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Cell Phones & Culture

October 13, 2006


Cell phones continue to change the way the world is connecting. I’ve talked about how cell phones are being used to make global monetary transfers as well as how cell phone minutes have become a currency of sorts in some developed countries. Cell phones have allowed underdeveloped countries like Rwanda to avoid the expense of installing landlines and get a toehold in the information age. Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs, was one of the first observers to write about how young adults were using this new technology (especially texting) to connect. Cell phones have even been built with ring tones that can only be heard by teenagers. In countries where face-to-face meetings between genders are generally taboo, cell phones are being used to set up dates.

Kevin Sullivan, writing in the Washington Post, talks about how young adults in Saudi Arabia are using this technology [“Saudi Youth Use Cellphone Savvy to Outwit Sentries of Romance,” 06 Aug 2006].

Cellphone technology is changing the way young people meet and date in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most insular, conservative and religiously strict societies in the world. Calls and texting — and more recently, Bluetooth — are breaking down age-old barriers and giving young men and women discreet new ways around the sentries of romance. … Named for a 10th-century Danish king who united warring Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, Bluetooth now unites Saudi men and women who are often sitting within a few feet of each other, separated by walls and tradition. Users can choose to make themselves “visible” to all other Bluetoothers within range.

Sullivan reports that discretion is, in fact, the better part of valor in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s zealous religious police can arrest and jail anyone who violates the rules of local culture, a mixture of tradition and the country’s ultra-strict Wahhabi Islam that forbids most social contact between men and women who are not related. Cinemas are banned — men and women sitting in the same dark place is considered too likely to arouse mischievous hormones. Restaurants and coffeehouses have separate, partitioned areas for “families” — male and female relatives — and single men. Security guards stand at the entrances to shopping malls to bar men who are not accompanied by a wife, sister or mother. University classes are segregated by sex. Unrelated men and women riding in the same car (women are not allowed to drive) can be jailed by the religious police, a government agency known formally as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

The Saudi government, of course, is not oblivious to this and it is concerned. It tried to ban cellphones with cameras, but had to relent since almost all cellphones now have cameras. The challenge the Saudi government faces is the same challenge that any group trying to staunch the flow of technology faces — technology changes faster than policy. How fast?

Cellphones have changed such behavior in a hurry. In the past five years, the number of cellphone users in this country of 27 million people has increased from 1.7 million to 14.5 million, according to industry analysts. Cellphones permit young people to talk discreetly without a parent listening. Bluetooth, which allows high-speed transfer of photos, videos and text messages to others within a range of about 15 yards, enables them to communicate without even knowing each other’s phone numbers.

The U.S. learned during the prohibition era how difficult it is to legislate morals. The Saudis’ concern, of course, is trying to preserve the essential character of its Muslim culture and it fears that technology will destroy it. They’ve already given up trying to stem technology and like many other countries are trying to prohibit upstream content. That won’t work either. Countries that have tried have always failed. They need to concentrate on legislating downstream behavior.

“This is clearly a way of going over the social barriers, and it is unstoppable,” said Alex Shalaby, chief executive of Egypt-based Mobinil, one of the largest cellphone providers in the Middle East. “The tide is just too strong.”

Cellphone texting, however, is not all about meeting members of the opposite sex. In Iraq cellphones are used to pass all kinds of information according to an article in the New York Times [“Must Haves: Cellphones Top Iraqi Cool List,” by Damien Cave, 08 August 2006].

The cool kids in Iraq all want an Apache, the cellphone they’ve named after an American military helicopter. Next on the scale of hipness comes a Humvee, followed by the Afendi, a Turkish word for dapper, and a sturdy, rounded Nokia known as the Allawi — a reference to the stocky former prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Even more telling are the text messages and images that Iraqis share over their phones. From all over the city, Baghdad cellphones practically shout commentary about Saddam Hussein, failed reconstruction and violence, always the violence. One of the most popular messages making the rounds appears onscreen with the image of a skeleton. ”Your call cannot be completed,” it says, ”because the subscriber has been bombed or kidnapped.”

The article points out another reason that cellphones are popular — you can stay in touch without having to place yourself in harm’s way.

In an environment where hanging out is potentially life threatening, cellphones are also a window into dreams and terrors, the macabre local sense of humor and Iraqis’ resilience amid the swells of violence. The business here is booming. According to figures published last month by the State Department, there are now 7.1 million cellphone subscribers in Iraq, up from 1.4 million two years ago. In an economy where jobs can be as scarce as rain, billboards for phones are among the only advertisements updated regularly in the capital. … It is the relentless violence — which now claims dozens of Iraqis every day — that seems to have fertilized the industry’s growth. Insurgents use phones to communicate and to detonate bombs, while Iraqis of all sects rely on their phones to avoid danger.

While not exactly the “smart mobs” discussed by Rheingold, Iraqis find comfort from the social interaction that cellphones permit — sometimes passing devastating news and sometimes passing along a good laugh.

For human rights workers in Iraq, cellphones play a darker role. Omar al-Jabouri, who heads the human rights office for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said he often received pictures of men tortured or killed by death squads, many of them taken with the cellphones of witnesses or the victims’ relatives. At bombings, Iraqis are often seen recording the carnage in pictures or short videos. But mostly, people here use their cellphones for commiserating, searching for laughs among the tears or trying to knock the powerful off their pedestals. Over the past year, American soldiers, Saddam Hussein and the current Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, have all been the subjects of humorous clips passed from phone to phone.

A resilient society learns to adapt without losing its essential identity. The Iraqi society has managed to maintain its sense of humor as well as its sense of family by embracing the cellphone instead of fearing it. Iraqis long for the day when they can worry about whether cellphones are being used as a way to for young adults to meet rather than hoping the next call isn’t bad news about a loved one. Technology is neither good nor evil. It is culturally agnostic. Without technology, however, cultures will not remain resilient.

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