Excuse me, we need to talk mobile manners

The rules on acceptable behaviour in public are not eternal principles
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In July, Nintendo launched the smartphone app Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game in which players hunt for animated monsters hidden at “PokeStops” in locations around the world.

Initially, Nintendo and the game’s developer, Niantic, surfed a wave of global enthusiasm, particularly among smartphone-toting “kidults” who possibly should know better. But celebration curdled into opprobrium once it emerged that PokeStops had been placed in some culturally sensitive locations, including the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC.

Its communications director responded: “Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism.”

Meanwhile, officials at the cemetery, one of martial America’s most sacred sites, regretted the breaches of “decorum” committed by those hunting virtual creatures among the headstones.

These episodes will have confirmed the worst fears of those who believe digital technology is sending us to hell in a handcart and generally portends, if not civilisational collapse, then at least the unravelling of centuries-old standards of civilised behaviour.

Such laments are probably overdone. The rules governing what counts as acceptable deportment in public are not eternal principles fixed once and for all, but norms that change over time, especially in the face of dramatic technological change.

It would be an exaggeration to say the old rules simply no longer apply. Behavioural norms — and I would include our idea of what constitutes good “manners” in this — are remarkably resilient. They bend rather than break under the pressure of rapid social transformation of various sorts. The early days of any technology, whether it is the smartphone or the internal combustion engine, tend to be an ethical and behavioural free-for-all, after which a consensus on what is and is not acceptable eventually emerges.

Anyone who has travelled regularly on buses in London will recall a relatively recent period when journeys often unfolded to the tinny accompaniment of music played through the speakers of phones belonging to sulky-looking adolescents. Only those willing to invest considerable sums in noise-cancelling headphones were protected from this aural contagion.

At least one social commentator attempted, heroically, to argue that “sodcasting”, as this practice was known, was a way for the disenfranchised and downtrodden to strike a blow against bourgeois hegemony — or something like that. I have to say, though, that it never struck me as likely that young people would take to the barricades to defend their right to test their phones’ broadcasting capacities in public.

In any event, at least from my vantage point on the top deck of the number 40 bus, it seems the practice has largely died out under pressure of social disapproval. Most people riding the bus these days, whether 16 or 60, will know that sodcasting is decidedly de trop.

A report last year by the Pew Research Center on “mobile etiquette” and the “new contours of civil behaviour” in the US reveals a similar picture. Although there is inevitable generational variation in people’s tolerance of smartphone use in public places (18-29-year-olds tend to be more permissive than other age groups), “Americans of all ages generally trend in the same direction about when it’s OK or not to use [them] in public settings,” the report’s authors say.

Social scientist Sherry Turkle has argued that widespread use of smartphones leads to people living “alone together”, each of us locked in our own virtual universe. Indeed, 22 per cent of those surveyed by Pew admitted to sometimes using their phones “to avoid interacting with others who are near them”. Similarly, 82 per cent of all adults thought that smartphone use “hurts the conversation and atmosphere” at social gatherings.

One problem with the survey is it did not specify what “using” a mobile phone entails. After all, you can do more with a smartphone than make a call — a surreptitious look at your email is surely less socially disruptive than a bellowed conversation with someone at the office.

There was one idea on which nearly all respondents were agreed, however: 96 per cent said that using your smartphone at church or during some other kind of religious service was “not OK”. We can be fairly sure they would have said the same about chasing Pokémon in a cemetery.

The writer is the FT’s executive comment editor

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