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     Volume 6 Issue 41 | October 26, 2007 |

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The Cell-vasion of Our Souls

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

I spent this Eid watching hours of advertisements on television in between minutes of programming. Colourful, musical, exciting ads that made me want to dance with the dream models on screen . . .

I vaguely remembered those days, some six years ago even, when life was somewhat more drab but a lot simpler in many ways. I only used to receive phone calls (and prank calls and wrong numbers) on my landline at decent hours of the day. That ended as soon as I started using my parents' cell phone (the sole one in the house at the time -- now we have four for our family of three). After that, the timing, number and duration of calls slowly began to spiral out of control.

Over the years, along with my infamous “T&T” (which has only recently stopped going out of order every two months) I have done away with my alarm clock, my calculator, my calendar, my camera, video camera, radio and music player. Why have all this cluttering up my room when I can have it all in the palm of my hand, wherever I go, whenever I want? Wherever I go is right. Add to that, even when I don't want.

The tragedy of the cell phone is that it or its attached strings are everywhere, whether we want them or not. I'm not even talking about times when we'd rather our parents didn't call, ask where we are and tell us to come home right away. I'm talking about the whole cell phone invasion -- there really is no other word for it.

Flashy, all-in-one, must-have -- cell phones are the status symbols of today.

When was the last time you turned on the television or radio or turned the pages of a newspaper or magazine and didn't find an advertisement for a cell phone operator or set? And is it just me, or are the ads really getting longer, more elaborate, more colourful and just . . . “filmy” in general? The whole song-and-dance routine, family drama, fighting the odds and coming out the winner. Only, the new hero/heroine is the cell phone (and even that is a lot more gender sensitive these days, with “ladies” also finding success at home and at work with the help of packages tailored to their very needs).

But it does get somewhat confusing, does it not, when one after the other, every ad, or every other ad at the least, is for a different operator offering unbeatable rates? Backed, of course, by top models, success stories and jingles you can't get out of your head. They play on values of love, friendship, family, professionalism, success, even patriotism in February, March and December. And, if one goes by the ads, they even beat the traditional clothes and shoes as Eid gifts!

Some of the ads are quite innovative, or at least, catchy. So much so, that some parents even use them to glue their hyperactive toddlers to their seats while they feed them. I'm sure even the ones somewhat in low taste using vernacular and God knows what else type of mixed language, make their mark on their target audience. There were 32.7 million cell phone subscribers in Bangladesh -- according to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) -- in July of this year, before everyone had to re-register their phones. That's almost 46 percent of the population in a country where 45 percent live below the poverty line.

At least we don't have to feel all elitist about it, when everyone from the maid, driver and security guard to the vendor and rickshawpuller on the street and people in remote villages own or at least have easy access to one.

I know the cell phone has really spread its wings (or has us in its clutches) when I see my parents who, sadly, still don't know how to turn on the computer, using it. Their use may be limited to making and receiving calls and struggling (when I'm not around) to find whose calls they missed; they may still ignore text messages and never hear the phone ring in their stuffed purses; but they've agreed to carry one, to use it when absolutely necessary, to pay for it and they are gradually shifting from “We used to manage fine without cell phones” to “Thank God for the cell today”.

As for myself, along with one ear more damaged than the other, one cheek full of pimples and a sore neck the morning after I clean my room or do anything else using both my hands and not my hands-free, I believe my biggest problem will be FFS -- flat-finger syndrome -- which will cause my text-messaging thumb to, eventually, disappear.

And let's not forget that cell phones have become the new booty of choice for hijackers and made people even more vulnerable to such crimes.

Cell phones are my favourite example for media theory class. What better demonstration of the media creating “false consciousness” or false needs, making us want and believe we need things we could easily have done without; making us feel all important and powerful, happy and successful by having them. Basically, like we have it all. The desire is made so intense, the craving so unbearable, that not having one makes us feel like failures. And having less of it, like a less flashy or expensive set, makes us feel like lesser beings than those who go around listening to music and taking pictures with theirs.

It's hard not to have an issue with ads for most things -- including my other favourite, fairness creams -- that they are made to seem indispensable. I often wonder, wouldn't that woman have made it as a photographer, wouldn't that guy have gotten the girl in his class, wouldn't people be smiling in general, without their cell phones? Or do cell phones, and only cell phones, make winners of us all?

My media theory teacher at university points out that we are made to feel like winners, talking at such unbelievably low rates all night long, forgoing a good night's sleep, damaging our hearing, filling the pockets of the owners of cell phone companies while emptying our own. Ouch! Now, that bites.

Imagine the power all these companies have, when they sponsor everything, from radio and television programmes and live concerts, to sports events and even teams. They follow you down the road from the airport, and throughout the city, the beautification of which they are also responsible for. They place full-page ads in all the leading dailies. It's no wonder that protests against high tariffs rarely make headlines.

A lot of the times, they do get involved in noble causes. They give money to the poor and help flood victims. A lot of the times, they're not even advertising their rates and sets and what-not. They just want you to hum their tunes, do the wave with them, make you smile. They just want you to know that they're there.

In all honesty, I feel lost without my cell phone now. And, besides myself, I blame my friends, my colleagues and of course the media for making me desperately dependent on something I spent well over half my life without. It's suffocating sometimes, with cell phones, cell phone ads, and people's obnoxious ringtones sounding loudly in meetings and conferences and quiet conversations, caving in on me from all sides. According to a market study by Portio Research in 2006, half the world's population will be using cell phones by the end of 2009. Marshall McLuhan predicted a global village. “Mobile village” is more like it.

So, even if the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals are set to reduce extreme poverty and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by half by 2015, at least half the world will be using cell phones well before then.


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