Coded gray.

Wednesday 28 June 2000

Me & mobile phone

Pic of the day: My mobile phone is several years old, but since I use it like 5 minutes a year, that's not a big deal. :)


On the bus to work, a young girl plopped down on the seat beside me and started to work on her mobile phone. Those fingers really can dance. She was obviously writing text messages. Those keys are not really well suited for that, but practice obviously makes perfect. In addition, the phone was beeping with incoming message at least once and she also got a voice call. Now I don't believe that all of her generation are quite so connected, but there is definitely a trend. People are able to communicate regardless of time and distance.

When I grew up, the telephone was already widespread. We shared a phone line with a few other farms in the valley where we lived. There was a different ring signal for each family, so that we knew whether the call was for us or for the neighbors. (I suspect that my oldest brother got his own signal eventually in his teen years ... he seemed to know when it was for him.) The ladies on the telephone station routed the calls and they were also the ones who sent the ring signal, a combination of long and short rrrings. The sound quality wasn't always too good for long distance calls. But we had telephone, and that was a thing to treasure.

It must have been a struggle to connect phone lines to all the remote places here in Norway. In fact, it must have been a struggle to build a lot of the communications we have. Roads, railroads, power lines, and phone lines ... they had to cross hills and valleys, mountains and fjords, and avoid the occasional glacier. Where people in other countries could just walk straight ahead with a large cart loaded with telephone poles, Norwegian engineers must have pondered for a long while where to place them at all. Oops, there is a mountain, we can't just climb up there, it's vertical and a few hundred meters straight up. Oops, there is a fjord, and nobody knows exactly how deep it is. I guess we have to go for the forest, but how can we keep the growing trees from ripping the phone lines straigh off when the autumn storms come?

No wonder then that Norway had some of the costliest telephone calls in the world for a while. But things have changed. And they changed particularly fast after the former telecoms monopoly got competition on mobile phones. At first there was just one competitor, NetCom (no relations to American companies with the same name, I think). A heated price war culminated when the two mobile service providers actually paid people to buy a mobile phone. The effect was, however, that sometime last year the number of mobile phones passed the number of line-connected phones. And it is still rising.

I understand that mobile phones, as we call them, are essentially the same as Americans call "cell phones". I can hardly think of a less fitting name than "cell phone". The mobile phone is the ultimate symbol of liberty, openness, the death of distance and barriers. The mobile phone is the next step in human evolution. Let me elaborate on that.


It has been observed that kids who are born blind, still make various gestures with their hands when talking, roughly similar to what seeing people do. A steadily more popular hypothesis says that humans originally used sign language, accompanied with emotional sounds. Then at some point, people started to expand the formerly pure emotion language of sounds into the niches of the sign language. Suddenly people could talk in the dark and even through walls. Like magic! These sorcerers became the ancestors of humans living today.

Later, other inventions have made us gradually better at this crucial task: Communication. It may be said that in essence, communication is what makes us human. Without communication, there would be no culture. And we have long ago passed the point where we cannot survive without culture. It is as essential to us as instinct. Indeed, the need to communicate is almost certainly an instinct now, and one of the strongest there is. People talk to their pets, to themselves, even to computers...

Occasionally these days I'll see a well-dressed man walk down the street talking into the air, as if with an invisible friend. If I slink close enough, I may see the tiny cord connecting the ear piece and the small microphone to his mobile phone. Of course, some of them just may be speaking to their invisible friend or their grandmother's ghost or something, but you cannot take that for granted anymore.


So what is next? Will we get small implants in our brains that let us connect our minds directly to the Internet at the speed of thought, and from there access databases, read e-mail and call our friends ... all in our mind?

To be honest, I think most of us will want to avoid brain surgery as long as possible. Sure, if I needed an implant to counteract Parkinson's disease (yes, deep implants seem to work well for that) I might opt for a communicator at the same time, though...

But will we all inevitably end up as nodes in the great Network of Minds? Some people may be using their phones while making food or from the bathroom, but there are still a lot of people - probably even young ones - who appreciate a bit of silence, a bit of solitude. In fact, I think we need it sometimes. We need some "space". We need to be alone with our thoughts, to calm down and sort it out. We need to turn inward, to reflect. Some of us more than others, I guess. Now if only we didn't need peace and quiet exactly when our friends need to communicate ... ;)

Oh, and one thing more. I was reminded of that quite strongly this evening, as I decided to dump the complete entry I had written and was ready to upload. Sometimes the limits to communication is not in the technology, but in the mind.

As for the girl, I saw her again on my way to the office from lunch. She was standing outside the post office ... fingering her mobile phone.

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