I’m sitting in a waiting room on a modern British railway station on a November evening. The station has been assembled from pre-fabricated units, and the waiting room is a large metal shell with perfect acoustics for articulating the voices of the occupants. About twenty people, in coats and scarves, are waiting for their train, most peering silently at their digital devices. In a corner there is a young woman of about 20 wearing blue headphones connected to her large screen phone, which she twists in her hands as she speaks. She can hear the voice of her friend, but we can only hear her side of the conversation. We hear it perfectly. She is talking to her friend in a slightly plangent, self-justifying manner, in a mild Welsh accent. She uses the syntactic filler ‘like’ frequently. She seems unaware that her private conversation has become a public event, overheard by everyone else in the room despite our hunched performance of private preoccupation.
“Well she’s complaining, like, she’s complaining that people keep letting her down, like, but that’s because we’ve got work to do and she hasn’t, you see … she wants to go out every night and we can’t do it …. she must be doing the easiest course in the world, like one lecture a week and writing one essay between three people … the easiest course ever …”
As an occasional lecturer at the local university, I wonder what course she is describing with its exaggerated lack of requirements. It sounds like a drama module where some of the assessment will be by performance rather than by written examination. However that may be, the conversation moves from university life to going home for Christmas:
“I’ve got all this to do, like I’ve got to walk the dog and buy presents … and I’ve got to go to the gym because I’m putting on so much weight. I saw my grandmother, she said ‘You’re looking fuller!’ That’s the way my grandmother speaks, she doesn’t want to say I’m putting on weight, like, but I don’t want to be called ‘fuller’ …”
At this, the young man opposite me in the waiting room begins to squirm with suppressed laughter. I catch his eye and we both convulse silently. Others in the waiting room shift imperceptibly. The young woman carries on with her apparent monologue about family life in the approach to Christmas. It’s not Dylan Thomas, but the artless articulation of a private conversation to a captive audience of railway travellers has a certain fascination.
So far as I know, Marshall McLuhan didn’t predict this specific effect of new communications media – but this unwitting publication of the private is certainly a product of mobile phone technology.