Our Cells, Ourselves
Planet's Fastest Revolution Speaks to The Human Heart
By Joel GarreauWashington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008; Page M01
The home is remote, even by Tibetan standards. Charming carvings cannot disguise how primitive it is. Not only does it have no toilet, it doesn't have an outhouse. Or even a designated hole in the ground. It does, however, boast one very great prize -- a ringing cellphone. Why? "That is exactly the question I kept asking," says Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, who is writing a book about "what technology wants." The house at which he stayed -- which featured a space under it to shelter the family dzo, a yak-cow hybrid -- was "probably as large as my own. So they could build shelters. But they didn't build toilets. Went in the barnyard, like their livestock. But man, they have better cellphone coverage than we do at home. Communication, not cleanliness, is next to godliness." Apparently so. The human race is crossing a line. There is now one cellphone for every two humans on Earth. From essentially zero, we've passed a watershed of more than 3.3 billion active cellphones on a planet of some 6.6 billion humans in about 26 years. This is the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history -- faster even than the polio vaccine. "We knew this was going to happen a few years ago. And we know how it will end," says Eric Schmidt, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Google. "It will end with 5 billion out of the 6" with cellphones. "A reasonable prediction is 4 billion in the next few years -- the current proposal is 4 billion by 2010. And then the final billion or so within a few years thereafter. "Eventually there will be more cellphone users than people who read and write. I think if you get that right, then everything else becomes obvious." "It's the technology most adapted to the essence of the human species -- sociability," says Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. "It's the ultimate tool to find each other. It's wonderful technology for being human."
Maybe. But do our mobiles now render us unprecedentedly free? Or permanently tethered?
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Life was so simple back in January of 1982. This was when Washington's first 100 hand-held cellphones were put into service. The size of a Philly cheese steak, each weighed almost two pounds. An enterprising reporter took one up to the top of the Washington Monument. "It ain't got no wires!" shouted an observant tourist, one Steve Cotov of San Diego.The reporter was prescient. "It may be the death knell of what, if anything, remains of civilization in this city," he wrote. "In a year or so the phone may be ringing up there all the time, not to mention in saunas, golf carts, hot air balloons, the middle of fox hunts, lovemaking, tennis and whatever else you may have done believing that you were safe from ringing phones." Back in those days -- there were only seven cell relays in the Washington area -- even the most wildly enthusiastic advocates proved shortsighted. Peter Erb, president of a pioneering cellphone company called Millicom, made a seemingly extravagant claim: "We're talking about 50 to 60 million over the next 20 or 30 years." He only underestimated by a factor of 60. Not as legendary or fateful a mistake as AT&T's, however. In 1980, the company whose Bell Labs invented cellphones listened to McKinsey, the consulting company they'd hired. Its estimate of the market in the year 2000 was off by a factor of 120 -- not even 1 percent of the real number. Based on that, AT&T decided there wasn't much future to these toys. Not coincidentally, in 2005, it was swallowed up by SBC Communications Inc., originally a Baby Bell. Little did these suits guess that hunks of plastic smaller than a candy bar would transform the world faster than did electricity, automobiles, refrigeration, credit cards or television. Routines are no longer routine. Girls stare into their cellphone screens as if into the mirrors of compacts, looking to see a reflection of themselves in who has called, who has messaged. Parents no longer know who has a crush on whom -- boys no longer call the house. As the career plunge of Michael (Seinfeld's "Kramer") Richards demonstrates, most Americans' mobiles are now equipped with cameras; will there ever again be an unrecorded indiscretion? "I wonder if police reports have gone up because of cellphones," muses Jaimee Minney of M:Metrics, a provider of mobile-media data. "When I hadn't heard from my fiance for four hours, I was convinced he was in a car accident. I called the police. There's a heightened expectation that you can find somebody. I went a little crazy." And that's in the States, where for two generations more than 90 percent of all households have had fixed phones. If anything, cellphones have made a bigger difference, faster, in underdeveloped places where land lines have been scarce, like Botswana and France. (In 1968, only 16 percent of French homes had telephones, a fifth as many as Sweden.) Take politics. As long ago as 2001, the people of the Philippines for the first time overthrew a dictator with their cellphones. Joseph Estrada, accused of massive corruption, was driven out of power by activists who, through text messaging, could bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in minutes. "It's like pizza delivery," said Alex Magno, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. "You can get a rally in 30 minutes -- delivered to you." In the hellish Madrid train bombings of 2004, cellphones were used as detonators. Then they heavily influenced the outcome of the presidential election three days later when the ruling party used traditional media to try to blame Basques for the carnage, and text messagers attributed it to Islamists protesting Spain's involvement in the Iraq war. People are no longer just mobile media consumers, they are mobile media creators. In the 2005 London Tube bombings, the iconic images were captured not by press photographers, but by commuters with camera phones. Cellphones are the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users in the developing world -- almost 60 percent -- than in the West. Cellphone usage in Africa has been growing close to 50 percent annually -- faster than any other region. More than 30 African nations have more cellphones than land lines. In only 11 years, Grameenphone -- an offshoot of the Nobel Prize-winning micro-lending outfit -- now covers 98 percent of Bangladesh and serves the majority of the country's 30 million telephone users, only about a million of whom have land lines. Even before cellphones became portals to the Web, they became the driving force behind many modernizing economies. Market women in Nigeria no longer are the vassals of their middlemen. Even before their nets are out of the water, fishermen in India can find out which port will give them the best price for their catch. Airtime minutes have become a sort of currency. Urbanites transfer them to relatives in the most remote places. In Iraq, the wrong ringtone can be fatal -- Sunnis are advised not to use mujaheddin anthems around Shiites. The hottest ringtone in Europe recently was the prime minister of Spain saying to the president of Venezuela, "Why don't you shut up." All over the world, cellphones display status, the way pocket watches or fountain pens served rich men of an earlier age.
Mr. 3,300,000,001 It's possible that Brian Dilley, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the guy who sent the world over the edge. Data collectors quibble over whether the global tipping point toward cellphone ubiquity occurred in November (Informa Telecoms & Media and Rider Research) or any day now (the International Telecommunications Union). But Dilley's girlfriend, Jolene Schneider, gave him his first cellphone for Christmas, so he could be Mr. 3,300,000,001. In the United States -- where half of all children have cellphones -- it's not easy to find a 38-year-old male who just lost his cellphone virginity. But that's Dilley. After a month, he had received only two calls and initiated three, and hadn't gotten around to recharging the phone yet. The battery indicator still has three bands' worth of power, he says. Only time will tell if he knows the difference between battery strength and signal strength. "I've gone kicking and screaming" into this new world, Dilley says. "It was forced upon me." His posse made him do it. Dilley is the coach of the Bulldogs, a coed softball team with the proud motto: "It's not about the winning, it's about the beer." When a player was running late, or couldn't make it, there was no way to give Dilley a heads-up. So even in the middle of the game they would call Schneider, who plays on the team, and that got old for her. But Dilley is still not a convert. "Cellphones are like a dog leash," he says. "If somebody wants you, they just yank on the leash. I see it as more of a nuisance." Perhaps. But Rich Ling sees Dilley's world as a microcosm of the planet. "The Internet is quite global. But the mobile phone is the way social cohesion is taking place. It tightens the bonds between us," says Ling, an American who researches the social consequences of mobile telephony for Telenor, the Oslo-based global phone company. He is the author of the forthcoming "New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion." "Quite a bit of research shows that the tighter the group, the more they use the mobile phone. It takes place in mundane ways -- work, jokes, gossip, coordinating a birthday party for your child, arranging the gang meeting at a restaurant. "All of the other electronic mediation -- television, the Internet -- there's a real question whether they're fraying the social fabric. But all the research with mobile phones shows tightening bonds within small groups." That's because with cellphones, "I call an individual. In the old system, I call a place and hope somebody might be there. "This might be one of those steps in the opposite direction from 'Bowling Alone,' " Ling says, referring to Robert D. Putnam's book mourning declines in social cohesion. It has been criticized for not examining what sorts of Information Age links might be aborning. The cellphone allows us to create that local sphere" that was the hallmark of pre-industrial villages, says Ling. Cellphone circles tend to be small and full of people who "know what you're up to, who you are, what's in your refrigerator. That's a way of being attached to society. It has a socializing effect."
You Have Questions; We Have AnswersIf we didn't shut off our cellphones before takeoff, would airplanes fall out of the sky? Probably not, pilots say, but let's not find out the hard way. Do cellphones cause car crashes? They're as distracting as driving drunk, according to some studies, but almost seven times less distracting than trying to catch a spilling beer can at 60 miles per hour, according to others. People who text while driving, research suggests, should be horsewhipped. Do cellphones fry your brain? "Overall, research has not consistently demonstrated a link between cellular telephone use and cancer or any other adverse health effect," the National Cancer Institute says. But a recent study claims late-night cellphone radiation is what causes adolescent sleeplessness and confusion, to which parents have responded, "Yeah, right." I use my cell's backlight to find things in the dark. Am I weird? Perhaps. But two-thirds of us do it, according to Sprint. Is there anything uglier than a cellphone tower? A cellphone tower disguised as a palm tree. Are cellphones killing off the bees? Only if you close the lid on one.
A Phone, and More There's still some question whether there are more cellphone "haves" than "have-nots" around the globe -- even with more than one cellphone for every two people. This apparent contradiction is created by overachievers. There are at least 30 nations with more cellphones than population. Why? Well, some of these places, like Aruba, are unusual in that they attract affluent tourists who activate local phones. Others, like the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Jersey, are offshore banking havens where who-knows-who does who-knows-what. But high on the list are substantial countries like Israel and Italy. Mark Donovan, a senior analyst for M:Metrics, says the best explanation he's been given -- "and I don't think they're pulling my leg" -- is that some people are willing to go to very great trouble to keep their public lives separate from their private lives. And also their private lives from their extremely private lives. Think of how difficult getting dressed in the morning must be for these people. Your BlackBerry goes in one pocket, your family phone into that other pocket, your girlfriend phone goes someplace else and then where do you put your other girlfriend phone? Mobile phones nonetheless continue to get hooked up at a rate of more than 1,000 a minute, so it's reasonable to wonder what a world looks like in which everybody has at least one pocket with a cellphone. Raising the question of what you mean by "cellphone." "Smart phones," as the multi-talented ones are now called, take, send and receive pictures and videos, text messages and e-mail, allow "American Idol" voting, provide games, access the Web and play music. "They're the device that eats everything," says Donovan. With a Global Positioning System, they know where you are. By recognizing your voice they can give you directions to where you want to be. With accelerometers, they can determine how your body is moving. If you're standing still for several minutes and it's 7 p.m., you're probably giving some thought to dinner. The plan is for the phone to understand and spontaneously offer recipes. Or reservations. Who is the largest camera maker in the world? Nokia. Who is the largest manufacturer of music devices in the world? Nokia. Who is buying the company that provides the map data behind Mapquest? Nokia. "The mobile phone has the potential to be your wallet," says Ling. "There's almost nothing in your wallet that you can't put in mobile phones. Pictures of children, credit cards, bus tickets -- just go through your wallet. What about the water bottle in your purse? Well, not that. But almost everything else you carry in your purse. Swiss Army knife is a nice metaphor." And sure enough, Nokia and Visa have tested a cellphone that works like a credit card. All you have to do is wave it at a reader and go. "It's a natural progression. There are more mobile phones in the world today than plastic cards. We see this as a good marriage," Paul Jung, Visa Asia-Pacific's regional head for emerging products and technologies, told the Associated Press. Because an iPhone now has more processing power than did the North American Air Defense Command in 1965, the functions of smart phones are limited only by imagination. Around Cambridge, England, bicycle couriers with global-positioning-equipped cellphones monitor air pollution. "They cycle around the city as usual and we receive the data over the cellphone network," Eiman Kanjo, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, told New Scientist magazine. "We can find out what pollutants people are exposed to and where." Scientists at Purdue want to network the nation with millions of cellphones equipped with radiation sensors to detect terrorists trying to assemble dirty bombs. Google's two biggest research projects -- with the most people and funding -- involve machines that understand speech and those that can translate languages, according to Peter Norvig, Google's director of research. "We wanted speech technology that could serve as an interface for phones," he told the journal Technology Review. At the other end of the scale, dog-collar cellphones are now available. Not only can you tell your kibble-burner to "Come home, dammit" (the phone automatically connects after one ring), but you can track Arfo as he waltzes through the neighbors' azaleas. "Mobile phones are more than utilitarian. They are an important means of self-expression," says Donovan. "There are 17 different colors of Motorola Razr. In Asia, there are mobile phone charms -- a Hello Kitty doll, a skull -- a physical thing that sets you apart." This is true. Think charm bracelet, only tackier. For $1.90 you can get a small piece of plastic to hang from your phone that is an uncanny replica of a fatty piece of Braised Pork in Brown Sauce. "All the Hollywood celebrities have Sidekicks bejeweled with crystals," Donovan continues. "Recently, you have the high-end luxury phone line. Nokias with $100,000 worth of rubies by Vertu. Demonstrating how these things have transcended mere technology, there is a Prada phone, a Ferrari phone, a Versace phone."
Control, Out of ControlYou can look at a honeybee for as long as you like and never guess that a large collection of them would transform into an entirely different kind of organism -- a hive -- with astonishing capabilities. Just so, what emerges when intensely personal and insanely powerful pocket gadgets allow more than half of all people on Earth to connect for the first time? Is this a tipping point? "At some point your society gets so big that it's plainly different than a hunter-gatherer village. This is a threshold you only pass a few times in the history of life, when you build something that looks like a superorganism," says Robert Wright, author of "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny." "All of these technologies have the potential to make human social groups more efficient 'superorganisms' on larger and larger scales. Corporations today are bigger and more efficient than they were 50 years ago. They're more responsive to change in a shorter time and cover more ground because of these sorts of technology. They are more vividly like organisms. "But the implications are that terrorists can be multinational. In the long run these technologies have the capacity to bring social order on a larger scale. But in the short run, the tendency is towards turbulence. China is dealing with this in particular. Cellphones play a role in protests and riots. They make crowds seemingly spontaneously appear. "Are you more free or less? Both. You're less confined to a single space. But ultimately it feels pretty damn tethered. That network of e-mail correspondence that you have to respond to. You give people your cellphone number so they can reach you at any time. You're choosing to build this prison. But it is a prison. "And remember, there is this creepy underside to the superorganism metaphor. It was always thought to have a kind of fascist or totalitarian overtone. That turns out to be wrong. The control is not central. But it does feel like control." Wright muses about adults in this new world: "An organism only gets to new levels occasionally. I wonder, has it ever seemed to any other generation that this is just a different world than the one you knew in adolescence?"