The Washington Post of Sunday, February 24, 2008 has a really interesting article by Joel Garreau called Our Cells, Ourselves. It discusses the startling speed with which the number of cellphones has grown, and their impact on what we do and who we are.
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.
Garreau does explain later that the ‘one phone per 2 people’ is an average. Some people have several cellphones, using them to keep aspects of their lives separate — work and home life, for example — or to trade off the benefits of different calling plans. Still, it’s an impressive figure.
And it’s not just the rich, white West who are buying and using cellphones:
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.
When so many have a handheld communications device that operates without wires in so many places then they will use it to connect and communicate with one another. People are social and sociable beings:
“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.”
Like so many technologies, cellphones are used for the deeply important, the deeply meaningful, and also the so-called trivial. Cellphones connect us because we carry them in our pockets. They are really an actual extension of us.
When I connect with friends through the Internet on a laptop computer, I still put that computer down and leave it behind when I take the dogs for a walk, or go to a cafe for a meal. The cellphone stays with me. It’s instant-on, immediate. It doesn’t have to intrude with a loud ringtone either: I often have mine set to vibrate, or to use a quiet, unobtrusive sound.
“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 …
“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.
[Link via Shift6: Multiple SIMs in one phone: a disruptive idea from Nokia’s research.]