Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Are you hungry?

An interesting story today in eWeek that somewhat suspectly tied overthrow of African dictators to high mobile phone penetration. With over 20% penetration, the columnist posited, dictators began to fall. He does not quote a source for the statistic, and used it to rather annoyingly make a connection that didn't actually exist, and which he didn't actually admit until the last sentence, but it definitely makes one think (Rodin's Thinker pose) about the changes that modern communications are wreaking on the world.
In India, China, slowly in Africa, much more quickly in South America, distance and lack of communication are no longer synonymous. Americans and Europeans take it for granted that telecommunication is reliable, widely available, and reasonably priced. Until very recently, however, that was more often than not untrue in most of the rest of the world. As an exchange student in Thailand, once in the 80's, and again in the early 90's, nothing could have been further from the truth. In a country of over 50 million, there were less than 1 million phone lines. An application for a fixed line phone either required 5 years to process or a bribe. The cost of a 3-minute phone call to the U.S. was about $10, and required going to a post office, during business hours, to make.
A decade and a half later, mobile phone lines outstrip landlines, and one in three Thais owns one or the other, meaning almost every household has acceess to telecommunications of some sort. I don't know if, in the case of the rural society that I lived in, that is a good thing or bad: I remember sending a letter to a remote temple asking if I could ordain as a monk there. I didn't receive an answer, which made me nervous, as I had to plan, or so I believed as a westerner. My host mum told me to chill, and just go. The abbot of the temple, when I arrived, said something like "oh, yeah, I got your letter. I didn't write back because we never turn anyone away who wants to ordain, and it would have meant walking 5 kilometres to the nearest post box." I shudder to think that the same monk might today be gabbing away (one of the Buddhist sins: Un-thoughtful speech) on a mobile. I doubt he is, but what about the young guys?
But as to the political dimensions: Making laws, as most dictators, and even some so-called democracies do, which limit the right of it's citizens to gather in large groups becomes meaningless when virtual gatherings, using SMS, e-mail, audio telephony, instant messaging, chat, or whatever, become widely available. A reasonably good example of this was in the Phillipine 'people power' revolution a few years ago, which toppled Joseph Estrada. It was largely driven by SMS. More recently, large-scale protests in China against inaccurate depictions in Japanese textbooks of Japanese atrocities in WWII were largely organised online, in chat rooms, and by text message. Certainly, in both cases, mass gatherings happened, but there was little, short of turning off all communications methods, that authorities could do to stop them: They couldn't break up organising meetings, because there were none. Arresting organisers might have been possible, but both were more viral in nature, and though there were definitely organisers, they were able to effectively conceal their identities. So, sudden gatherings, which sometimes turn into violent protests, and which are difficult to stop, are probably the rule going forward, at least in repressive countries where citizens have access to communication technology. I would still like to see the statistical data to prove it though...
But what about so-called developed countries? Are our governments and institutions so perfect that a little people power is unnecessary? Probably not. But, generally, there is also nothing stopping us from protesting. The convenience of organising protests, for the most part, hasn't meant more of them. One notable exception is the protests against G8 and the WTO, both of which benefited from communications technology. The real irony is that freer world trade is actually narrowing the gap between the 'have' countries, and the 'have nots.' There was a good column in yesterday's International Herald Tribune about the trend in western countries to work longer hours. It suggests that one of the reasons is that western workers are competing more directly with workers in India, China, Indonesia, or Brazil. Though there will probably never be absolute equality, a much more equitable future is now possible because of freer world trade and, ironically, great improvements in communication infrastructure throughout the world. What is gained is less poverty and greater economic and political empowerment. But something is lost, too.
I remember making a trip from Japan to Chiang Mai about 13 years ago. It was a fairly sudden 'visa trip': Leave the country for a few days prior to the expiration of your 90-day tourist visa and come back on another. I didn't have time to write a letter, pretty much the only way to communicate with my former host family. After a grueling train trip from Bangkok, which included a head-on collision and derailing, a bone-jarring ride in the back of a log-poacher's pickup truck, under a canopy to protect us from the dust thrown up, and then a fairly uneventful bus ride into Chiang Mai, I got off the bus in front of the Wararot market. My host family had a stall there, selling sweets. I hadn't seen them for about four months, but when I went up to my host sister and said 'hi', she said 'oh, it's you. Are you hungry?' People talk about the immediacy of mobile communications, but what can compare to the immediacy of an outheld hand offering a sticky rice and mango desert?

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