Correction to This Article
This article on cellphones incorrectly said that a popular European ring tone is a recording of the prime minister of Spain saying to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, "Why don't you shut up?" The words were spoken by King Juan Carlos of Spain.

Our Cells, Ourselves

From essentially zero, we've passed a watershed of more than 3.3 billion active cellphones on a planet of 6.6 billion humans in about 26 years. (Julia Ewan - Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

The home is remote, even by Tibetan standards. Charming carvings cannot disguise how primitive it is. Not only does it have no toilet, it doesn't have an outhouse. Or even a designated hole in the ground. It does, however, boast one very great prize -- a ringing cellphone.


"That is exactly the question I kept asking," says Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, who is writing a book about "what technology wants." The house at which he stayed -- which featured a space under it to shelter the family dzo, a yak-cow hybrid -- was "probably as large as my own. So they could build shelters. But they didn't build toilets. Went in the barnyard, like their livestock. But man, they have better cellphone coverage than we do at home. Communication, not cleanliness, is next to godliness."

Apparently so. The human race is crossing a line. There is now one cellphone for every two humans on Earth.

From essentially zero, we've passed a watershed of more than 3.3 billion active cellphones on a planet of some 6.6 billion humans in about 26 years. This is the fastest global diffusion of any technology in human history -- faster even than the polio vaccine.

"We knew this was going to happen a few years ago. And we know how it will end," says Eric Schmidt, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Google. "It will end with 5 billion out of the 6" with cellphones. "A reasonable prediction is 4 billion in the next few years -- the current proposal is 4 billion by 2010. And then the final billion or so within a few years thereafter.

"Eventually there will be more cellphone users than people who read and write. I think if you get that right, then everything else becomes obvious."

"It's the technology most adapted to the essence of the human species -- sociability," says Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. "It's the ultimate tool to find each other. It's wonderful technology for being human."

Maybe. But do our mobiles now render us unprecedentedly free? Or permanently tethered?

* * *

Life was so simple back in January of 1982. This was when Washington's first 100 hand-held cellphones were put into service. The size of a Philly cheese steak, each weighed almost two pounds. An enterprising reporter took one up to the top of the Washington Monument.

"It ain't got no wires!" shouted an observant tourist, one Steve Cotov of San Diego.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company