Remote Possibilities

Clive Robertson in the New York Times magazine writes: "Pundits have fretted for years that mobile phones are making us ruder. In June, Nokia released some evidence that may actually prove it. A survey found that 71 percent of mobile-phone users admit they are now consistently late for social events. Why? Because they can send a flurry of text-messages explaining where they are, how fast they're moving and precisely when they'll arrive, down to the minute. ''You sort of feel you've got more play, because you're in this incredibly close contact,'' says Robbie Blinkoff, the principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, which has found similar trends in its studies. "


Indeed, the next generation of phones is slated to become even more sophisticated. Phone companies have begun offering ''location based'' services with handsets that let other people know where you're walking, all day long. Next year, the French telecommunications equipment company Alcatel will offer Guardian Angel, which will let people track the movements of their children (or their Alzheimer's-ridden elderly parents) via their phones. We won't need to send out those ''where are you?'' queries anymore; instead, we'll have a nearly psychic level of knowledge about one another. New forms of play will arise: in Sweden and Finland, teenagers already play BotFighters war games -- one phone attacks another if they get physically close enough, like two Game Boys sensing each other's presence. Nokia's N-Gage phone, designed specifically to run games, lets players go head to head in a racing or fighting game with anyone nearby. Beyond this ''whoa'' potential, though, the privacy implications of location-based capabilities are hair-raising, says Roger Entener, a mobile-phone analyst at the Yankee Group. ''Your spouse will say she's on a business trip in Kansas City, but you'll notice that her phone is actually down in Chelsea. So you'll go, Hmm, what's happening there?''

Yet even then, observers say, people will probably never be willing to rein in their mobile lives. Bell tells a story that illustrates just how central phones now are. In Malaysia, she recently attended a ''feast of the hungry ghosts,'' where Chinese Malays burn paper replicas of food. ''They do it to ensure that their ancestors are well fed,'' Bell notes. But in recent years, they've also begun burning paper versions of mobile phones -- and even paper versions of prepaid phone cards, to make sure the phones will work beyond the grave. ''They can't imagine their dead relatives existing without the latest models,'' Bell says. ''And they wouldn't want their ancestors to be lonely.'' Even in death, no one wants to be cut off.


If I'm going to pull this together for an article this week, here's the format I imagine:

1: Cell phone portability is here! Now we can keep our numbers forever.
2: Is this really good news? How many people want to keep their email forever? I don't.
3a: Email addressess eventually get discovered and spammed. Relentlessly. Now I know better than to buy stuff or register with my regular email address -- I should use a throwaway spam yahoo account.
3b: email spam is so bad that it may force borderline users away from email, and keep kids off altogether. the long march towards universal interactivity has hit a snag with spam.
4: The same thing may happen with cell phones
4a: text spam is already a problem in the UK
4b: the new location-tracking GPS phones could take it to a new level
5. Unlike junkmail or telemarketers, Spam is a parasite, draining internet resources and helping no one but the spammers (and a tiny number of customers).
6. GPS-spam would be made possible via the FCC mandate for GPS, but also by a significant investment by the phone companies themselves, and others. They can charge what they want, do what they want with their network. Virgin already announced they've been tracking users for years, just with tower data alone.

7? Cell phone companies were against number portability, because it would lead to higher customer turnover. They might have been shortsighted -- in the future, keeping your number might mean keeping your tracklog of all the places you've been, all the stores you've shopped in... They could sell that to advertisers and corporations, recouping any losses from turnover.

Tracking will make people conscious of where they shop, who they visit. Yet they won't stop shopping or sneaking around. But they will turn off their phones when they're doing it.


In the early days of email, the entire process seemed so benevolent and efficient and progressive and I would have never imagined the current situation, where 75% of email is repulsive, tedious junk. I would have never believed email could be too risky for kids to use; too bothersome for regular / recreational folks.

The same thing may happen to mobile phones. What seems like inexorable progress toward universal reachability might suddenly stop with GPS-enabled tracking and ads. People will be powering down, leaving the phone behind, or only using it in emergencies. One step forward, one step back.