Is the mobile phone a blessing or a curse?
Photo: Getty Images, KF Seetoh

“I can’t live without my mobile phone!” is what I often hear people say as they lament about how mobiles have become an indispensable part of their lives. The blurring of personal and work lives brought about by the device are posing challenges to many.

The all so common sight of heads bent, eyes staring intently at mobile screens and fingers busy tapping away repeats itself across major cities around the world. Whenever there is a moment to spare while on the train, taxi or waiting in a queue, people busy themselves with their mobile devices. Some even confess to checking in with their phones while out on a date!

Such unhealthy obsession with mobile devices is disrupting how we appreciate the little things in life or miss the moments that matter. The truth is that technology overall should be seen as a tool to enhance our way of living and not as a backfill for the good things that we as humans naturally enjoy.

Mobile phones have certainly made a significant impact on our lives, but I truly believe it’s for the better.

It’s changed the way we communicate, whether for work or play. We are now less constrained by time and geographical location. With my mobile device, I can dial into conference calls while stuck in a traffic jam, or reply to urgent e-mails while on the go. I can send a text message or share photos and videos with friends who aren’t living in the same country. My phone calendar keeps my life organised, and even Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging are now accessible from mobile devices!

Smartphones are more than just a means to stay connected; they are also a key source of entertainment. The game of Snake was one of the first mobile games that I got hooked on way back in the 1990s. Today, the market’s flooded with mobile apps – we’re so spoilt for choice! And it’s not just games. There are apps to help you find your way around literally anywhere, apps that let you listen to your favourite music, apps to book cinema or concert tickets, and even apps that teach the alphabet to toddlers.

The mobile revolution isn’t just changing the lives of urbanites like myself. I know of a young Bangladeshi woman named Shompa Akhter who has a passion for fashion and design. She dreamt about starting her own business and she did just that, opening a boutique in Kushtia featuring her own creations. Dealing with suppliers in different towns was a hassle for Shompa – purchase orders had to either be hand delivered or mailed out to suppliers. Shompa also found it tough publicising her business to potential customers outside her town.

Before using a mobile phone, Shompa had never heard of e-mails! The technology intimidated her and she was sceptical about how a mobile phone and e-mail could help her business. But once she got the hang of it, she was hooked. Mobile e-mail is a blessing in her life. The 25-year-old entrepreneur now stays in touch easily with her suppliers.

I hear inspiring stories like Shompa’s from so many other countries. Teachers, like Edna Cas and Imelda Pontejos from Ligao East Central School in the Philippines, have brought lessons to life in the classrooms by downloading multimedia content via smartphones using the Text2Teach programme and linking it to television screens to show to their students.

Farmers, like Edi Sugara Purba in North Sumatra, Indonesia now have access to weather information critical to crops. With the information gained through his mobile phone, Edi can quickly decide how to best protect the coffee and oranges he grows. He also gets information on crop prices to help him negotiate better and decide on how to price his crops competitively.

Who would have thought that mobility could effect such monumental change? It shouldn’t really be a surprise though. Information is empowering. Just ask Shompa, Edna and Edi.

Still, close to six billion mobile phone users don’t own a smartphone. Another 3.2 billion people don’t own a mobile device at all. The mobile revolution is here but there are still many out there who have yet to experience its benefits. We’ve only just begun.

Neil Gordon worked for many years as the Vice President for Sales at Nokia in the Southeast Asia Pacific market.

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