Even Parliament Is No Longer Safe From the Banality of Smartphone Addiction

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By Harry Phibbs | 4:52 am, November 28, 2016

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor has faced the ultimate humiliation from his Labour colleagues. He was speaking in response to the Autumn Statement – hitherto regarded as an important and exciting Parliamentary event.

As McDonnell outlined his thoughts on the economic policy his colleagues didn’t boo or jeer. It was worse. That would have at least meant that they cared about what he was saying. Instead they got out their mobile phones – to variously check their emails, text messages, Twitter feed and so on.

There is plenty of hostility towards McDonnell. The Conservative MP Anna Soubry told him he was “a nasty piece of work”. His support for the IRA terrorists caused revulsion among all decent-minded democrats.

Yet he could probably shrug off strong opposition to his views. The contemptuous indifference is surely much harder to cope with.

In response, McDonnell suggested that his colleagues had been tweeting about what a wonderful speech he was giving – I’m afraid a glance at their Twitter accounts offers little evidence of that. But he also said that he was not a unique victim of such crass bad manners. Here he has a point.

How strange that those who strived for so many years to enter the mother of parliaments should, upon arrival, decide to insult it in that way. Instead of being humbled by the sense of history they take the chance for a game of Angry Birds or to send emoticons to their mistresses – hoping that the brazen discourtesy will generate an allure of excitement.

Politicians are not the only culprits obviously.

You only have to go on a train or a bus to note the dependency on these devices. With the traditional English reserve the passengers did not talk to each other much even before these inventions appeared – but they might have looked out of the window and taken some interest in their surroundings.

In friendlier nations – such as the United States – the loss is more severe. Where once were chance encounters we now have dead eyes absorbed in their soulless isolation. Conversation is destroyed as the tide of technological banality engulfs all public space.

That most precious, but vulnerable, of institutions – the family – is undermined. Some parents even allow their teenage offspring to stare at their phones during meals at the dining table. How can they ever hope of reaching the age of reason? It is staggering that parents allow such damaging behaviour. Forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Part of the objection is aesthetic. Reading a newspaper at breakfast is acceptable. Reading the same article on a screen from that newspaper’s website is not. Taking handwritten notes at a meeting is fine. Typing the same words on an electronic contraption is not. It shouldn’t be necessary to consult an etiquette guide to understand this. Instinct ought to be enough.

Then there is the idea that if someone is late but they send constant text messages on just how late they are going to be then everything is all right. It is not.

The intrusion into the daily routine is bad enough. But the sabotage of special occasions is even worse. A chap takes is girlfriend out to an expensive restaurant and prepares to pop the question – but then thinks better of it after she mindlessly answers her phone to jabber away to someone else.

The atmosphere is ruined, the moment is lost. In future decades will the lonely spinster even realise where she went wrong – scrolling down the status updates of her Facebook “friends” while drifting ever further apart from her real friends?

Perhaps the hope is that practitioners of social media will use its powers to call for restraint. This week an Arsenal supporter was denounced by a fellow fan on Twitter – after spending 47 minutes on FaceTime with his girlfriend during a Champions League match with his earphones in.

“We all have to accept that football has changed but more could definitely be done to improve atmosphere – it’s not even fun going anymore,” said the critic of the Facetiming dolt. The tickets cost £70 – why would he waste his own money purely to sour the experience for others?

Why go to the theatre if you are going to spend the visit absorbed on your phone? The actress Patti LuPone was performing in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York. A woman in the second row kept texting – until LuPone strode off the stage and grabbed it from her – without even breaking out of character. Good for her.

“If you don’t answer that, I will!” Kevin Spacey once declared from the stage of the Old Vic.

Sometimes the offence is compounded by not answering the phone to avoid being identified as the owner. “Whose phone is that?” President Obama asked last year when trying to make a statement to the press. “Guys, come on now. Somebody. You recognize your ring. Don’t be embarrassed, just turn it off.”

Blaming the technology is ultimately misplaced. It provides great advantages but needs to be the servant, not the master. People are ultimately responsible for their behaviour.

The addiction can be broken – what helps is if it is made socially unacceptable. For example if the Labour MPs staring at their phones during McDonnell’s speech – such as Dawn Butler, Jon Ashworth and Sarah Champion – find their constituents criticising them for their rudeness it might prompt an improvement.

Let them all be “called out” on social media. As Jacques Mallet du Pan said: “The Revolution devours its children.”