You leave home at the start of the day. Some time later, you reach into your pocket (or handbag): Your mobile is missing. You check your pockets, root around your bag: nothing. A brief flourish of panic: have you lost it? Left it behind somewhere? Then you remember: in your hurry to leave the house, you neglected to pick it up. It’s lying on your bed stand, where it always spends the nights, recharging while you sleep.
It’s too late to turn around, and you won’t be home for hours. You’re stuck. The panic fades, replaced with something else, a tug with a very specific quality, like the pulses of a phantom limb, coming in close succession as you realize you can’t tell your co-workers you’ll be late to a meeting, or arrange drinks with friends that evening, or be reached, if needed. You can not reach out, if needs be. You are alone – even in a crowd of people. If something should happen, no one you know would know. You have already disappeared.
Life flows on without you. People call and leave voice mails. Others send text messages. The impatient send petulant follow-ups, as their messages go ignored. You walk through the day in half a daze, continually feeling the absence of your mobile: as you wander up to a bus stop (what time is the next one?) – look at the skies (will it rain soon?) – or enter a supermarket (what should I bring home for dinner?). Everyone and everything within arm’s reach just a few hours ago has become almost impossible to manage. You muddle through – it’s not the end of the world, after all – but when you make it home, your mobile goes right back into your pocket, with a pat and a relieved sigh. Once again, you’re connected.
Something like this has happened to all of us, because we all have mobiles, and because mobiles have had the same profound effect on all of us. Seduced by the connected comforts they provide, we live in a world where every day it becomes more difficult to imagine life before we all had these magical, handheld lifelines bringing all of us exactly what we need, every single moment.
We can reach into our pockets and pull out a person, access to almost any service, and more information than any of us could hope to digest. We do this all day, every day, an act so commonplace it solicits no reaction at all, except in its absence, when we lose track of our mobile, or when the network fails to work as we expect. The frustration we experience in those moments tells us this connection has become essential. We can live without it, but not as well.
The emergence of Homo Nexus – Connected Man – happened virtually overnight, like mushrooms springing up from a damp paddock. The ground had been well sown with the electric technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries: telegraph, landline telephone and radio all converged in 1980 within the first cellular telephone. Big, heavy and very expensive, the first mobiles became very popular with the ultra-wealthy, who could afford both the mobiles themselves and the exorbitant usage fees they incurred. Wealth buys freedom, and the wealthy instantly recognized the freedom provided by the mobile, using them to transact business and manage their own affairs, wherever they happened to be.
A similar transition happened with the introduction of landline telephony, during the last years of the 19th century. The wealthy brought landlines into their homes and businesses, using the telephone to extend their reach. The landline, however, connects to a place: an office, kitchen or bedroom. Ring a landline from a landline and you bring one place closer to another.
The mobile telephone dispensed with the importance of place. Where a landline connects to a place, a mobile connects directly to a person. There is no ‘where’ for the mobile. There is only ‘who’. When we ring someone on their mobile, and an unexpected voice answers, we experience a brief moment of displacement, as though we’d dialed Europe and gotten through to Mars instead. We suspect body-snatching: we’ve dialed a person, how could someone else answer? It’s as though the connection lost its way and connected to someone else.
What we lost in place we recovered in community, no longer suffering under the tyranny of distance. People who live far apart – or even just out of a convenient cooee – now enjoy as much intimacy as they care to allow. We live within each other’s pockets, available with a few pokes of a fingertip. We may not know where we are, but we know how we are related. Lost in space, but not alone, we are everywhere, even if we don’t quite know where we are. It seems that place matters less – has always mattered less – than relation. We value our connection to others more than anything else, because that connection forms the foundation which brings us everything else. Don’t know where you are? It doesn’t matter: as long as you’re connected, you’re never truly lost.