Mobile Revolution: Talk to ME

This telephony revolution, like the internet, has not only swept urban India but has penetrated the rural hinterland as well
Hardnews Bureau  Delhi

What we are witnessing is nothing less than a revolution. The eternal yellow postcard with a reply card is no more the only means of knowing that you have reached your destination, nor is the telegram the only way to send an urgent message. Nostalgic tales of the rusted telegraph machine plotting messages alphabet by alphabet, or the news on ticker with inverted commas upside down, or parents going at night to the neighbourhood STD shop for long distance phone calls, have given way to short and smart texts, quick messages, text mail and voice mail, and of course, a quick call, that reach destinations before you can bat your eyelids again. And all this has happened too fast, breaking barriers in less than a decade.

Farmers now get real time updates about the unpredictable weather, information about pesticides and the latest market prices of crops at the mere push of a thumb and that too in their native dialect. The electrician can be reached in seconds if the fuse of your house goes haywire. And women can feel more empowered and effective at home and outside, from the maid, to a home-maker, to the single-woman journalist.

Cell phones have become life and blood for businesses and professional conduct. The ease and speed at which things can be communicated is astounding. Orders are now placed on cell phones, work ethics are being redefined, and the marketing of products has attained new dimensions.
As in Chhattisgarh, where the trickling effect of the booming Indian economy is yet to reach, and the impoverished and crushed tribals have picked up arms against the State, mobile phones are changing the way news is gathered. An innovation called CGnet Swara is making sure that local tribals can record the news on a server through cell phones. In turn, news can be accessed through a phone call to a specific number. 

In the banking sector, mobile banking is gradually replacing the age-old window system with faster, paperless and hassle-free transactions. The ambitious identification project, Aadhar, is said to be looking at avenues, particularly in mobile technology, to further the reach of banks. Economists too have pointed to the tremendous potential of the astonishing 600 million cell phone connections in the country in bringing about a change in the economic status of the poor. 

The networks have to be democratised and made efficient and functional for the benefit of the users, including those of the lowest common denominator. The technology can be harvested to bridge the gap between the banking and non-banking population. In India, less than 200 million people have bank accounts. For this reason, credit does not reach people who need it the most - the poor, farmers and other marginalised sections. With the government now channelling the funds directly to the lowest level, that is, the panchayats, the need to bring more people in the banking net has become urgent to boot out middlemen and ensure that the money reaches the people. 

If the plan to build platforms that could lead to a convergence of telephone operators and bankers materialise, experts say it will lead to a win-win situation where the transaction costs, which are high at the moment, will decrease drastically and operators would benefit by more business. Microcredit also will become easier for the impoverished sections.

However, there are dark shadows too. In absence of concrete research, there are still nagging worries about the health hazards posed by cell phone radiations. Also, with businesses, especially real estate, using mobile networks to aggressively market their products, the line between the public and the private has blurred. Call centres, at the behest of private businesses, enter personal and professional spaces at will, and even 'Do not Disturb' pleas to the mobile companies make little sense, even while mobile users are bombarded with calls and messages selling this or that. Most mobile companies have washed their hands of this fraudulent trade off of their huge data bank to all and sundry. With no laws safeguarding the personal data of users, misuse of personal information has become common and terribly irritating. Also, with the homeland security apparatus not competent enough to keep an eye on the networks, there have been cases of criminal elements using the technology, often in a dangerous manner. This can become deadly in the hands of organised criminals or terrorists.

This telephony revolution, like the internet, has not only swept urban India but has fast penetrated the rural hinterland as well, changing the dynamics of communication, social and personal relations, structures of feelings, emotions, memories. People, especially the impatient young, are moving away from deeper introspection, studied research, thoughtful contemplation. Letters by hand are no more being written among some. All music is on earphone. Complex thoughts have become 'SMSised'. Memories are forever being stored, images are forever being clicked, feelings are forever being archived, without any deeper meaning or essence. The mobile too celebrates the permanence of the ephemeral. Everything's in a flux. Nothing is seen or experienced outside one gaze: and this gaze is fixated on this small hand machine, with fingers in motion, moving from one digital abstraction to another. So how many SMSs can change the world, your world, my world? And how much memory can you store in a time machine? And how much talk time do you need to talk, anyway?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2010

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