I am old enough to remember when “mobile phones” were big and heavy and not the sort of thing you could drop into your pocket or hang round your neck on a ribbon. In those days, conversations tended to consist mainly of shouting “Can you hear me?” into the mouthpiece. At least it left you in no doubt that the user was indeed engaged in, or attempting to engage in, a phone call.
Since then, the technology has evolved at apace. These days, your mobile is so small that it can be confused with a cigarette lighter or a lipstick. Making calls is the least of its abilities: it can send text, play music, display still pictures and video, play games, store your address book, create documents (I wrote my Cornwall travelogue on mine) and take photographs of a quality that rivals that of stand-alone digital cameras. For those who like to indulge in long phone calls but dislike the cramp that comes from holding the device to their ear for long periods, the “hands-free” was invented.
My first hands-free was a piece of wire with a plug for the phone at one end and an earpiece at the other. In the middle was a plastic bubble with simple controls for making and ending calls. I think I must have spent as much time untangling the wire every time I wanted to use it as I did in actually speaking on the phone. The thin wire broke easily and I regularly had to buy a new hands-free when the current one mysteriously ceased to function. Something had to be done. And it was: enter Bluetooth.
I imagine most users of mobile phones know what Bluetooth is but for the rest of you, quaint old-fashioned luddites that you are, I will say that it is a radio standard allowing wireless connections between devices such as mobile phones, computers, printers, etc. The main use of Bluetooth for most mobile users is in hands-free sets that no longer need the aforementioned trailing wire.
Just like mobiles before them, hands-free kits have become smaller and smaller. Nowadays they are hardly noticeable. This has led to a generation of people who think nothing of wandering the streets of the city, or sitting or buses and trains, apparently talking to themselves. The first few times I came across such people, I gave them a wide berth, thinking they might be dangerous. Nowadays, when I spy someone “talking to himself”, I assume he’s talking on the phone. Usually, I am right.
Of course, I am not always right. Let’s face it, in any city you regularly meet people who really are talking to themselves. While waiting for a tube train the other day, I was treated to a lengthy conversation about banal domestic issues, the only oddity being that I could hear only one side: the other, apparently perfectly audible to the man on the bench beside me, was not accessible to me. He might as well have been on the phone. Except that he wasn’t.
Unnerving as such encounters may be, I have noticed that such one-sided conversationalists generally seem harmless. They are perhaps too absorbed in their conversation to bother with the insubstantial beings around them in what we ordinary folk are pleased to call the real world. Tigger has her own phrase for drawing my attention to the presence of solo conversationalists: “Uh-oh,” she says, “Bluetooth to God”. Well, for all we know, they may be talking to God. God may even be answering, though I somehow doubt it.
Please take note that I am not mocking the afflicted. Far from it. I sometimes think that only a whisker separates the so called normal from the so called mentally ill. And after all, when you hear someone declare “I’m on the train – I’ll be home in ten” you have only their word for it that there is a real person at the other end of the communication.