For a moment in the late 1990s, it looked as though mobile phones might make us free. You could work in the park, be available when you wanted to be, choose who you answered to. You could be anywhere while you did anything. If location was mentioned it was gratuitous chatter ('I'm on the train!') or a handy lie ('I'm in the office'). Back then, a phone in your pocket was an expensive novelty. Ten years later, there are 3.3 billion active mobile phones, meaning that - if you ignore the show-offs who have several - half the planet has one; 85 per cent of the million new subscriptions taken up each day come from the developing world. Three billion people are just a few button presses away, and where they are doesn't matter. But if you're the retiring type, the trouble is that the phone companies and interested others do know exactly where you are, at any given second, so long as you have your handbag with you and your phone switched on: even the most basic technology, phone mast triangulation, locates you to within a couple of hundred metres; newer phones, with GPS built in, will tell any system that asks whether you're in the kitchen or the loo.
LRB 14 August 2008 | PDF Download