[ this appeared in FEER, 01/31/2002]
Few of us stop to think just how revolutionary the mobile phone is. It enables us to be always on call and always in touch with those important to us, it frees us from the confines of office and home, but perhaps most importantly it gives us something to fiddle with during awkward moments at meetings, parties, funerals, etc. And the revolution is only just beginning.
Mobile phones have redefined the concept of personal space, of what is meant by communication, as well as allowing us to send messages to each other -- mostly consisting of such vital data as smiley icons, jokes and "you owe me rent."
Mobile phones, in short, have altered the way we behave. The phone has become an extension of our bodies, and we feel lost without it. It's the first thing we park on the table at restaurants, bars, desks, pulpits, etc. As cultural observer Sadie Plant, in her entertaining treatise On The Mobile, has observed, whether we have one, how we use it, how many names we have stored in its memory, all define what kind of person we are, indeed, whether we are anybody at all.
As mobile phones change us, so in turn we feel compelled to ensure they say as many good things about us as possible, short of hanging a placard around one's neck saying "really nice guy, cool but not aloof, interesting job but even more interesting hobbies involving water, rocks and rugged footwear." We buy the latest model and parade it until another model comes along, after which we sheepishly stuff it in our pocket. I was mortified when my Nokia Communicator, a bulky but state-of-the-art number incorporating keyboard, big screen, tumble-dryer, etc., was mistaken for one of those brick-sized monstrosities of yore.
Smaller phones don't necessarily mean less intrusive: In fact the fancier the phone is, the smaller it is, which means the more prominent it should be. To assist visibility, buy a snap-on cover sporting designs from Snoopy-esque to racing cars. The next stage, of course, will be for the phones to actually be shaped like a Disney character or a packet of cigarettes, which might well mark the end of civilization as we know it. In the meantime, Nokia this month unveiled a subsidiary called Vertu to produce handphones encrusted in precious gems and sporting luxurious metal finishes. Sadly, tackiness and handphones seem a good fit.
As if that wasn't enough, ring tones show no sign of getting tasteful. A new generation of palm-sized devices which double as phones will use ordinary sound files as ring tones. In the future, expect to hear more melodious stuff or, more ominously, recorded voices of Hollywood characters uttering personalized messages along the lines of: "Sebastian, you have a call from your mother."
Of course, handphones have wrought broader change. The overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada is an oft-cited example of the broadcasting power of short messaging, or SMS, but protests have been coordinated by mobile phone for much longer. Many middle-class students involved in the anti-military uprising in Thailand in 1992 had the bulky units of the day stuffed into their jeans, which must have been painful when their soldier captors forced them to crouch or crawl.
But more importantly, it's no longer a revolution confined to the elite. In poverty-stricken Indonesia, for example, mobile phones will out-number land lines this year. Transvestite prostitutes wandering the streets near where I live all seem to be sporting the latest silver-plated Nokia, and when the shoeless busker who accosts your car at a junction pauses in his rendering of "Ole Ole Ole" to answer his Siemens you know the mobile phone has broken out of its traditional socioeconomic limits. This is no bad thing. The more of us have these dang things, the quicker we can agree on how they are used and, most importantly, what to do to people who use overly glitzy phones with annoying ring tones. Make them eat the precious gems, I say.
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
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