones. It must have been around 1998 in Stockholm. I arrived by night, in the teeth of a blizzard, and distinctly shaken up by having flown from London sitting between the pilots of the SAS flight. I was, shamefully, on a press junket, and this was the only seat available. I wandered the concourses of Stockholm airport waiting for my onward connection and absolutely freaked by the numbers of soberly dressed businessmen who strode about the place gesticulating and talking aloud, even though there was no one there.

What was this, I wondered - the atavistic Scandinavian bicameral mind in action? Were these guys talking to Wotan, or were they schizophrenics? It took me a while to notice the little pigtails of flex dangling from their ears, then grasp that this was only the stringy extension of a communications revolution hell-bent on inverting private and public space. Ah! The mobile phone - how can we imagine life without it? (Well, if you're, say, over 30, the answer is: with perfect clarity - after all, we can remember that carefree era of less paranoia and greater punctuality.) More specifically, what was civil society like before any f***wit with a portable phone started believing that he or she had an inalienable right to yatter on in public, at inordinate length and as loudly as a trombonist?

Space invader

Yet I don't think inconsiderate use of mobile phones is simply the rudeness born of a slackening of social bonds: I believe it to be a form of collective madness. When I'm in a public but confined space, such as a train carriage, and some deranged person begins to Samsung-soliloquise, I try to bring them to their senses by reading aloud from Schopenhauer (I carry a copy of The World as Will and Idea with me for just this purpose). Soon enough they stop and, sadly often irately, ask me what I'm doing. Then I explain that while public declamation and conversation is as old as humanity, there is no precedent for a person holding a one-sided private conversation aloud in public.

If the mobile-phone age is a psychic inversion, what then was the era of the domestic phone? It seems strange now to look back to a time before email, the mobile and the answer-phone, when a ringing phone was accorded peculiar reverence and, like some strange household god lurking on a varnished altar in the vestibule, simply had to be answered. Moreover, was there not a barbaric invasion of private space every time you pressed the Bakelite to your ear and a complete stranger forced his way directly into your cerebellum?

To all of which I can only assent, and further argue, that it is precisely the madness of that telephonic period - roughly between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1990s - that throws into sharp relief the still greater insanity of the present age. Never before have quite so many spoken of quite so little to so many others. And what impinges on me as I listen to the clamorous hymning of a drunken night out, or the stentorian epitaph to a regional sales meeting, or the rendezvous raucously reconfigured for the umpteenth time, is: "Where the hell are these people as they speak?"

So confused have the boundaries between conversations become that it's by no means uncommon to see people attempting to buy - or sell - something while holding a mobile phone conversation. Thus what were once immediate and personalised bonds are constantly being vitiated by remote and anonymous ones, as the individual rattles around in a shaken snow globe of randomised verbiage. I'm not so out of touch that I don't know what it feels like to conduct a phone call while speaking to someone immediately in front of me: it feels like psychosis - something I've also experienced.

As defined by the psychiatric profession, psychosis is a blanket term for inadequate reality-testing (an ugly coinage, but you know what I mean). It's quite clear to me that when the mobile phoneys are in full spate, their immediate surroundings retreat, the upholstery of the train carriage grows hazy, their fellow citizens become exiguous, and they are left in a humming, velveteen darkness, alone with their invisible interlocutor. Back in the real world, real people are compelled by the very nature of language itself to play the part of someone who is not there. Thus, the phoney says: "I don't know, Brian took them back to Goole after the game," and we all gamely struggle to imagine what they could possibly be and why we want them.

I'm on the train

On this analysis, my suspicions in Stockholm all those years ago were both correct. The public mobile-phone conversation does indeed render us all schizoid, impairs all of our capacities to reality-test. My initial thought was also right - at one point in the late 1990s a vast tranche of the public-sector borrowing requirement was being plugged by the selling of mobile-phone licences. What oil was to the Thatcher regime, bandwidth was to the era of Blair. And what can one say of a people whose collective well-being is mediated by a form of public prayer? "I'm on the train" is thus only a British form of Om mani padme hum, a mantra to be repeated ceaselessly so as to bring us all closer to the enlightenment of an immaterial existence and a universal - if hideously prosaic - consciousness.

Yes, I was right: the Swedish businessmen were talking to Wotan, and were it not for the serendipitous invention of texting (devised initially so that Nokia line engineers could inform their office of faults), quite clearly we would all be doomed. As it is, a form of instant epistolatory communication has been adopted by our children with wildfire alacrity. It all puts me in mind of James Reston of the New York Times's remark after a visit to China in the early 1970s: "I've seen the past - and it works."

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London