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The hollow ring of immobile phones letterboxing the future

'The big news is that your office is now as mobile as you are' enthuses the full-page Nokia advertisement, along with a picture of an office worker kneeling on his chair and waving his tiny Nokia Communicator in triumph. Poor sap! Doesn't he realise that there is already a hollow ring to this supposed new gift of freedom? Just as the value of investments goes down as well as up, so can the promise of an electronic paradise turn out to be no more than a play on words. 'As mobile as you are' can mean hardly mobile at all. Arguably it already means a kind of imprisonment everywhere except in cyberspace.

There can be few of us who have not marvelled at the speed with which Google can answer the most arcane question. It makes us momentarily forget the packed trains, gridlocked streets, delayed flights, terrorist outrages and power cuts of the world outside, but that is only because we have successfully 'letterboxed' them.

'Letterboxing' is a useful media term that describes the process of copying a film from its original widescreen cinema ratio onto a square video screen ratio without lopping off bits of the original image to get it all in - a process that does not lose the lateral parts of the image left and right, and thus ensures that what you see in most DVD versions of classic films is the same as what the audience saw when they first watched them on general release.

Since film is indisputably an art form, you might compare letterboxing to fitting the Mona Lisa into a new widescreen frame by means of black inserts top and bottom to make it fit, but describing it this way is too drastic. After all, it is much less drastic than the previous video conversion technique of lopping off the sides of the image to fill the screen, called 'pan and scan' in the trade.

What then is the connection between an office that is 'as mobile as you are' and an apparently trivial advance in cinema/video conversion technology? The answer is a lot, for they are both key indicators of the imminence of an age of immobility such as has not been known since the Middle Ages. At a time when the government's environmental policy is based on projections for the future that are pure contradictory nonsense - more monuments, more traffic; more railways, more roads; more cars, more aeroplanes; more runways, more consumption; more pollution, more wind power, less electricity; more armed policemen, more serious crime; more money, more poverty; and so on - the sheer impossibility of a sustainable high-density, highmobility society is becoming daily more evident, even though its alternative is never coherently spelled out.

Forget the restoration of the railway network - obsolete since the early 20th century - concentrate instead on the immense electronic infrastructure of placelessness that has been erected during the past generation. If one place is becoming as good as any other - as the booming housing market daily tells us that it is - then decentralisation has become that much easier than centralisation, and far less trouble in energy and waste disposal terms. As the media guru Marshall MacLuhan wrote 40 years ago, 'the meaning of the message is the change it produces in the image', and in our society the advertising image is the most powerful of all. Letterboxing may not have changed films more fundamentally than the coming of sound, but DVDs keep people at home where they belong.

'As mobile as you are' means immobile. Hence the true social condition of 21st-century man is a single person playing on a GameBoy and watching the world through a letterbox.

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