By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The "I" in Phone

Let's face it. The "I" in phone was there long before Steve Jobs put it there.

Mac's i-phone may be the latest "hot" item on the cell phone market (to hit Philippine stores only by 2008) but when it comes to the "I," that is "identity," literally the "self" and cell phones, Filipinos probably have come a longer way (than most) in this often-complex relationship with the cell phone as a communication device as well as the technology it represents.

Marshall McLuhan once wrote about men's fascination with gadgets (a long time ago when "men" often referred to all people ;-) and compared it with the Greek myth of Narcissus. As the "extensions" of ourselves, gadgets (or all electric technology), represents a desperate suicidal autoamputation of our physical body.

“As if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs,” our gadgets are part of us, and in time, we cannot cope without them. (“My cell phone, myself?”)

My friend Claire, an NGO lawyer and Executive Director who swore off new cell phone units (even when her old one was constantly in need of repair, to a point that it always ended up getting returned to her even when we were convinced she was losing it on purpose), recently bought a new unit and told me that the addictive qualities of the cell phone today can probably only be compared to the invention of Coca-cola in the last century.

Outmoded or not, we Filipinos depend on our cell phones for what is obviously a long list of reasons, perhaps longer than most other cell phone depending peoples.

In a conversation a couple of years ago with Dr. Felipe Miranda who used to head Pulse Asia, one of the leading organizations in the country on surveys and social research, he pointed out that the Philippines at that time (2003), ranked as the second largest source of text messages in the world, the first being the EU, which although a group of nations, was counted in the survey as one.

Yet he also pointed out that there was no means of verifying what nationality the text message signal sender was in the statistical data provided by the phone networks. This was important after all since there are literally hundreds and thousands of Filipinos all over Europe (overseas migrant workers and undocumented ones), and over seven million Filipinos work and live abroad.

Curiously, Finland figured in as one of those countries in Europe that had the highest number of text messages per capita. (Nokia is a Finnish company after all). Could it have been the sheer access (per person) or the isolation of communities in the cold and remote areas?

In the early days of “texting,” I was always grateful for the means to be able to arrange meeting places, approximate arrival schedules and anticipate appointment delays due to the constantly horrible Manila traffic. At first, it was a blessing to be able to warn friends and associates about the traffic situation, later I suspect it also became a convenient means to make an excuse, “Filipino” time (tardiness).

What still manages to infuriate me though is the often-unchallenged culture of using text messaging to avoid direct communication and all manner of confrontation. In the work and office setting, this is a very abused practice akin to “note passing” right under the noses of the very people (often enough authorities), people mean to “bad mouth.”

A college buddy of mine told me that in the huge technology firm she works for, there are fortunately clear guidelines for ethical office behavior. When a co-worker sent out poison text messages, criticizing her, she also accidentally sent the message to my friend, whom she was “crucifying.” Of course she couldn’t deny the fact when confronted with it and they took disciplinary action (which she accepted) for her misdeed.

There have been numerous campaigns on cell phone etiquette, and there are even a number of goofy looking pamphlets on this including Internet etiquette, that are found in most local book stores, but a lot of people still use their cell phones while carrying on conversations, attending meetings, and driving (which can be and has proven to be extremely hazardous).

Switching off a cell phone for a full day nowadays means a person is avoiding contact or hiding. Even when there is a landline available or an email address, when I don’t mind my phone during the weekend or days when I let the battery run out without charging it, friends and associates will complain to me, telling (often sounding like they’re scolding) me that I was out of reach.

When I spent a full month in the US on a fellowship in 2001, the four other Filipinos with me also didn’t bother to get global roaming since at that time it was still expensive and we were promised free and unlimited Internet access in our hotels. But since by that time, cell phone use and text messaging was already quite ingrained as an all time Filipino habit, it of course made its way into our conversation on the ride from the airport. We all predicted we were going to miss the “thumb work-out” of GSM and laughed. We worried whether our obviously well built and muscular Filipino thumbs were going to atrophy at the end of the month! Our guide and welcoming party, a Lebanese migrant American pulled out a cell phone (a rather expensive looking one at that time, even for us Filipinos updated on the very latest models), and to our surprise, turned it on to make a phone call, and then turned it off again and replaced it in her bag after the conversation, confirming our arrival.

The five of us must have had our mouths gaping and we looked at each other in disbelief. We ended up asking Nadia whether it was actually cheaper to send a text message. She didn’t know what a text message was. Later in the month, our cell phone crazy culture was beginning to be a subject of interest for our other mentors at the University as well. One of our Filipino fellows taught our professors how to send GSM and they were completely amazed. (We found this very funny). One of them even told us she never knew her phone could do that!

Pretty soon it caught on and on their visits to the Philippines, some of our American friends have made it a point to have an extra local SIM card just to communicate when they are here.

Yet even if I have come to rely on text messaging, my “romance” (if I can call it that) with cell phones has often been marked with disastrous consequences. Okay I have had at least three cell phones stolen in the past seven years.

My last “lost” phone was the most high-end I could get without breaking the bank, after I “lost” (my husband has a theory I lost it on purpose) my five year old Nokia 8363. It was a Nokia 6260, clamshell, with a basic VGA camera and various palm/Microsoft Office compatible programs and external SD memory.

Nonetheless, losing it only after exactly a year of acquiring it, I was nothing short of shell -shocked. In the end I regretted not having diligently downloaded my picture and mpeg files and otherwise fond “memories” of our first day in the new house we moved into. I miss my daughter’s pictures and crazy quips on mpeg but was also quite traumatized when I heard my phone’s thief, on the other end of the line when I tried calling the number. I had nightmares about my phone and haven’t bothered to buy a new one since.

Of course nowadays to be without a cell phone in the Philippines is nothing short of bad manners! My mother was so incensed at my “carelessness,” that she insisted that I use her old phone while I hadn’t yet decided to get a new one.

My Mom’s “old” phone is no less than the trusty Nokia 5110. One more thing other people will probably notice is that the average Pinoy knows a thing or two about cell phone models. The Nokia 5110 is particularly well remembered because at the height of its popularity, it was considered (and still probably is) as one of the sturdier models. (READ: IT ALMOST CANNOT BE DESTROYED).

Its one of the last models that cases its battery completely, and its black shell (and antennae) is a durable type of plastic/rubber. Of course when it came out, the Nokia 5110 was average sized in terms of its “batch” of new smaller cell phones. (15X4.5 cms and approx. 2.8 cms thick, almost an inch)

But size is relative. In the case of cell phones, it is relative to the time and place, that is, the state of technology. Back in 1995, I received the news that I passed the 1994 Bar Examinations over my father’s Motorola cell phone that was about 24 cm long, even with the antennae only half extended! It weighed probably about a pound or so and the shape and size was only slightly different than its Vietnam War predecessor (the one soldiers in the movies carried around with a huge separate battery pack as big as a camera bag) in black or military fatigue. It resembled a humongous universal remote control unit and it had about an hour or at best, two hours of talk-time and around four hours on standby.

Now, the Nokia 5110 is a relic, but a beloved one or so I’d like to think. When I flash around my cell phone (I have actually learned to enjoy the experience as a sort of social experiment), people always know what model it is. It is a well-remembered model, for sure.

On the other hand, I have had mixed reactions about my cell phone, from utter horror (I could swear it almost peeled off the paint in the rather swanky parts of Ortigas when I pulled it out to receive a call from a French contact I was meeting at the Podium and I imagined Yuppies scampering for safety, as they ran away from me in fear of catching a virus that would make them as “uncool” as I was), right down to sheer delight and unmistakable amusement that a young lawyer would go around being seen with such a phone!

To be totally truthful, before I “lost” my 5 year-old Nokia 8353 (another sturdy model that made it through spilled milk when I was nursing my then baby daughter), one of the reasons I began daydreaming about getting a fancier phone was because of pure vanity. At an NGO meeting, I was so disturbed after a youngish network member from what I understood to be an “urban poor organization,” commented that my phone was rather old and was asked why I had not traded it in for a newer model. Her exact words were: “Attorney (as lawyers are addressed by this title by local practice), why haven’t you updated/changed your phone? Isn’t that the same model you’ve had for ages?”

As she said this of course she was fiddling with her new phone (camera phones were the new thing back then) and soon thereafter, I became acutely aware of how “old” my phone looked compared with what others had.

My husband himself, got totally involved in prodding me to buy the nice looking 6260, convinced that a “lawyer” needs a decent looking phone than say a University professor (which is what he is, full time and I am, on a part time basis). I dismissed his ideas on this, telling him it was rather silly (denying my vanity).

Of course in the end I crumbled and bought the phone after poring over issues of T3, a tech magazine somehow convinced that its readers are mostly male (thus the glossy pictures of nearly naked women). The magazine is actually a secret passion of mine, okay I admit, my husband’s idea. Of course he is the sort of sweet man who swears it’s the tech that he prefers, not the booty, but I’m not actually the sort of feminist who is against displays of the female body so it doesn’t bother me. Plus of all the tech magazines I read so far, I found writing there I liked. I liked the humor and the attention to writing style. (Unfortunately the columnist who writes on pop culture, someone my husband says used to write for Jingle when it was a hot magazine, doesn’t seem to be there anymore).

So with my T3 bible taken to heart, I got my first camera phone. Sure it was VGA but it was jam-packed with features like a program that could run your power point presentation (and being a sort of power point master, I had to have that)!

Of course the day I lost the phone was also a memorable one. (After all, after I realized it was stolen, I replayed every bit of that day and that FX ride in my head, over and over!)

That semester, I was also teaching an MA class (which literally means, people usually older than me) and when my students noticed I was using a 5110, I disclosed I my 6260 was stolen. One of them, who wanted to make me feel better tried the philosophical approach: “ma’am, its not as if, it matters what cell phone we use. Its not like it’s our pagkatao (our own person, our essence, sense of self).” We looked at each other and I looked at my phone. We laughed and I whimpered: “Of course it does!”

So there. So I am my cell phone, am I? I’m a 5110. No matter how many times I drop it, its ok and everyone vouches for its reliability. Not too bad. Who am I kidding? No, really, I’m okay with it.

[As I post this entry, a friend and colleague, another lawyer got a cell phone stolen and emailed people about it. This makes me think I should have also written about how cell phones are like cash (liquid) in the Philippines, being convertible to quick money or traded around as fast as they get stolen! Maybe next time.]


Blogger PhilMADE said...

haaay... badtrip talaga mawalan ng phone... sakto ang blog ha... and ako din, third phone ko na ito na nawala... nakawala din ako nung katulad sa huli mong nawala..hahaha..

kainis talaga! unplanned gastos! bday ko pa naman sa Sunday (feb 4 - i-plug daw ba?hehehe), gandang pa-bday yun, mawalan ng cell...

anyways, hope to see you soon. Marami po sana ako ask. Need your insights and wisdom baga... hehehe...

11:22 PM  
Blogger PhilMADE said...

haaay... badtrip talaga mawalan ng phone... sakto ang blog ha... and ako din, third phone ko na ito na nawala... nakawala din ako nung katulad sa huli mong nawala..hahaha..

kainis talaga! unplanned gastos! bday ko pa naman sa Sunday (feb 4 - i-plug daw ba?hehehe), gandang pa-bday yun, mawalan ng cell...

anyways, hope to see you soon. Marami po sana ako ask. Need your insights and wisdom baga... hehehe...

11:22 PM  

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