Hotline to heaven

2009-03-13 00:00

There are three places where I think it is absolutely off limits to use a cellphone. Plenty of others are up for debate but for the record my personal non-spaces are: any classroom, any theatre, any place of worship.

There have been lots of studies done on cellphone behaviour and the impact of cellphones on society. It’s proven quite a productive area for new media researchers. An important question that has emerged over the past few years is how and where we as individuals or as communities draw the line between private and public space. How do we determine the usages of public space for personal communication, for instance the use of cellphones? Theatres, cinemas and restaurants are often considered grey areas but in my naïveté I really thought that one area would be sacrosanct. So imagine if you will my shock and amazement when one of my honours students announced that she intended to do her major research project on cellphone usage in church.

Admittedly it’s a long time since I’ve been to a church service, given that you can’t officially count weddings and funerals, but I really didn’t think that cellphone usage in church was going to yield a rich theoretical harvest. How wrong I was. Within moments the students who attended church regularly rushed to defend the proposed project from my metaphorical axe.

While I sat open-mouthed with disbelief, they pointed out to me that although cellphones are not considered fully fledged members of the congregation, they are nonetheless welcome to attend services.

So I sent her into the field with my blessing and she returned with a mixed haul of findings: some of which were reasonably to be expected, some a tad odd, but others, to say the very least, were

staggering.

Most people have their cellphones with them, even if they don’t intend to use them in church. Doctors on call have their cellphones with them, and keep them on silent. They will duck out to the car park to attend to them if they vibrate. I’m happy enough with that. Businessmen who think they have to be available to everyone at all times keep theirs switched on in church, in case they miss something important. Then there are those folk who’ve inadvertently forgotten to switch their cellphones off and are mortified when they actually ring. Normally these culprits are women with very large cavernous handbags. If I went to church I would be in this category.

From here it gets weirder. Some people sms each other in church while the service is in full swing. They do this to plan the rest of the day’s social activities. When I questioned this finding, another of my students confirmed it and said she also smses her friends, sitting a few rows away, during the boring bits of the sermon just to keep in touch.

Some of the pastors don’t like to be interrupted by cellphones ringing and will make their feelings known to transgressors, normally with an intimidating stare-down that some of the congregation will crane their necks to join in with. There are others, no doubt mindful of dwindling audiences and competition from other denominations, who have a more pragmatic philosophy.

In closing, I will leave you to reflect on what I think was the most dazzling and mind-blowing finding of all. That of a certain preacher who has been witnessed answering his own cellphone mid-service. Assuming the witness is reliable, what are we to make of this? I suppose if it’s God or Jesus on the hotline, fair enough, but if it’s the preacher’s wife reminding him to pick up a litre of milk on the way home, I don’t think it’s really on.

At the time of writing, the Catholic Church has just announced a request that the faithful give up text messaging for lent. Visuals broadcast to illustrate this announcement on Sky News show footage of young people on cellphones at the Vatican City.

• E-mail me at tracy@stark.net and have your say on the blog.

• Tracy Stark lectured for many years in the media and communication programme at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg, specialising in new media in everyday life. Stark is currently working as a professional musician and has just launched a new music school.

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