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Martin Pawley: the big picture

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At dinner last week, we all agreed to ignore the gathering world crisis and talk about cellular-telephone aerials instead. Jim, who works for Orange, said: 'Telecommunications structures, which is what we call them in the trade, shouldn't change the world, they should just make it a better place.' Charles from Highgrove said he couldn't agree more. 'It's a real challenge to set out our aims for telecommunications in the next millennium in a way that reflects on what it means to be human.'

Everyone agreed with Charles, especially Tom, who didn't even own a mobile phone. In fact he agreed so much that he started comparing the cellular- telephone network with railways in the nineteenth century. 'All these messages are just like the railway lines were, criss-crossing the country, going from place to place,' he said. 'The aerials are like signal boxes really, or men with flags. It's progress.' Some of the others were worried about this. Martha said: 'I read somewhere that all this communicating isn't like trains. It's more like people on trains. They only use their mobile phones to tell other people that is where they are.'

'There is a bit of that,' conceded Jim.

'It's pitiable,' said Charles. 'It all comes of technical expediency replacing vision.'

'Too true. Only connect,' said Jim, brightening. 'That's our motto at Orange.'

'The most important thing is to be aware,' warned Mrs Heritage. 'No one is more aware than I am. No one anywhere.' The others all nodded.

The dinner was moving along nicely. There was little talk of Bechtel taking over the Jubilee Line but a lot of discussion of ground equipment, microwave dishes and farmers getting thousands a year in rents from the phone companies. What made it worthwhile was the way the guests loosened up. It turned out that nobody actually wants to get rid of cellular-telephone masts altogether, just wants them to be part of 200-foot statues of Sir Winston Churchill, or to look like trees or lamp posts.

'The important thing is the look of the things and what they do for England,' said Mrs Heritage. 'The ones on top of churches are particularly reassuring, and money for a good cause too!'

The only one who wouldn't go along with all this was Brendan. He hadn't said a word up to now. Suddenly he opined: 'I think cellular-phone networks make particularly poor dinner conversation.' Martha said tartly: 'Why is that?'

'Because they are a technical matter. Once they start being designed you will get committees sitting up half the night arguing about them. It'll get like satellite dishes and replacement windows. There must be more important things.'

'Such as?'

'Lots. Nurses' pay, crime, the first ever recession where the world has acted like a single economy.'

'Those are the technical matters,' cut in Tom. 'We can't talk about them because we don't know enough about them.'

'Speak for yourself,' shot back Brendan. 'Don't you know the dollar is yo-yoing against the Yen and the jig's up with the Euro?'

He certainly knew how to ruin a dinner party.

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