11/19/2010 6:39

Cell Phones

I do own a cell phone, but I don't understand the popularity. For me telephony is a Red Queen technology. I only need the cell phone because alternatives like pay phones are disappearing because most people have cell phones; you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place.

Walking down the street, mumbling to my dog, I notice a percentage of people (with and without dogs) in constant conversation on their cell phones. (Walk the same streets at the same times and you can often see the same people saying the same things.) This I do not understand. Who can they be talking to? Other people who are walking the streets in the next block?

The other day I was reading an article about the developing world which helped me understand, just a little bit, how cell phones have achieved some of their popularity. The article stated that cell phone use in Africa, India, China, and other nations is growing at an astonishing rate. (That is, the rate astonishes me.) Some of this change is simply leapfrogging technology; there is no advantage to creating a wired infrastructure in developing areas and then converting to wireless. The rest appears to be the economic advantages which accrue from connectivity: farmers knowing commodity prices or obtaining needed technical advice, among other examples.

What struck me was that farmers and business people in these developing areas were described as becoming more independent, more in control of their own destinies. I still don't understand precisely how this technology is accomplishing this change. I accept on faith the report that the change is occurring.

From this I am able to draw an analogy with youth in developed countries: teenagers in the US specifically. Youth, those people who are nearly adult in mind and body but still children in status and social power, are relatively unempowered. (I do not dispute the economic impact of teens and tweenagers in the United States but merely note that their influence is secondary and dependent.) For the relatively unempowered, the cell phone is a tool for generating independence. My suggestion is that what cell phones are doing for farmers in eastern Africa is analogous to what cell phone use does for youth in Europe and America.

I still don't understand precisely how this technology is accomplishing this change. I merely observe that the proposed analogy may be explanatory. For if independent connectivity supports independent control in the lives of poor farmers, very likely it provides that same social service in the lives of dependent subadults in rich countries. If cell phones do provide this service, then it is not surprising that the technology is embraced by the youth.

If my hypothesis is correct, it may not matter so much to whom a person is speaking or what they say to each other; what matters may only be that the reality of this independent communication is constantly affirmed.

In order to extend this idea into a testable theory, to move into science from my reflective speculations, one might need to propose some explanation of how a cell phone effectively enhances the youths' control over their own lives. But I don't understand precisely how this technology can possible accomplish this service; it doesn't seem to do much to enhance my independence and control. Then again, I am relatively powerful in my own life, even compared to other financially stable US adults.

In actual reality I still understand very little about the popularity of cell phones.