In thrall and on call

We’re enslaved by Crazy Frog capitalism – and the mobile phone is the symbol of our bondage, argues Tara Brabazon

March 6, 2008


My father has just reached – in cricketing parlance – 80 not out. Now retired, he’s surrounded by digitised screens, sounds and searches, so I never worry that he is silently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He manages a box of remote controls so complex that landing the space shuttle is less taxing. Now bouncing around the digital bubble, he has lived a conventional analogue working life for a man of his age. A skilled tradesman, he started a railway coach-building apprenticeship at the end of the Second World War. In remembering this period, he recently told me how his days were regulated.

Kev Brab not only clocked on and off for an eight-hour day, he also had toilet breaks timed. It was one man’s job to monitor these ablutions. His name was Wal. My father remembers that Wal had a small desk and chair assembled at the entrance to the toilet block. As each apprentice or tradesman arrived, Wal would write down his worker number and time of arrival. Only eight minutes of toilet occupancy were permitted. When this interval was up, Wal would knock on the toilet door and end “the break”. The worker would then be logged out of the facilities.

That was how work was managed in the late 1940s and 1950s – controlled, patrolled and ordered by time. Kev’s story has been a trigger for my recent quizzical gaze at our changing work environment. The spillage of leisure technologies into the white collar workforce is piquant to watch.

Piquant? I am being polite.

I am seething with rage at the incompetence and rudeness of self-important fools with small mobiles and big voices who seem to think that I am remotely interested in their wife, children, office romance, drinking habits, hangover, lunch appointment, lack of a mobile-phone charger, newly pregnant receptionist, newly appointed receptionist who is not yet pregnant, new trainers, new phone because they have lost the charger, new tie, new lounge suite, new plasma-screen television and – much to their horror – new credit card bill that they are unable to pay. My cochlea is bursting with microtraumas in microtime. Let me explain.

I have spent the past 20 years in universities, which means long meetings with short agendas are the spectator sport of choice. Men in shiny polyester charcoal-grey suits, with sensible socks and ties and sharp haircuts, try to make us believe that we work in the property acquisition department of a bank rather than in the enterprise of education.

In recent years, I have been fascinated to watch the mobile-phone behaviour of these charcoal-clad corporate commandos. Our students are easily disciplined. My promise to answer any phone that rings in my lecture theatre and chat to the person at the other end in front of 140 people, or send a pseudo-intimate text message to their mother, scares students enough to switch off their social life for one hour.

No, students are not the problem. It is the adults who are behaving badly. I have noticed that as staff file in and sit down for meetings, their mobile phone is placed on the table, within easy reach and view. It is switched on. No pretence of privacy or politeness is enforced or enjoyed. I am old enough to remember when people used to apologise if their phone went off in a meeting. Now the ring etches another notch on their corporate belt. They are so important that they do not care if they irritate fellow workers. No one is as modern, interesting and important as them. Their time is valuable. Their business is urgent. The shrieking, disruptive ring confirms power over sound and space, and therefore people.

There is a performativity to this rabid phone behaviour. Part of it is a Kath and Kim-inspired “look at moiye – look at moiye” attitude. For teenagers, the endless beeping of arriving text messages signals popularity. When I was 15, I wanted Doc Marten boots for the same reason.

For suited baby-boomers, incoming calls in meetings confirm the scale and depth of their workload and how incredibly fortunate we are that they have spared a few minutes to share with us. A few years ago, I attended a meeting in which a phone rang. Not only did its owner, the chair of the meeting, answer it, but he proceeded to have a conversation while the rest of us wondered where to look. At a meeting of local government representatives, a man’s phone rang while a lecture was being delivered. He answered the call and spoke for five minutes in the auditorium while others were trying to concentrate on the presentation.

And we all know his ring tone. It is profoundly appropriate that in such crazy times Crazy Frog continues to stutter and sing his way through capitalism. That a ring tone went on to become a number one single and continues to feature in endless iTunes remixes is digital convergence at its most camp and – let’s be honest – weird. That such a silly song shrieks from serious business meetings – rather than the Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction or the Kaiser Chiefs’ Everything Is Average Nowadays – is a satisfyingly appropriate commentary on our time.

This is not only a blokey pseudo-phallus phenomenon. In fact, I think women are probably worse in this distraction factory. The endless chick checking of the screen, while mock apologising that they are waiting for a call, is a desperate cry for attention. (Too) often, these women’s phones do not ring, yet they continue to gaze at the screen, willing the tone to peal to confirm their supposed significance in the lives of others.

That is the greatest trouble with mobile phone culture: the arrogance and egotism. Nobody is that important. Nobody needs to be contacted so urgently that an hour-long meeting must be interrupted by this digital garbage. Mobile phones are crucial for drug dealers, prostitutes and leaders of the free world. Everyone else – everyone else – can wait an hour to clear their messages.

In trying to understand the sociology of text messaging and ASPOs (Attention-Seeking Phone Opportunities), I have been drawn again to Andrew Goodwin’s brilliant Dancing in the Distraction Factory. Although taking popular music as his focus, the title has been bouncing around my head for years. The consequences of not concentrating on daily tasks – of dancing in distraction – will be revealed only in the long term. As someone who teaches for a living, one of the skills I develop in first-year students is their capacity to focus, concentrate and silence the clutter and clatter of their lives. The ever-shrieking mobile phone punctuates the silence of contemplation and thought, making us too busy – or appearing too busy – to complete important tasks in an effective way.

Fordism – with its assembly lines, mass production and mass consumption – granted the factory system efficiency. The difficulty in this mode of production was how to convince and motivate workers to operate in such a pressurised environment. That is why consumerism and leisure became the sweetener for running our days by a bell, clock and time sheet imposed by others.

In a post-Fordist environment, we (only) work to gain access to goods and services through consumption. Work is brought into the leisure context, and leisure is brought into work. The mobile phone is the conduit. Through such a transformation, the workaholic has moved from being a pathologised, hard-drinking insomniac in a crumpled suit on a train and into normal corporate behaviour. The shrieking phone is a marker of men and women in our workplaces who wish to prove that they are endlessly – and literally – on call for their management masters.

Pinpointing the alienation of workers is not new: Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts took this topic as its primary focus. The biggest change since Marx’s interpretation has been the shift from a predominantly blue-collar to a predominately white-collar workforce. A new language of management creates an artificial consensus that hides the volatility and antagonism of workplace relations. This disconnection between the white-collar worker and management is mediated by new vocabularies such as corporate objectives, action plans, professional development, multiskilling, generic competencies, occupational health and safety and mission statements. Through such phrases, there is little mechanism through which to express resentment without fear of redundancy.

With our mobile phones, shopping malls and civilised workplaces, we may seem to be a long way from my father’s timed toilet breaks. Bathroom freedom is now our right. Wal and his fellow ablution watchers around the world have shut their notebooks, clicked their last stopwatch and folded their desks. We can piss in peace. But we do not have the time to think that there may be alternatives to a lifestyle of sun-dried tomatoes, pay television and mobile phones. We work to consume. We do not work to think. Maybe we should think a bit more.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media at the University of Brighton.

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