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Addiction to mobile phones amid neoliberalism

The Jakarta Post, 12 August 2002 : Opinion

by Yanuar Nugroho

Read this. “The number of mobile phones was estimated to be near 77 million, with more than 37,500 people signing up for wireless phone service each day. And these users are talking more than ever before. There is too much traffic on the phone network.” (New York Times, Aug. 19 2000).

The number of mobile phone users in the world, including in Indonesia indeed seems to increase by the day. BBC reported in September of that year that “If you want to keep pace with the changing environment and the global economy of the day, you need a fast means of communications.”

However, the answer to this need is twofold. First, mobile phones are practical. But it is also the object which most closely symbolizes the spirit of the times — that “changing environment”. What does it imply?

To assure yourself that you belong to this modern century, this is the object to have in your hands — unless you have a “hands-free” mobile. How has the mundane telephone become the must-have mobile?

When this new millennium started, we did not only see — but also became a part of — an ever-present campaign to promote the mobile. The promotion is also twofold: Its subject is a whole new communication technology, and subsequently, an individual brand.

For publicists and advertisers it raises dilemmas of whether they are able to promote the brand specifically or the whole technology. And of course, there is a lot to say. Examine the many significant symbols a mobile can embed. In one minute it symbolizes globalization, the very next minute it is a badge of the new revolution. The magic properties of this new generation of telephones seems to be able to release the hidden power of the ordinary process of communication.

The magic of the mobile has enabled students and NGO activists in Jakarta to gather and coordinate a class action to sue Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso because of the floods some time ago.

Recently, the magic of mobiles helped the student movement to push for the constitution amendment in the Annual Session of the People’s Consultative Assembly. However, even in such events, the rally of the mobile campaign goes on as much as by Internet and e-commerce.

When the old-style telephone is then transformed into a mobile, “mobilization” (which has echoes of “globalization”) is not merely technological but cultural. It is not only a matter of inventing a machine, but getting society to adopt it, to feel that we need it. Because, obviously, it is we who need to be mobilized. Look at the ads advertising mobile phones.

They are not only objects and technology; but also part of a system of ideas — of family, of intimacy, emergency and work. Look at the advertisements: from Nokia 6200 to 8200 — from Siemens 35 Series to 45 Series, and so on.

And the users change to the newest models as soon as they become available in the market. And as new models come up by the day, the message seems clear: The old phone is no more; the old ideas have also passed away. The advertisements get worse. You may think you know what a mobile is — but the promotional language shows that you do not yet understand your own phone. This is how consumerism penetrates society.

Probably, it is time we stopped singing the chorus blindly agreeing to this “mobilization” and start to ask some critical questions on how this process has been unconsciously shaping and reshaping our way of communicating.

There are four at least: First, what is communication, anyway? It is all about people. The philosopher Martin Heidegger notes that communication is all about the listener’s understanding. It means that the listener should have an experience of the subject being discussed which amounts to a sharing with the speaker.

But look at the very center of the mobilizing concept of communication through the mobile phone — an activity by an individual, over which he or she seeks control. Besides, being in control of communication means being the master of communication technology itself. Of course, from Heidegger’s perspective, to try to take control would be a violation of the whole nature of true communication.

And as the mobile phone becomes literally someone’s personal communication center, as very often imposed by the ads, the idea of a “personal communication center” itself is contradictory.

Which brings us to the next issue: When does communication takes place? It is when two (or more) people are communicating at the same time (not necessary in the same place). But, there is a fundamental principle and really striking aspect of the mobilization of communication: Communication is, at heart, a solitary action, i.e. only one person is involved.

It is made possible because we have our own “personal communication center”. Here we arrive at the basic practice of mobilization: Communication works best when there is only one person involved! The SMS or short message services is evidence of that. It is cheaper than a phone call and does not require real-time availability of the two persons communicating because it is asynchronous.

Third, why do we communicate? People communicate to satisfy other wants, in this case, to make others understand. Another philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, suggests that people only actually communicate when they are primarily concerned with making themselves understood. But, the whole concept of the mobile phone is the key to satisfying someone’s wants generally.

It is “the principle of want”. This does not mean that people want to communicate — that is one of the strangest things about the vision of mobile phone. You communicate “to say what you want” — this does not mean what you mean to say; it means what you have to have.

Fourth, who communicates? From the orthodox view, the answer is people. The more modern media studies would answer: The medium is the message — when it denotes modern communication. But for the mobile? What communicate are the devices, not people.

Need proof? Examine the service of wireless application protocol or any GPRS (mobile-internet) functions offered by your mobile. What is it really? It is, in short, a language in which communication has no human agents at all.

It is simply a flow of messages and data, registered in terms of financial costs. So, we check into the system in pursuit of individual desires or aims, and that is the nature of our individual participation. From there, the individual is swept aside by the sheer flow of traffic through the system.

That is the model of the current sophisticated mobile phone. According to a giant telecommunication corporation, “It reflects the ability to perform communications between inanimate objects, to receive payment for value-added services, as well as conventional voice and data traffic”. And “inanimate” means “not able to communicate or to be communicated with”.

From the basic philosophy, the mobile phone campaign is founded on a paradox every bit as mysterious as mysticism and far less appealing.

If Habermas or Heidegger were here, it would probably have been easier for them to imagine one hand clapping, than one person communicating. Yet, under this logic of neoliberalism, where consumerism is at the heart of societies, it is the core where the mobile concept lies.


  1. Saturday, 6 March 2010 at 9:24 pm

    XH9SC8 Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

  2. Friday, 29 October 2010 at 3:29 pm

    i love mobile phones that can surf the net in lightning fast speed~’.

  3. Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 4:13 pm

    mobile phones that have built in cameras are my favorite because they can capture those special moments and events “:*

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