Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mobile phones in India

It’s amazing how fast the phenomenon has caught on. Ten years ago, mobiles were a rarity, restricted to the very few who needed constant contact-ability, constant access to work, news, and so on. Tycoons and businessmen, fillum wallahs and bade babus, stockbrokers and paisewallahs this was the segment that needed or owned mobile phones even as recently as a decade ago.

Now? My bhajiwala has a cell phone, my bai has a cell phone, the autowallah whips out a cell phone and says “meeting me hun…karta hun phone”. Suddenly, they are everywhere, these gizmos, in every hand, stuck to every ear. Its amazing how fast and how far they have penetrated. From an item of luxury, they have become a necessity, essential to the day to day life of most people. How did this happen? What changed? What turned the “I don’t even need a landline” Indian into the “I can’t live without the latest handset” Indian? The way I see it, it was a combination of a lot of things.

Money for one. A huge change has been creeping in, almost unnoticed. Almost everyone has disposable cash these days. Even the humblest of wage earners seem to have discovered that money is for spending. Consumerism and a growing retail culture has converted India into a “buy, buy, buy” land, where the motto, even a decade or so ago was “save, save, save.” Loans are easy and aplenty, needs redefined by swanky foreign ads on TV, and availability through the roofs with every major global player fighting it out for a piece of the Indian pie.

Attitudes have changed too. Keeping up with the Jones’, a universal preoccupation, has reached obsessive and epidemic proportions now, and the world has grown smaller, making more and more varied kinds of Jones’ available to compete with. It’s a boon for all kinds of manufacturers, from clothes to “modular” kitchens, from “tish” furniture to consumer durables. The more people compete, the more they update, which means more sales of progressively higher segment goods. And the same applies to mobile handsets.

Me? I own the cheapest most basic handset. And no, money is not the only consideration in this. First and foremost, the Jones’ leave me cold. I never could se the logic in “keeping up”. I buy what I need, what I can use. And I use basic call and sms functions on a mobile…as do most people. So, to me, it makes no sense to buy one of the top end handsets with a thousand “features” that I don’t need and will never use. Add to that the fact that I have a child at home, whose favourite pastime is chucking mommie’s things about, and the lower end and hardier the handset is, the better it is for me.

As it is, how many people really use all the features on their swank phones on a regular basis? I haven’t seen anyone do it consistently. Sure they take a lot of pictures with their camera phones, shoot a lot of video, and send MMS messages, but that lasts for a few days, weeks at most. After that? Back to the basics…making and receiving calls, sending and receiving messages. So, essentially, the only reason most people (barring a very few I know) buy a 25 thousand rupee handset, is to show they can. It’s another way of saying “look how much money I have, to throw away”.

It’s permeated every section of society, every stratum of class. And, to this “show-off” mentality has been added the illusion of grandeur that a mobile phone gives us. Everyone likes feeling important, needed, sought after. A mobile phone gives us the illusion that we are all of those things. After all, it is the most important, most needed people who have to be in contact with the world all the time. It is the indispensable people who cannot be unreachable for even one minute, lest something should go horribly wrong in their absence. Look around you, and you will see that everyone with a mobile phone today is as important as the national security advisor to the president of the US.

Every free second, snatched in between whatever it is one does all day, is devoted to this new fetish. Crossing the street or grabbing a cuppa, walking or chilling, on a date or hanging with friends, the mobile is never far from the ear or the fingertips. Do we really need such all-encompassing connectivity? Do I really need sales messages and credit card companies calling me in the middle of a hot date? Do I need a customer satisfaction survey in the middle of my siesta? Do I absolutely need “Bollywood gossip” updates when I am at a movie theatre?

And what about the increasing number of parents who are giving mobile phones to their kids, “to keep tabs on them”? now that’s the most spurious piece of nonsense logic I have ever heard. Keep tabs? How? The kid could be sitting in a pub guzzling alcohol, phone rings, all he/she has to do is say “haan ma, I am at the temple”. There is no way of knowing. If they don’t want to be disturbed, they can just switch the damn thing off, and say “network nahi pakad raha tha”. All a mobile really does is to give the parents a false sense of security, which probably does more harm than good.

And kids with mobiles, or stupid grown ups with mobiles for that matter, are a danger to themselves in more ways than one. Not only do they run up exorbitant bills, they can put themselves in direct danger too. its amazing how easily kids, and a number of adults, give their numbers to total strangers, on the net for example. What they don’t realize is that it is highly dangerous to do this, and against all the common sense measures for internet safety! Anyone who knows your phone number can cause inconvenience in a number of ways.

For one thing, they could call you at all hours of day and night, or SMS, which can be merely irritating (in the case of normal calls) to downright disgusting (in the case of obscene or vulgar calls and messages). But that’s only a minor issue. After all most service providers provide call barring services and you can delete messages without opening them. The real problem, that most people don’t realize, is that if someone has your mobile number, and knows where to look, they can find out where you live.

This may not seem like such a big deal on the surface. But imagine this – this is a person you don’t know at all. All you know, or think you know, about them, is from their own words. How do you know that this person is not some kind of a criminal, a stalker, or worse? Your mental, emotional, physical and financial safety could be in very real danger!! What’s the bottom line then? Are mobiles good or bad? Useful or dangerous? Like all technology, the answer would lie in how we use it. Amazing connectivity and any time availability can be a great boon, in emergencies (see
Mobile phones – miracle or curse?), and for people who need blow by blow accounts of their work etc. using it wisely, in a balanced way, with conscious thought and prudence, and these wonders of technology are quite amazing (if one could only get rid of the pesky telemarketers)!

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