Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Mobile Phone Culture

Here in the Philippines, it seems that nearly everyone has a mobile phone. Look at a corner and the man in a suit has one. Look at another and the saleslady is fiddling with one. Even students have cellular phones in their bags or purses. You're certain that cellphones are so popular because even street vendors are selling phone accessories. For a third world country that has trouble feeding and housing its masses, it's a surprise that a lot of its population manages to own a mobile phone.

Yes, I'm one of the many people who owns a mobile phone. This wasn't always the case though. Around five years ago, the cellular phone craze slowly started to creep into the Filipino consciousness. I was but a high school student back then. While pagers were the norm, the majority didn't own one. We were stuck with phone cards and coins to make calls.

And then, the mobile phone industry got revolutionized. A big issue before then was clones: people who stole your account and would make calls that would reflect on your bill. That was virtually eliminated by the introduction of digital technology. People couldn't steal your account like they used to using the analog airwaves. Another factor was the presence of new, sleeker phones. You didn't need to carry a suitcase anymore to store your phone, its battery pack, and the other accessories that came along with it. Your pocket would do. And with Nokia phones, handling a phone was easy. You didn't need to bring along the instruction manual to operate.

Of course I'd also like to credit Nokia with adding something previous phones didn't have: games. I mean is it really a surprise that many Filipinos bought Nokia phones just for the games it contains like Snake? A few years back, Filipinos were buying brick games and other Tetris-clones from the malls and stalls and brought them everywhere. With Nokia phones, you didn't just have a phone. You also had a built-in entertainment system. We may have progressed with our Playstations and Gameboys but the simple, portable games seem to have a charm we can't resist.

Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if telephone companies didn't introduce the Short Message Service (SMS) or "text" as we call it here. Globe had the idiocy to charge a flat rate to consumers. Suddenly, mobile phones weren't being used to make calls. Tons of text messages were being sent everyday and most of them were forwards much like the chain letters or SPAM we receive in our email inboxes. Heck, one of the best-selling books here are text jokes and quotes. And since the numeric keypad is no match for a keyboard, a new language was born with the popularity of text. Words were shortened to the point that it would take no more than seven characters and even simple words like "Okay" was reduced to one letter. Not only were people trained to type words with alarming speed using a numeric keypad but minds had to be equipped with built-in dictionaries that deciphered slang bordering on jargon.

Of course the telecom people smarted up and started charging people for each text message. This gave rise to the advancement of microcurrency we call prepaid cards. A prepaid card could be bought for P300 and it would give you that much amount in credit. For each message you sent, it would deduct P1.00 from your balance. Since many Filipinos use phones more to text than to call, this suited them just fine. I mean why pay P8.00 just to say hi when it would just cost you P1.00?

By this time, people were too attached to their mobile phones. I mean in my classroom of 35 students, more than half the class owned and brought their phones to school despite the fact that it's illegal to bring one (because of the alarming rate of phone thefts, among other reasons). Teachers nowadays even have to make spot-checks just to make sure that students don't bring their phones to school.

Of course me being the self-righteous and law-abiding student, I didn't bring a mobile phone, much less own one, to school. Not that I didn't have to use one. I'd usually ask one of my classmates to text a friend I needed to come in contact with. While I didn't own a phone, the people I needed to talk to did.

My older brother always had the latest phone and soon, mom and dad had mobile phones of their own. I refused to own one on the grounds that I didn't need one and since I was spending one third of my day at school, it would be totally useless to me. Of course my mentality changed when I needed to get in touch with a certain crush of mine who owned a phone and was often busy to take house calls.

Once I graduated from high school, I "conceded" to my parents and let them buy me a mobile phone. I accepted it mainly because I wanted to greet my crush a happy graduation since it was my last desperate plea to talk to her. Not that it worked but I was stuck with a phone for the rest of my life.

Soon, my friends were sending me text messages and vice versa. Somehow, from the anti-phone person, I was slowly being dependent on a mobile phone. I didn't go out without it. I mean perhaps my greatest fear is being alone and owning a mobile phone bridges gaps between people. The Internet connected people from different countries provided they have an Internet connection. A mobile phone connected you with people who owned phones. Day or night, rain or shine, they were just a text message away. And with the popularity of cellular phones, you were virtually connected to the entire Metro Manila.

Mobile phones were a boon and a bane to communication. On one hand, you can easily greet an acquaintance with just one message or forward. You can set up entire meetings and eyeballs through the use of this nifty gadget. And perhaps it's make courting easier. For one thing, people aren't attached to their mobile numbers as they are to their landline. Asking a person's mobile number is no big ordeal. Asking their home number is since it usually connotes courting or asking the girl (or guy) out. For another, you come in direct contact with the other person. No intermediaries such as maids or parents go between you and the other person. Guys don't have to sweat in anticipation whether it's the general father who's going to answer the phone or not. Lastly, a text message is just text. Whether you're nervous or not, it won't reflect on the other side. All they see are dots on a screen, not the tone of your voice.

Of course on the opposite side of the spectrum, mobile phones have caller ID so the person can just ignore you when you call. There's really no guarantee if the other side will answer, especially if they have a reason not to. And for all the portability mobile phones have, they're seldom noticed, especially since they're often put on "silent mode". You call the person and expect them to answer. But they don't because it's in their purse and they don't hear it ringing. Or it's in their pants and they don't feel a thing. And of course, since a text message is impersonal, it's easy to reply, or not reply, to it. I mean one of my classmates was advising my friend not to ask a girl out to the ball using a text message.

"It's easy to decline the other person through text. It's difficult when you're on the phone and even harder when you're face to face but when it comes to text messages, nothing is easier."

Of course that's not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be the person on the other line not replying at all. You're left to wonder whether the person got your message or not, if they still have credits or not, or if it's the right number or not.

Still, owning a mobile phone has proved handy especially when dealing with large groups. When attending an eyeball, finding the other person couldn't be easier than through the phone. And you can easily notify people of any last minute changes.

It's sad though, that of all things, mobile phones have become an obsession to Filipinos. Money that could have gone to healthcare or next week's grocery goes to purchasing a new casing, a new prepaid card, or a new phone.