12 Dicembre 2001

Love in the time of mobiles

Love in the time of mobiles

So you are holding out against the mobile scourge? Give in. They are here to stay. And, as Lauren Martin writes, the changes they have wrought affect everyone.

In the West, dumping the ex by text message has become the chic way to end a relationship. In the United Arab Emirates, it`s the sheik way to get a divorce. Truly. While Islamic law says men must declare the end by saying “I divorce you“ three times, a court in Dubai set a precedent for allowing the sentiment to be delivered via text message over a mobile phone.

The no-fuss bust-up plan got the blessing of a senior Malaysian cleric, too, though a prominent female politician there is campaigning against it.

Mobile phones are changing everything, everywhere. Seduction, school, families, fashion, friendships, churches, crime, courts, language: it`s everybody`s lifestyle now, whether you`ve got one or not.

Sure, manners may be lagging behind – for every SMS divorce, there are a dozen phones going off during weddings. But with 65 per cent of Australians packing a portable, those phoning only from a fixed line can rage all they like about the rude intrusiveness of mobiles. The backlash against the backlash is coming.

“A lot of people who traditionally didn`t want phones are now getting them for security reasons,“ says Peter Burr, the consumer marketing manager for Telstra OnAir. “Children are demanding parents be contactable, saying, `Hey, Mum, I need to be able to talk to you, so it`s not acceptable you don`t have one.“`

Rodney Molesworth, the president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, says schools once considered banning mobiles, to avoid the haves and have-nots problem. “But mobile phone consumption patterns don`t follow class lines. You are finding mobile phones appearing more rapidly than you might expect in families who don`t have a lot of money. It`s like having a car – only the most disadvantaged people in our community don`t have cars; they`re regarded as essential. Mobile phones are going that way.“

Even the penitent Franciscan friars have a phone habit now. The monks, who dedicate themselves to missionary and humanitarian work, engaged a Milan designer to create new robes for them. According to The Times, they`ve updated to a snappy charcoal grey number in lightweight wool, with breast pockets for their mobile phones.

The mobile market is not for corporate big shots any more. While professionals rang up all the business in the early years, its future is now in the handsets of kids and casual users.

Telecommunications researcher Paul Budde says that last year close to 95 per cent of all new mobile subscribers were residential. In 1992, that was 3 per cent. By the middle of this year, personal users made up 80 per cent of all subscribers. It was inevitable. By 1997, the business market was saturated, says Budde.

Since 1998, call charges have been dropping by 20-25 per cent a year. How? Prepaid plans and special deals like free SMS (short message service, or text messages). “Prepaid“ took the class factor out of cell phones. Now you could slap down as little as $100 to get a phone, a SIM card and a certain amount of air time. You didn`t need a credit rating, you didn`t need to fret that your child would bankrupt you keeping up with her boyfriends.

At first, phone companies scorned the prepaid plebs. Until Virgin Mobile came in and catered to them, the poor prepaiders couldn`t even get a sexy handset, so the Virgin version of events goes. But Budde says that from the middle of last year to the middle of this, “prepaid mobile went into overdrive“, bringing well over 1 million new customers to the market.

There were 350-plus packages at last year`s count. But even as they multiply, the teens keep up. They compare “plans“ with an allowance-driven precision that would make their maths teachers proud. Which may be cold comfort to teachers, with the president of the Parents and Citizens Association, Bev Baker, admitting that mobile text messaging has become “the new note passing – the trick is still not to get caught“. Norwegian police officials are trying to ban phones, like knives and drugs, during school hours, because they are used to make drug deals, and an International Communications Research report has 55 per cent of teens in the US saying schools forbid them. Australian schools have come to terms with them, however, under pressure from parents who may be messaging their kids during school hours too: “cn`t pik u up, tk bus 2da“.

The problem for the companies is that while young people are expanding the market, they are “lower-value“ customers. A 1999 Alcatel study found that 15- to 30-year-olds used their mobiles only half as often as 30-plus users. Still, Budde estimates close to 1.5 million phones will be sold to 16- to 24-year-olds over 2000-03.

Teenage girls are today`s main target. In 2000 the catwalks got cellular, with designers touting “wireless wear“. Some teenagers aren`t even bothering with a home phone. A study by Victoria University and the Communications Law Centre showed that in 1999, 6 per cent of 16- to 21-year-olds had given the fixed line the flick.

Swapping fixed for mobile has the added advantage that you can pick up a phone call in the loo – and a Wirthlin Worldwide survey reported that a startling 39 per cent of mobile phone users would.

Maybe that`s wise. You never know what you could be missing. A British study showed 10 per cent of mobile users had dumped partners with a text message, but almost twice as many had found a lover through the system. Fourteen per cent admitted to messaging someone that they wanted sex. Safe text is the next campaign, though – because one in four of those saucy cellular users said they`d made some embarrassing mistakes, like, say, sending them to the wrong person.

There are no lovers like the Italians, of course. In a sign of the place cell phones have assumed in society worldwide, take a look at the study done in Ischia which took the phones away from 300 volunteers – for 15 days – and charted the tragic effects.

Almost three out of four said they “could not live without“ their phones – but for 25 per cent, being without their mobile was a blow to their confidence which led to sexual problems with their partner. Sixteen per cent of the volunteers in the Codacons study confessed to a loss of appetite and depression. Only 30 per cent said they felt no effect from being phone-less.

Michael Stevenson, a Monash University anthropologist, says mobiles are a sort of anti-technology high tech gadget. “These are great socialisers,“ he says. “They are not making us geeks with toys, isolated with our screens and text – they are creating tribes and connections.“

Today`s tribes increasingly are bound together by the digital shorthand of SMS. Even “older“ people – the 35-plus folks – have jacked up their messaging by 30 per cent in the past six months, according to Vodafone.

While youngsters are moving beyond text – to text chat and games – the broader move into text may persuade even the hardline anti-mobile army to surrender. Why? Because text messaging is quiet. And more than anything, it is the inescapable public rings – and irritating alternative ring tones – that provoke mobile resentment.

Some call it “privatising the public space“, so perhaps it`s no surprise the great privatiser and prime minister-in-waiting, Peter Costello, last month was addressing the nation, gleefully going through the many thank-yous of his latest election victory speech, when his phone rang. He reached into his pocket, apparently scanned the caller ID, and paused his own moment of history to answer: “Call back later“.

Timo Kopomaa, a social scientist at the University of Technology in Helsinki and author of a book on cell phone behaviour, The City in Your Pocket, says a “culture of interruptions is gaining ground“.

And as mobiles become more prevalent – Jupiter Media Matrix predicts 600 million wireless users worldwide by 2005, Telstra says 80 per cent of Australians will have one by then – this culture is becoming more widely accepted.

Despite that, as Kopomaa says, the summons from the boss can be heard “from very far away and outside of ordinary times. This can give rise to a kind of forced accessibility … employees are potentially under continuous control“.

And it`s not just the boss who can track you now. A California man recently was convicted of murdering his wife on testimony partly based from his cell phone service provider. According to Wired magazine, a cellular engineer testified for the prosecution that it was “impossible“ for Kenneth Fitzhugh to have been very far from home, the murder scene, based on the location of his mobile phone.


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