Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mobile Nation

With mobile, our staple media, every man is his own gatekeeper, spectator and receiver at the same time

Dharma Adhikari
Mobile is such a dominant word in Nepal that it does not have to be followed by the term "phone" to mean wireless telephony. It is the gadget and in that sense it has nothing much to do with portability, although of course mobiles are portable.

Usage supersedes meaning and even convenience. Any suggestion that a snappier signifier, for example, "MP" for "mobile phone", is nifty and time/space-saving does not stand a chance of approval. It's the culture that defines what people do with technology and not just what technology does to them.

During the recent festival get-togethers in eastern Tarai, I realized that social conversations and small talks in the hinterlands these days are invariably dominated by "mobile", which competes with other topics, such as nakabandi ("blockade", a new arrival) and bidesh jane ("going abroad" for foreign employment, clichéd already). Madhesh agitation has been subsumed by "Indian blockade".

And mobile (the device), which has now penetrated almost every segment of the population even in rural areas, plays no small a part in prodding topics, and triggering and facilitating social conversations. At no other time in history had we been so conversant and engaged in any topic. And in these days of socio-political unrest and polarization, "mobile" not just facilitates mediation but at times it is the very cause of such discords. With mobile, it is now easier than ever to fall into groupthink or insulate oneself from others.

We overcame our geographical barriers with the radio and more cogently with television broadcasts beginning in the mid-1980s. Because of its visual power, TV, for the first time, advanced a collective self-awareness of the nation—Nepal as an inter-connected whole, a rather homogeneous entity. No political party or a leader could do that so swiftly and effectively.

With mobile, our staple media today, every man is his own gatekeeper, spectator and receiver at the same time. Self-engagement is the essence. The sense of belonging goes beyond national boundaries. The notion of the nation is under stress. Mobile with internet connectivity and social media applications offers far too many imagined as well as unimagined communities.


Such is the power of this gadget that we measure our progress by mobile penetration—by the number of mobile phones we use. No, you should gauge your bikash by the number of your toilets, our western development pundits tell us. We find it offensive; toilets are gross, not seductive like mobile phones.

Mobiles are to humans what cymbals or the various hand emblems were to the ancients. A decade ago, people with mobile phones were often deified. In the mid-1990s, newspapers went agog with the news that Pradeep Nepal, a minister then, owned a mobile phone. Some even printed a picture brandishing his gadget.

Today, there are far too many sets to accord such individual recognition. The Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) reported in July that the telephone penetration rate has reached 101.4 percent, which includes 23.95 million mobile subscribers, of which 17.4 percent use mobile broadband. NTA says only around 75 percent of subscribers are active users. The government target is to achieve 90 percent broadband coverage by 2020.

That's around 17 percent increase in internet telephony, around 4.5 million more users with access to smart phones or mobiles with built-in internet connectivity, annually. Today's knowledge-driven societies are inconceivable without these single most ubiquitous tools ever owned by humans.

But owning shinny gadgets is not the same as understanding or using them effectively. As development critic Dipak Gyawali has observed, in Nepal, new technologies have often reflected the dominant ethos of luxury among their owners. The form of new technologies seduces these adopters, and they seem to care less about their labor-saving capacities or utility values.


Mobile owners may vary in their ethos and motivations simply because almost everybody owns the gadget, regardless of his or her social status or demographic characteristics. I was keen that social conversations surrounding "mobile", especially among the youth, should reveal something about their new media attitudes and habits.

"Mobile talk" typically centers on topics such as merits or demerits of mobile or its use, personal anecdotes, generational differences, service quality, and user issues.

The bewitching features of the dazzling gadgetry weigh heavily in favor of using them. People in the districts usually carry more than one set of phone, with subscription to competing service providers in order to overcome network issues.

Normal mobile sets are fast disappearing as market for smart phones with touch-screens continues to explode. Cheaper versions of Chinese or Indian smart phone sets such as G5, Colors and Micromax are available with basic functions. For its elegant look, good camera, sound quality, and apps support, etc. Samsung is among the favorite brands in the hinterlands.

The youth use smart phones most often to listen to music, "3 to 4 hours a day", as one user put it, "the earphones are always plugged on; the music is always on the background, whatever you do". The Baskota-Baraili romantic hit, "paari tyo dandaamaa" continues to mesmerize many listeners, who traverse the globe in no time with "munni badnaam hui" (Mamta Sharma-Aishwarya Nigam), "Anaconda" (Nicki Minaj), or "Suavemente" (Pitbull).

The internet (read: "Facebook") is the second-most used function ("2 to 3 hours a day") by smart phone users, primarily for chatting, posting photos and browsing update statuses or news posts. Few visit news sites directly. They also use the internet to download free movies (mostly Hindi, some Nepali and English), apps, dictionaries, browsers, anti-virus, MP3 converters, and for file transfers.

The youth generally spend half an hour to one hour in gaming (candy crush, card games, racing, fighting, shooting etc.), calling and receiving calls, and texting friends, relatives or co-workers. Video call was a popular feature during Dashain for loved ones separated by distance. Another regular function is taking photographs of people, get-togethers, trips, and festivals. Selfies are also becoming popular.

Ask the youth for their first reaction to the word "mobile" and the response is: It's a pal in loneliness, essential for this generation; cannot imagine life without it! It has made communication easy, immediate, interactive, entertaining and engaging.

But there are downsides too. The constant pressure to compete with others in mobile brands, to update to newer versions of gadgets, and to meet instant gratification is mentally and physically debilitating. Those who cannot afford to buy new ones bully their parents into buying the latest versions. Many ask their relatives or friends working in foreign lands to send them a set. Some are so desperate that they steal devices from others. Mobile phone-related crimes and conflicts are being reported more frequently.

Youths recall being berated by parents for spending too much time with their "toys", away from work and study, for becoming self-preoccupied and impaired in social skills. Mobile addiction and abuse are on the rise. Accessing or posting obscene pictures or video, hacking into someone's account, online blackmailing, phishing, scamming (including by service providers), bullying, harassment, hate speech and instigation to violence are some of those ailments threatening the safety and security of mobile users.

Sadly, the victims and perpetrators often come from among the users themselves. Identity theft, password infringements, mobile etiquette, and protection of children online are other issues increasingly discussed among mobile users.


Seduction is not utility. A cultural shift is needed in the way we view and use our gadgetry. It is time we began a serious conversation going beyond small talks—on the role and obligations of the government, service providers, parents, educators and users themselves in ensuring safety, security, well-being and productiveness of mobile phone users and consumers, including the youth and children.

We may start with a code of conduct on the use of these devices so we can move ahead with a shared sense of purpose. Another word for mobile is adaptable.

The choice is between function and form.

Published in Republica, 17 November, 2015