Things I’d never thought I’d end up saying, #37

“Cell phones aren’t inherently evil.”

Though it seems ironic, apparently cell phones are helping to “bridge the telephonic divide,” bringing rich and poor countries closer together when it comes to communication ability.

In part this narrowing inequality has to do with the fact that cell phone towers are actually much cheaper to build than the infrastructure that’s required for fixed-line phones. This makes sense if you think about it, though it’s certainly not automatically apparent to anyone who uses either kind of phone. Particularly since the people who have lived their whole lives in a consoling array of communication technologies come to expect that all these things will be available for them (telephones, cell phones, computers, TV, radio…) to the extent that temporary lapses in, say, phone service, evinces an almost automatic reaction of complaint.

Cell phones, despite their spotty performance, have probably only enhanced this reaction—to the extent that we now (many of us) expect constant attachment to a means of communication.

As anyone can tell you, there are certain people for whom this attachment is a real necessity, not imagined. Paramedics, for instance. For the most part I’ve assumed that cell phones were generally a cancer-like growth on society, spun wildly out of control and used entirely out of proportion to their necessity.

This, when you think about it, is actually kind of selfish.

To say that cell phones are basically an unnecessary good, one the world would not hurt to see disappear, neglects the fact that this is only true, all other things being equal. All other things are not equal. Not in the least bit.

Annual Growth Rate in Phone Connections
(Cellular and Fixed-Line) by Income Level of Country, 1992–2001 (WorldWatch Institute)

Thanks in part to mobile phones, gaps in phone access are being narrowed at an increasingly frenetic pace. And with cellular phone access, you also open the window of possibility for increased internet access.

Granted, the ‘internet divide’ today is still quite marked: 41 users per 100 people in the industrial world vs. 2.3 per 100 in the developed world. A 17 to 1 ratio doesn’t exactly sound a dazzling trumpet of equality. But it helps to put things into perspective when you look back and realize that the ratio, as of 1995, was 40 to 1. While providing access to, streaming radio, and isn’t exactly going to solve all the world’s problems, the internet can provide pathways to economic development1, a la linkages between rural farmers and market information, would-be patients and information about treatment facilities and doctors, etc.

Okay, so there’s still a certain breed of cell phone user for which I have nothing but a few choice words. But cell phones have finally managed to escape my mild disgust.

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1 Caveat: “economic development” is a dangerously ambiguous term that I’m only using here as a prop to keep this post focused on communication and not economics.