Music Features

The 3G Spot

The thumbs are out. On buses, in pubs, in clubs, on the street, oh yeah, the thumbs are out everywhere. Most impressively, the thumbs were out when I went to see Orishas on London's South Bank. If you haven't come across them, Orishas are a brilliant Cuban hip-hop outfit who take every cliché you can imagine about Afro-Hispanic culture and blow it up into a huge ball of sweat and beats. They're probably the only non-boy band who successfully codify and package male sexuality for the heterosexual female audience. And all this while knowing how to rock the joint. I was lucky enough to be front and centre (my pal got us tickets). Because of the theatrical setting of the Royal Festival Hall, a large crowd of fans and keen dancers gathered in what would be the pit in a conventional venue. The effect was magnificent; possibly a thousand-plus folk going crazy in a venue I'd last attended to receive my degree certificate. That's by the by, though. Throughout the entire performance, more than a handful of spectators in the pit, rather than watching the show, held up their 3G mobile phones, recorded the performance, and intently watched the show on the smallest of small screens.

Financial or fanatical reasons aside - most of the recordings are probably destined for sale or file-sharing - the scene gave me pause, and made me think of a variety of similar phenomena I have seen lately. Firstly, the tendency of people to spend much time in pubs and bars showing each other digital images and footage (can you have digital footage?), including holiday snaps, sports clips, and, mostly it seems, graphic pornography. It's not that I object to pornography, but rather that an anthropological change appears to be occurring, or better, continuing with renewed vigour, in habits of socialisation.

I saw something similar on a London bus the other day: a teenage girl, shouting very loudly and at some length into her mobile to explain to (I guess) her friend that she was having problems ("fackin trubbel", to be precise) collecting her voice mails. Now the bus seems more appropriate for this sort of conversation. The French theorist Marc Augé talks in his book of the same title of "non-places". If what he calls "anthropological places" have time, history, and relationality, then non-places - airport lounges, motorways, metros and other means of transport, shopping malls, large supermarkets - with their piped music, jingles, slogans and information screens telling us about a world they exclude, strip out any sense of time, relationship to history, or contact with other human beings. The bus then would be one such "non-place". Augé locates the "non-place" within the era he calls "supermodernity", characterised by excesses of space (because of improvements in physical communications) and information (because of improvements in electronic communications).

Pubs and gigs, however, one would expect to be immune to this process. They are clearly "places", where human beings engage with each other and with a socio-political context. But when the thumbs come out - and I am speaking of the incessant clicking of thumbs and their digital media - we seem to move seamlessly into the non-place, no longer relating physically and sonically to each other, but to an ideal non-world somewhere in the ether. In the case of pubs, one could perhaps suggest that the progressive introduction of reality-escape hatches began with the growth of flat-screens and transcontinental live sports broadcasting. Paul Virilio, with his assertions regarding the electromagnetic immediacy that characterises today, would seem to be correct.

Why is this something that should concern us? 3G digital communications are of course a remarkable tool for music, for film and for entertainment in general. They enable contact across unbridgeable distances, after all. But I could not help but return to the girl on the bus. The conversation had as its subject the means of communication; a whole electromagnetic architecture in place to check - as loudly as possible - whether it worked. The linguist Jakobsen called this the phatic function, language used with the intention of reinforcing the channel of communication, rather than informing or persuading in any way. What the thumbing in the pub and the shouting on the bus reveal is a corollary to Augé's excess of information and increasing individualisation, namely the contemporary importance of the banal. Mobile telecommunications enable one to tell someone else anything, and as such they actively encourage unnecessary communication; 3G technology does the same with pictures. This is closely linked to the rise of "reality" in its many forms, that is reality in inverted commas, recorded, edited and broadcast. In "reality" as talk radio, game show or lifestyle advice the everyday and prosaic takes on monumental importance. There is nothing problematic with this in itself - look at William Carlos Williams' poetry for a fine example of the very same - but hooked up with new technology, and the growth of non-places, the increasing need people express to play out their lives as publicly as possible while simultaneously escaping what is immediately at hand suggests that privacy is radically under threat. Privacy in two senses - firstly the notion of the private as something opposed to the public; and secondly privacy as that which is not seen or revealed, a space in which the individual can voluntarily be alone. Instead we find ever more that we are unwillingly alone in public - the lonely crowd, scopophile and exhibitionist at once - but singularly unwilling to admit it.

We undervalue privacy at our peril. I won't even start on the increasing freedom with which governments (particularly in the shape of the Home Office) seem to want to regulate areas of individual behaviour that were once private. And I'm not suggesting that we should follow Ezra Pound and lock ourselves in boxes. But reasserting the difference between the private and the public is an important step. It's worth trying, you know. Next time you're out, turn off the phone. Better still, don't take it with you. Consider very carefully before you next send a text message. Go to a pub that doesn't show Sky Sports, or a bar without ESPN. Talk to the people you are with. If you're at a gig, watch the stage. If you don't like the band, get drunk and slate them to a stranger. Distinguish between home and away. There are two possible benefits - enjoying the company of others, and, perhaps more importantly, the pleasure of being alone.