Istanbul, summer of 1997.
Visiting for 10 days for a relative’s birthday, my travel companions and I were struck by the ubiquity – that was the word we used – of mobile phones. In the US, this was around the time when mobile phones were only just starting to be a thing. In Istanbul, it seemed like everybody had one. We hypothesized as to why this was, and came up with a theory about how mobile infrastructure would be an economical addition to a society where the ubiquity of cables carrying telephone signals might not have been so economical.
In hindsight it seems our 1997 intuitions were correct, however unspectacular our reasoning. Only 5 years later, James Meek noted in The Guardian that, e.g., there were more mobile subscriptions in China – about 145 million – than in the US and UK combined; in Africa, while only about 3% of the population had mobile subscriptions, they represented just over half of total African phone subscribers; 14% of the population of ‘the sprawling archipelago’ of the Philippines had mobile phones (much to Joseph Estrada’s chagrin); and so on.
Now, as 2013 enters its twilight weeks, it’s hard not to hear about some creative use people in ‘developing countries’ have developed for their devices. Peter Popham writing for The Independent tells us about ‘phone-based news providers’ in India: “Capitalising on the fact that there are 78 mobile phone connections for every 100 Indians, and even in the countryside 20 connections per 100”. Or Somalis using, again with implied ubiquity, mobile phones to create an informal currency system. “Today mobile phones are used to pay for everything one can imagine, from hotel bills to a twist of salt in the market, to car parking charges at the airport. Returning from Somalia to London and fishing out a bit of paper bearing a picture of the Queen to pay for my coffee, I felt like a relic of the past.”
It’s as different a story in the first world, as Breaking Bad is to Happy Days. It might seem like a positive development that mobile devices supply pretexts to move us away from our desks and our eyes away from our large LCD monitors. But our Facebook pages are no less filled with pictures of cats – or more currently pictures of a ‘doge’ adorned with pidgin language in Comic Sans – or selfies; or our meals; or selfies with our meals. Moreover, mobile device proliferation has brought about a marked deterioration of manners. People talk with raised voices in public places without consideration for anyone else present who might not want to be pummelled with one side of a conversation. People count (Who’s going to become number 5,000?) their social network ‘friends’ as real flesh-and-blood, tête-à-tête friends; and their liked, shared, and retweeted quips as currency. They give the disturbing impression of animatedly talking to themselves as they stride down the boulevard until you either see the little Bluetooth earpieces on the other side of their heads, or just assume it into existence. Men and women gather at the dinner table with faces pointed downward as they tweet about the delightful company and vibrant conversation, every so often photographing their plates.
There are probably exceptions: mobile-enabled vapidness in Istanbul, practicality in Manhattan. But even if there are, the spectacularly technological devices and infrastructure are always fancy means to humdrum ends. The Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ is anything but apt. We should thank the deity or deities to whom or which we owe allegiance that our mobile devices help keep the world a supremely uninteresting place.
Article by Guy Palimpsest, Photographer: Allison Zurfluh