Mobile: the ubiquitous 21st century addiction

Remember how we took the Landline phone of old for granted, not obsessing over or becoming addicted to it? We took it in stride, using it mostly when needed, and not as a fetish in itself. Just think back. Since its invention the landline phone basically didn’t change in its functions or in its actual use for decades on end. What changed was the efficiency of the telephone exchanges and the phone set got better with time. Otherwise it became a rather unremarkable part of our lives. Then along came the pocket-sized MOBILE, and everything changed. Why? Because the phone became an end in itself, with manufacturers and technologists competing, constantly adding newer and newer features, and service providers introducing more and more tempting and cheaper ways to keep using the phone, whether the use was essential or not. All the more reason for the gullible to obsess over the mobile set. It now beckons as an integrated, multimedia, multipurpose gadget crammed with inexhaustible possibilities, whatever you choose to do–and wherever you do it. Little wonder that so many have become not mere users but addicts! These are arguably the evils of an ever-changing, ever-tempting technology: it exerts control over your life, and before you know it you’ve wasted all the valuable or quality time you think you had.  The ubiquitous and demanding mobile is the bait, and many have bitten it at great expense. Indeed, more people are addicted to the mobile than to the laptop, another portable gadget that can be used as a phone, though clumsily. The mobile has the power to make us indepedent, but excessive dependence on such a gadget has killed other kinds of independence, not to mention loss of the privacy and security we once cherished. The problem is us, not the gadget, some will say: a technology can both liberate and enslave you–the choice is ours. The downside as I see it: not only has the mobile shrunk our attention spans, and thus made many incapable of serious thinking about serious issues–that is a real cause for concern. Technologies are born of the material, and to an extent are divorced from the spiritual side of our lives. Yet certain aspects of our lives have moved from the physical world to cyberspace, a virtual world–an interesting paradox, where the material symbolizes the abstract and untouchable: the very idea of communicating information, sharing things and ‘meeting’ via bits & bytes, and not in the flesh.

In societies and cultures that have endured privation for decades, the people are especially vulnerable to the lure of such ‘magical’ technologies, and are mesmerized by the wonder of it all. Their obsession knows no bounds–newer and more complex products have them panting; they can’t get enough, and the mobile is a symbol of status and modernity, a leapfrogging technology that obviates the need for the older, out-of-fashion landline phone.

Without doubt the mobile is a boon in impoverished countries. But what about the empowerment it is supposed to confer on individuals? The new avatar of communication is powered by a technology so pervasive and sophisticated that it can be potentially all-inclusive on the one hand. That is the upside. On the other, it can exclude the poor, uneducated and socially im-mobile as though they were pariahs or lepers. That is the downside. Global can also mean a global elite that marginalizes the weak and deprived. Cyberspace is in principle universal and democratic, but in practice there’s a hierarchy that excludes the ‘have-nots’ because the technology has not trickled down enough wherever poor governance and low productivity cannot deliver.

And so we come back to the Mobile: it is the most democratic and affordable device to emerge fom competing technologies. It facilitates commerce for the common man, and empowers him to some extent. Never mind that he doesn’t belong to the higher echelons of e-commerce, nor that he is on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder. He feels like he’s on top of the world.

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