Silver Donald Cameron

The Magic of the Cell Phone

May 23, 2010

After hiking four hours up a Himalayan mountainside, we have reached an elevation of more than 3000 metres. Breathing heavily, we stop for refreshments. Our Bhutanese guide reaches inside the folds of his traditional gho, whips out a cell phone, and calls the hotel about dinner arrangements.

At a meeting in Halifax, the phone line for the conference call is being balky. As the organizer struggles with the phone system, the woman across the table types furiously with her thumbs, sending instructions and receiving email reports from the Sydney member through her Blackberry.

When you give a village woman a cell phone and a solar charger, says Bunker Roy, the director of India’s Barefoot College, you have given her a business. Now she can make phone calls for other people, send text messages and emails, do research on the internet. You have brought the resources of the modern world to that isolated village.

At the pub, my friend Jack is showing me how easy it is to create and transmit video using an iPhone. He holds his phone up in the air, and slowly pans across the room. He taps his finger on the screen a couple of times, and turns to me with a smile. There, he says. That video is in your inbox.

In the ruins of Haiti, a victim taps out a text message on a cell phone. NAN DELMA 33 NAN PAK T.OKAP LA NOU BEZWEN TANT, SI LAPLI TONBE NOU MELE! In Creole — and you can almost pick it out if you know some French — this says “At Delma 33, at the park, we need a tent. If the rain falls, we are in trouble.” The message arrives at an emergency response centre, and is forwarded to a worldwide network of Creole-speaking volunteers. They translate it, locate the park on a global positioning system and and send the message onward with a map attached. Moments later it reaches the Red Cross, just minutes after it was sent.

“Wherever I’ve been in the world — in Africa, in South America — the telephone industry is just exploding,” says Dan Jacob, a young management trainee working for Telus. We’re talking at a restaurant in Montreal. “The use of cell phone technology not just for connecting people, but for m-commerce — mobile commerce — is just phenomenal.”

And that’s just the beginning, he says. Universities are planning to make their courses available by cell phone, which means that a university in Alberta could offer distance education to people in Africa who have no computer. And have I heard about the new emergency phone for people with heart disease? The phone is wirelessly connected with a pacemaker. If the person has a heart attack, the phone instantly consults the GPS and uploads the patient’s health records and precise location as part of an automated emergency call to the nearest paramedics.

Nobody ever expected this. The original developers of the cellular phone system thought they were building something for a niche market of business travellers. Instead, the cell phone has created a whole new reality. Half the earth’s people now have cell phones. Whole nations have simply skipped the process of wiring their communities with landlines. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but 25% of its people have cell phones — which proved invaluable in the aftermath of the earthquake.

In the Philippines, cellular airtime serves as a form of currency. In Argentina, farmers sell their products by cell phone. In Kenya, cell phones have brought banking into the lives of the poor, allowing them for the first time to create savings accounts. During Kenya’s last elections, cell-phone users were able to report electoral violence to the police as it happened.

A great tool solves a million problems that its inventors never imagined. Decades ago, electronic visionaries imagined a computer so unobtrusive and powerful that users would carry it with them and treat it as an extension of themselves. It seemed hard to imagine, and nobody suspected it would look like a telephone. But here it is, and that’s what it looks like, and it has transformed the world.

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One Response to “The Magic of the Cell Phone”

  1. Mark Rushton says:

    SD, the cell phone has indeed been changing the world – fortunately for the developing nations, which is “leapfrogging” the massive infrastructure costs of fixed-line service. However – we in the north are suffering from early development and policy decisions. Having lived in Latin America for coming upon four years straight (with many additional years of South experience), going home to Canada and its ridiculous cell phone plans, spotty coverage and monopolistic practices is frustrating.