Our connection to the virtual is now more immediate to us than what is happening in the real world around us. This was proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt the other morning when, as I stood on platform two at Balham station, the train doors opened to reveal a mother talking on her mobile phone as she tried to push a pram containing her baby off the train, with the result that it fell into the gap between the carriage and the platform.
As the toddler gripped the sides with a panicked look on her face, the pram fell into the gap and became wedged, amid gasps of horror from the crowd on the platform. The pram was not in any danger of falling all the way onto the tracks, because the gap wasn’t big enough. But if the doors had somehow shut, and the train had moved off with the pram stuck in the gap, the rest just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Certainly, there was no guard I could see near enough to spot what was happening and call a halt to the train. At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I confess it took me a few seconds to rouse myself into action. I grabbed the pram and tried to pull it out of the gap, but I had three bags on my shoulders and the mother wasn’t helping. I know this sounds insane, but I promise you, she was still talking on her mobile phone.
As I grappled with the pushchair, she pulled and pushed with one hand, the other hand gripping the phone to her ear. Or possibly she had both hands on the pram, and the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder. But I recall quite clearly that she never stopped talking on the phone.
The pram was sinking harder into the gap. The real danger was that if by chance the mother decided to get off and grab the pram from my end, the doors might shut and the train move off.
Time seems to move very slowly at moments like these and I was aware of all sorts of things as I grappled with the pram, throwing my bags off my shoulders to get to grips with it better. I could hear more gasps from onlookers, including lots of fit young men, and I can remember thinking: “Why isn’t somebody helping me?”
After what seemed like an age, the pram became unwedged from the gap, and the woman held her end of it while I lifted my end to bring it off the train safely this time. She then swept past me. And as she did so, I noticed that she was still talking on her mobile phone. She simply walked away, continuing her conversation about something else to a person unseen.
I sat on the train feeling stunned. Later, still trying to make sense of it, I posted the encounter on Facebook. But the angry comments from friends condemning the woman for being a bad mother rather missed the point I was trying to make.
And so I added this comment to my own posting, for the avoidance of doubt: “I do think we need to think what we are coming to when the instinct not to interrupt a mobile phone call, or drop a mobile phone, is now stronger than the urge to save one’s young. I do think it says something about the madness of relentless smartphone communication.
“Our connection to the phone and what is going on somewhere else (or not going on at all, in the case of games and movies) is now more immediate to us than the thing physically happening in front of us – in this case, involving the most important thing in the world.”
The mother who seemed prepared to push her baby under a train rather than end her mobile phone call is an extreme example of living one’s life divorced from the here and now, but we are all guilty of this to some extent. I would be lying if I said the police had never caught me on the phone in my car.
I would be lying if I said I had not tried to check a text while having dinner with someone and so had not given them my full attention. We all do it. And I wonder if we are coming to the point where technology, ever drawing our attention elsewhere, is taking us out of the present, out of the moment, away from our earthly connection to the humanity around us, so much so that we are in effect being brutalised by it.
Several times recently I have been walking down the street and someone has appeared to smile at me and I have smiled back, only to then realise that that person was not connecting with me, but was plugged into their iPhone earbugs and laughing at something someone down the line was saying. As Milan Kundera said, life is elsewhere. Or perhaps I ought to mangle a John Lennon quote: life is what happens to you when you’re busy on your mobile phone.
Melissa Kite is a journalist and author