Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 22 April 2013

Why mobile phones are more important than toilets

A recent UN study found that six billion of the seven billion people now on earth have access to cellphones, while only 4.5 billion have access to working toilets. What would Maslow say to that?

In India alone, with its population of 1.2 billion people, there are now more than 600 million cellphones but only about 366 million people have the use of proper toilets.

What is to be made of this piece of improbable information published earlier this week in The New York Times and extensively commented on? Is it that connecting with people is now more important to us than stopping to take care of our bodily functions? Is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which suggested that food and shelter are our dominant human drives now out of date? Have phoning and texting now become primary human drives?

Looking at the way people behave these days it is as if the cellphone has provided a limb previously missing from the human body. No one can operate without one. The business of talking and texting and gathering of information is now an ongoing human activity. The moment a plane has landed what do passengers do? Immediately the cellphones come out and everyone checks to see if their lives are still hanging together. Admittedly some do go to the toilet when they get to the terminal, but it is as if this is an afterthought. The phone is what has to be attended to first.

It’s not unusual to see people in restaurants sitting around a table, talking, but not to each other, rather engaging with their cellphones. Why is this? Is it something to do with the hands, now that we can’t smoke in restaurants anymore? Is it legitimate fidgeting? Caressing an instrument and having private moments with it confirm that this is a primordial love affair.

Look at the behaviour of the smallest children. The moment they start paying attention to the world the cellphone is an object of immediate attraction. Straight away they start imitating their parents by holding the phone to their ears and having imaginary conversations. It is as if they know instinctively that the phone gives a very particular kind of pleasure. They read the faces of adults and see the animation and smiles of happiness when friends call and when parents are connecting with their phones.

The mobile phone provides us with a whole range of forbidden pleasures. In our overcrowded world where we constantly have to cope with people and the ever present needs of others, the cellphone gives us intimacy and privacy. We can have a secret life with it, right in front of other people we can be sending covert messages and having intimate moments without anyone knowing the details.

More important is the rapturous pleasure that in a world where we often have little control over our lives, the phone lets us have complete control over them. You can switch off your phone at a stroke, or refuse to respond to a call. You are totally in charge. There is a headiness about the power it gives you that is quite intoxicating. As if to confirm that you are the boss, like any good secretary, it takes your messages, it keeps track of your appointments, it wakes you in the morning and even reminds you when it is your wife’s birthday. It is available to you day and night, always willing and doesn’t talk back.

It is said that one of life’s greatest pleasures is touching and being touched. Caressing, stroking and massage are key aspects of foreplay and love-making. Look at people and their phones. See how much fondling and affectionate holding goes on, and how much panicky stress when it is misplaced or, God forbid, lost. Is this because we now live in a cold-hearted world where people get their kicks from watching porno and not engaging in the real thing? Has the mobile phone become a substitute love object?

Take note of the irritating loud conversations people have in lifts or public spaces when they are in their private world and forget about those around them. A mobile phone is for many people an instant transport to their own world; an electronic magic carpet.

I suppose to be fair, there is, to return to the business of toilets, some similarity between the two sets of behaviour. The loo is private, mostly, quite intimate and in a way also transporting. It certainly provides a particular kind of pleasure, but it doesn’t have the furtive sense of engaging in anything that may be romantic or illicit. And then there is the control issue. Generally what happens at the toilet is subject to our control, but as anyone who has lived with constipation will tell you, the process is not nearly so subject to the wishes of the one in charge, as the cellphone can be. We know that control of the bladder goes only so far. Witness the sweaty angst of someone urgently needing to wee and not finding a place for it.

I always pity women who at any public event or mass gathering have to queue at the loo. How embarrassing. And how difficult it must be to have an urgent need and then be forced to stand in a line with a bunch of strangers with the same need.

To solve the toilet problems of the world we have to devise a system of making the building and running of loos as profitable and rewarding as setting up cellphone networks. In the old days people used to have the option of “spending a penny” at public toilets, similar suppose, to the “pay-as-you-go” phone system of today. But imagine taking out a loo-contract with a top-of-the-line option combining it with some spa facilities, an espresso or fruit juice on the side, and perhaps some DStv action thrown in?

As if you needed any more encouragement, remember there is a way of reducing unemployment at the same time. In many parts of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean countries where toilets are managed on a franchise basis, families often live off the proceeds of the cash and tips paid by people who enjoy having an attendant to supply the paper, keep the place clean and manage the business.

There must be an opportunity here for a right-brained entrepreneur to flush out a profitable business. DM

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