Mobile phones, teens, and Central Africa

Considering I’ve actually got a mobile phone, unlike quite a few friends, I’m quite a fuddy-duddy with it. I only really have it on for any length of time when it’s "office hours"—and even then I easily forget about it. I rarely take it out with me unless I know I’ll need to make a call while I’m out, or if I’m expecting one. I treat it more like an inbox than a walkie-talkie. And I’ve had this one, the first one I bought, for over four years now, eschewing our social compulsion to "upgrade" all the time out of feelings of inadequacy. There’s also the little issue of the mining of the relatively rare ore used for components essential to mobiles, coltan, contributing to ongoing warfare and ecological devastation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not sure our minor social prestige neuroses should be relieved at the expense of human life and environmental havoc—call me old-fashioned.

So, it was interesting to read how mobiles are mutating social ettiquette among teenagers (via Boing Boing). I hate it when friends leave their mobiles on while we’re having a drink and catching up or something, unless they’re expecting an urgent call. Reading this article, by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, I at once felt enlightened as to the unseen new social norms that this sort of behaviour is creating among groups of teenagers, and simultaneously suspicious and… well, old.

The older generation is often baffled by the sight of teens gathered at a fast-food restaurant, gazing at their mobile phones rather than their friends. The assumption is that the virtual connection is detracting from the experience of the face-to-face encounter. What non-users often don’t realize is that mobile phones have become devices for augmenting the experience and properties of physically co-located encounters rather than simply detracting from them. Teens use mobile phones to bring in the presence of other friends who were not able to make it to the physical gathering, or of accessing information that is relevant to that particular time and place. The boundaries of a particular physical gathering, or flesh meet, are becoming extended through the use of mobile technologies, before, during, and after the actual encounter.

The full account of how this transpires is fascinating. But, perhaps with my Luddite side buoyed by a recent Hakim Bey interview, I just saw worrying holes running through the whole thing.

Referring to the ‘dissipation’ of meetings, where contact builds up via mobiles as a prelude to physical presence, and fades away afterwards instead of being cut off when goodbyes are exchanged, the author notes:

The dead time in transit on the way home is now occupied by the fading embers of conversation and contact.

"Dead time"? Is time alone now seen in this way? I sense a kind of blind over-compensation, in a culture where true personal communication has atrophied hideously (and I’m not stood on a soap box haranguing you here, I’m swimming in the same shit…). Suddenly communication per se is sought out compulsively. Communication and contact become, like most things under capitalism, quantitative rather than qualitative. Jeez, I’ll be talking about spending "quality time" with people soon… But then, why not? Quality’s good, no? Doesn’t matter if clichés have devalued a phrase to our ears, it still matters to the heart.

Urban space has become highly personalized, no longer a site of anonymity. Young people are in social contact even when alone, coordinating a meeting with a friend, sharing information about a shopping conquest, a celebrity sighting, a photo of their entrée, or just killing time in a texting chat as they ride the train home. Even as the urban environment is being homogenized by the latest franchise influx, mobile phones become devices for customizing and personalizing even the most generic of urban places.

"Young people are in social contact even when alone…" A cynic might say, "They’re also alone even when in social contact." A cynic (OK, it’s me) might also note how casually everything is associated with shopping, consumption, and imagistic spectacle. Maybe there’s a genuinely liberatory process at work here, as capitalism’s mantra of "consumer choice" ends up transforming the whole shebang from within. Or maybe the cages are just getting bigger, the chains longer—and more "personalized". Your very own chain, etched with your name, decorated by you. Is there a point where this transforms the chain into something else? Or does this very question disguise the fact that a chain is a chain is a chain?

And the time the hypothetical texter in the above passage spends on the train back home isn’t quite dead yet. It’s writhing in a quite unsightly way, and has to be "killed".

The final nail in the coffin here (for the article in question, not The Kids—I hope) is probably the location of the article: it’s in an online magazine, Receiver, brought to you by… Vodafone. Apparently it’s "a neutral space where pioneer thinkers challenge you to discuss exciting and future-oriented aspects of communications technologies." (my emphasis) In the issue the above article is taken from, they take "a close look at what impact mobile communication has on our environment." Of course, "there’s much more to talk about than electronic smog"—that wouldn’t sell many phones, would it?

If they’re so interested in the environment, I thought, how about coltan? Google returned zero results for me. Not one. A search for tantalum (the material that coltan is refined into for use in mobiles and other devices) fared slightly better: one result. There’s a brief mention in one paragraph of an article otherwise dedicated to exploring "emerging relations in urban space and culture". There’s a brief nod to "environmental damage in places such as Central Africa", then it’s back to RFID‘s and Gilles Deleuze.

Still, those being slaughtered over territorial disputes around coltan mines needn’t feel neglected. A search for Congo on the site brings back three entries! One is from Johannesburg-based author David Shapshak, who contends that "cellular communications are ideal for uplifting Africa".

Throughout Africa there are examples of major telecommunications successes, including new undersea cables, advances in regulation and a blossoming of entrepreneurial spirit that has seen cellular networks built in politically oppressive countries like Zimbabwe and war-torn ones like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

See? They benefit from the mobile deal, too—why should they complain about a bit of killing each other here and there, y’know, and maybe a smattering of devastation in their environment? Besides, as the other Receiver contributor noble enough to bring these far-flung regions to our attention, the traveller and "environmental consultant" Nicholas Middleton notes:

A satellite phone, radio or cellphone is an essential element of all modern-day expeditions, a key tool that no self-respecting intrepid traveller would be without. During the past two years I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a wide range of the world’s more obscure corners, making television documentaries about the people who live there and the physical geography that helps to make these places extreme. During that time, I’ve spoken to loved ones from the arid heart of the Atacama Desert in Chile, and from the banks of Central Africa’s Congo river.

No comment.

Postscript: As if to confirm my concerns, I just flicked on the BBC news and caught an item about the catastrophic rise in teenage depression in the UK. I can’t find the story on their website, but the basic picture was clear. I recall one interviewee saying that suicide had become the third biggest cause of death among 15-24 year olds. Incidents of serious depression among teens at one clinic had doubled in the past decade, with an estimated 1 in 8 teenagers suffering from the classic symptoms of anxiety attacks and lack of energy and hope. "Keeping up with peers" was cited as a contributing stress factor.

So, when we look at fascinating new social interactions among teenagers, using smart techie language to give the whole picture a sheen of exciting novelty, we should ask: Are we seeing teens evolving valuable new social structures? Or are they just doing their level best to keep pace with the frenetic self-defeatism of our accelerating, unsustainable, denial-riven culture—with many folding in on themselves in despair as the contradictions explode?