The contemporary city comes with an unmistakable dynamic: crowded crossroads; businesspeople with a briefcase; traffic jams; commuters with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. The thread through each city image seems to be the phone: on the crossroad you easily feel part of every other conversation besides your own; with her/his other hand the business woman or man holds a phone to her/his ear; every second driver uses a headset and the newspaper could very well be a digital one. Particularly our smartphones combined with the infrastructure a city can offer for their maximum exploitation have transformed our world.
Endless opportunities opened up: we are always connected with everyone across the globe; we are more flexible; we have the liberty to perform our tasks anyplace at any time. Our phone is on top of the city dynamic ‘in real time’ and helps us avoid traffic or an overloaded bus. It could be said that every day we pride ourselves more and more on the fact that we are living in a smart city.
However, on the flip side of the coin at times dynamic tends to lean towards chaos. While travelling home in a ‘Quiet Zone’ carriage of the train, someone’s phone went off and he proceeded to have a conversation using hands free headphones (which generally encourage the speaker to raise their voice a tad). Well, we were all thinking it, but I am not sure I expected the reaction from a fellow traveller, who stood up, walked over and with his nose only a few inches away from the offender, asked him not too politely whether he could read the sign above his head. And so, an awkward silence fell on the carriage. I was mildly irritated by the mobile phoner, and I absolutely do not condone how the other passenger dealt with it. At the other end, I live in perpetual fear of my mobile going off at inappropriate moments – during an important meeting; at the cinema or theatre; in carriages with ‘Quiet Zone’ stickers on them – that I permanently have my phone switched to silent. Even when I don’t need to.
What our extremely ‘smart’ phones seem to be missing is an etiquette app. There are no clear rules on their ‘appropriate’ use and this is accompanied by unclear control. A multitude of dubious situations arise every day. Should a phone ring in the library, one guard seems willing to shoot someone, while his colleague is on the phone himself. If an etiquette were in place, indications such as ‘Quiet Zone’ would be obsolete. Nowhere for example does it tell us to eat soup with a spoon rather than to lift the bowl and pour it into our mouth and yet we opt for the spoon. At instances our smart city is transformed into an urban jungle, where the basic instinct reigns: some species behave as if every square meter is part of their kingdom; others are rather timid. Some react impulsively, while others briefly reflect on the situation and let it go.
This lack of etiquette sets off the advantages of a smart city. The ones overly intensively on the phone invade the user space of others and diminish the functions of city areas. A park for example is the city’s piece of nature in a milieu of concrete and it should not turn into a green carpeted office for all, only for those who wish so. In contrast, those who remain on the safe side do not take full advantage of the way a phone can help us optimise the use of our city. We need to work out a way in which our phones add functions for all without corroding those that form the pillars of our cities. The absence of the ‘etiquette app’ is rather striking – after all, the mobile phone has been around for over two decades.
As for me, I feel the need to apologise to anyone who has ever tried to get hold of me and failed. Most of the time, I have my phone in a trouser pocket so I know when it is going off, but sometimes – too often, perhaps – it is not and I consequently miss the call. Which is alright if it’s not urgent, but if it is my lovely wife asking me to pick up a pint of milk on the way home – well that puts me in deep doo dah. So if my children grow up stunted and under developed from lack of calcium, now you know why.