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     Volume 8 Issue 76 | July 3, 2009 |

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Urban Landscape
The Cellular Wave

Nubras Samayeen

I started shivering as I watched the blood-spattered videos on CNN, turmoil in Iran. I became a part of the protestors against the crackdown through the news videos. Thousands of people flared up when Mir Hossein Mousavi alleged that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen the election. Citizen-fuelled proliferation augmented with the arrest of dozens of opposition leaders as they deny the election results. The people geared up, the agitation speared beyond the borders and multiplied even more to an unprecedented level as the global audience became a part of the upheaval through uploaded videos on you-tube. These are moments from street protests, followed by the Iranian administration's clampdown on demonstrations and rallies. These uncensored, rare, instantaneous videos were taken by amateur hands and shaky cell phones and certainly with pounding hearts. While the Iran government can censor major media but it does not have any regulation yet to stop transferring the videos via cell phones and SMS(s).

From the beginning of the situation, in addition to social networks like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, cell phones played a vital role in propagating the news across the world and they haven't finished their role yet. The gruesome video of Neda Soltani reached world web in few minutes after Hamed filmed it and it is said she may have been targeted because she was using a mobile. Within hours the death had become one of the most potent threats faced by the Iranian regime in 30 years. The Iranian government closed the grid and blocked all cell phone uses that Saturday.

Not only in Iran; the recent terror in Mumbai that shook India last year was machinated and maneuvered by cell phones. According to Indian investigators and police, the heavily armed attackers who set out for Mumbai by sea, navigated with Global Positioning System equipment. They carried Black Berry sets, CDs holding high-resolution satellite images like those used for Google Earth maps, and multiple cell phones with switchable SIM cards that would be hard to track. Is this “terrorism” in the digital age? Emerging details about the 60-hour siege of Mumbai suggest the attackers had made sophisticated use of high technology in planning and carrying out the assault that killed at least 174 people and wounded more than 300. The flood of information about the attacks -- on TV, cell phones, the Internet -- seized the attention of the terrified city, but it also was exploited by the assailants to direct their fire and cover their origins. Evidently the terrorist attack in 9/11 was also promulgated by cell phone and help of contiguous swarm intelligence. I will not be surprised to know if the recent BDR massacre in Dhaka falls under the same high-tech scheme as well.

A Celle Telle Dhaka Culture
The cell phone, as we more commonly call 'the mobile' is not only a friendly, handy gadget for the gangs but now a part..- and-parcel and almost a prosthetic for any urban dweller. My experience in Dhaka could not be more cellular.

Here in Dhaka, the densely populated capital of Bangladesh, whether a prince or a pauper, the majority of the Dhakaites own a cell phone. It became a ubiquitous gadget offering more flexibility, mobility to living in the stagnant, ever-jammed city. More than 100 thousand new subscribers were added solely to Grameen phone, one of the several cell phone distributors. The user groups include not only the juvenile group of teens and early twenties but also professionals, businessmen, and housewives. Not only family and personal affairs, but also businesses like banking, small trades are run and dealt over mobiles. Conversely, expansive, uncontrolled distribution and easy access of mobiles have also augmented crime rates. People have become Smart Mobs, a term coined by Howard Rheinhold in his book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution” says, “Smart mobs are people who are able to act in concert even if they don't know each other.” I cannot help mentioning one of the images in Google that caught my eyes during newly elected President Obama's Inauguration ceremony, people taking pictures with cell phones and instantly uploading on various websites.

My first hand experience began from my recent trip to Dhaka. aAs soon as I reached Dhaka, . I made a call from my cell phone to inform my family about my landing, who were waiting for my call on their cell phone as well. On my way home, all that caught my eyes were these huge billboards almost covering three to four buildings in a row and left me wondering about the lives of residents inside. What is also noticeable is a massive throng pre-occupied with their private conversations or just blankly staring at their cell phones in the middle of the busy streets of Dhaka. Unlike that of developed countries, the mobile is not a fad but a necessity here. It has now become a part of the urban culture and society in Dhaka. As a Canadian traveller to Bangladesh says,”“I'm writing now from a rural village in Bangladesh (called Modiphur). There is no electricity, no running water, and the diesel generator that was powering a ceiling fan and light bulb died earlier this night. Bangladesh is still a third world country after all. But, despite all this, I am still able to check my mail, see what's going on at Digg, and post to this blog.”..”Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world that can guarantee each one of its residents can get a cell phone signal - no matter where they are in the country.”

As the mobile seeps into Bengali culture, a complete Bangla tele-jargon, a new urban language is generated with a combination and modification of English and Bengali words. Unfortunately, this lingo get transferred and transmuted to official emails, making them almost illegible.

I would also argue of television commercials play a vital role in this cultural morphology bringing changes is behavioral patterns. Unlike earlier times, when an amateur lover would throw an articulately written poem in a minutely folded paper to his next door sweetheart over moss-ridden roof tops or through grilled balconies, It is suddenly suddenly much easier for the young boys and girls to communicate via cell phones. Crank calls increase as unknown male voices introduce themselves as “brother” pestering random girls, addressing them as “sister” and offer their friendship.

It is not only the upper-class, fashion crazy Dhakaites carrying the latest model of mobiles has created this new society; Mostafa Quaium Khan, Executive Director of Coalition of Urban Poor explains the impact of cell phones on slum dwellers, a parallel world to the Dhaka we see. Korail- the biggest shantytown over 100 acres land, juxtaposed with the affluent neighbourhood of Banani in Dhaka, has more than 120 thousand families, none of them have definite address and nearly all dispute over their occupied land. Yet, most of these families own at least one or more mobiles. According to Khan, mobile is an essential device and helps establishing and ensuring their existence in the city. It also allows them to contact different political groups

keeping hold of the squatter, the only shelter in this city. Conversely, political groups depend on this huge slum population for their chunk of electoral votes.

Talking to a number of local stores, most of the businesses like- exchanges and transfers of vegetable, fish and daily goods from outskirts and within Dhaka are done over mobiles. The slum women use them as a financial liberator, which actually started from “ Polli-phone” by Grameen. Even the slum kids own cell phones. Deprived of any formal education these kids become vendors, household workers or delivery boys in neighbouring areas. An emerging new business, cell phone booths to reload the prepaid phone cards and renting phones are also mostly served by slum dwellers. The transient shanty-towns or slums within Dhaka are filled with crimes like, drug abuse, smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution and myriad of other anti-social activities. According to Khan, more than Korail, Shat tola, another shanty town of the city, is notorious for terrorism and a high crime rate. Having no traceable address or geographic location it is a easy to carry out a myriad of anti-social activities. This allows the criminals to disappear in the ephemeral maze of squatters just like the cell phones that they use, without a fixed physical address.

In 2005, a police officer in charge of Ramna thana, admitted an open secret that local small grocery stores are paid terrorist agents and the slums are taken to be the centre of these criminal acts. The crimes are maneuvered not only by calls and codified language but also by SMSs and missed calls. 1, 2 or 3 - the number of missed- calls also acts as the cryptogram and perhaps give direction of action. As he disclosed a recent incident of Pichi Hannan, a pseudonym of the godfather in Ramna area, the heart of Dhaka was caught with evidence and related clues from a cell phone left in the crime scene. A sub-inspector was shot dead at the scene of the crime and the salavaged cell phone appeared to be a valuable source to trace back the action for the team. There were several missed calls, which gave clues to unravel and track many of the associated people of the gang. They caught not only the group leader but also the accomplice correspondent from the police force.

A New Cellular Landscape
Life here almost collapses without the mobile for a day.

As one of the insidious sides, the mammoth billboards and all-pervading banners , for example, are changing the streetscape, turning Dhaka into a collage of cell phone ads. As my friend complains that cell companies didn't even leave the tranquil beach of Cox's Bazaar, which is now filled with huge billboards of cell phones, hiding the scenic backdrop and sky within our visual limits. Instinctively, the symbolic content of post-modernism and globalisation adorns most of its major roads like Airport road, VIP road, Mirpur Road, Shat Masjid Road, Bijoy Sarani and more of Dhaka. The small and big structures get hidden behind the conspicuous mobile ads and create a new architectural flair.

As the turmoil in Iran continues, I keep pondering and get bombarded with information and updates soaring from my laptop. Whether it is Iran or the recent train crash in Dhaka Mogbazaar rail crossing, all is on you-tube via instant cell phone filming. It is the act of the small yet powerful mobile gadget. The cities are saturated with this small gadget device that seems to inundate all levels of life like a Tsunami wave.