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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.
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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)
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Only if you close the lid on one.

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A Phone, and More

There's still some question whether there are more cellphone "haves" than "have-nots" around the globe -- even with more than one cellphone for every two people. This apparent contradiction is created by overachievers. There are at least 30 nations with more cellphones than population.

Why? Well, some of these places, like Aruba, are unusual in that they attract affluent tourists who activate local phones. Others, like the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Jersey, are offshore banking havens where who-knows-who does who-knows-what.

But high on the list are substantial countries like Israel and Italy. Mark Donovan, a senior analyst for M:Metrics, says the best explanation he's been given -- "and I don't think they're pulling my leg" -- is that some people are willing to go to very great trouble to keep their public lives separate from their private lives. And also their private lives from their extremely private lives. Think of how difficult getting dressed in the morning must be for these people. Your BlackBerry goes in one pocket, your family phone into that other pocket, your girlfriend phone goes someplace else and then where do you put your other girlfriend phone?

Mobile phones nonetheless continue to get hooked up at a rate of more than 1,000 a minute, so it's reasonable to wonder what a world looks like in which everybody has at least one pocket with a cellphone.

Raising the question of what you mean by "cellphone."

"Smart phones," as the multi-talented ones are now called, take, send and receive pictures and videos, text messages and e-mail, allow "American Idol" voting, provide games, access the Web and play music.

"They're the device that eats everything," says Donovan.

With a Global Positioning System, they know where you are. By recognizing your voice they can give you directions to where you want to be. With accelerometers, they can determine how your body is moving. If you're standing still for several minutes and it's 7 p.m., you're probably giving some thought to dinner. The plan is for the phone to understand and spontaneously offer recipes. Or reservations.

Who is the largest camera maker in the world? Nokia. Who is the largest manufacturer of music devices in the world? Nokia. Who is buying the company that provides the map data behind Mapquest? Nokia.

"The mobile phone has the potential to be your wallet," says Ling. "There's almost nothing in your wallet that you can't put in mobile phones. Pictures of children, credit cards, bus tickets -- just go through your wallet. What about the water bottle in your purse? Well, not that. But almost everything else you carry in your purse. Swiss Army knife is a nice metaphor."

And sure enough, Nokia and Visa have tested a cellphone that works like a credit card. All you have to do is wave it at a reader and go.

"It's a natural progression. There are more mobile phones in the world today than plastic cards. We see this as a good marriage," Paul Jung, Visa Asia-Pacific's regional head for emerging products and technologies, told the Associated Press.

Because an iPhone now has more processing power than did the North American Air Defense Command in 1965, the functions of smart phones are limited only by imagination.

Around Cambridge, England, bicycle couriers with global-positioning-equipped cellphones monitor air pollution. "They cycle around the city as usual and we receive the data over the cellphone network," Eiman Kanjo, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, told New Scientist magazine. "We can find out what pollutants people are exposed to and where."

Scientists at Purdue want to network the nation with millions of cellphones equipped with radiation sensors to detect terrorists trying to assemble dirty bombs.

Google's two biggest research projects -- with the most people and funding -- involve machines that understand speech and those that can translate languages, according to Peter Norvig, Google's director of research. "We wanted speech technology that could serve as an interface for phones," he told the journal Technology Review.

At the other end of the scale, dog-collar cellphones are now available. Not only can you tell your kibble-burner to "Come home, dammit" (the phone automatically connects after one ring), but you can track Arfo as he waltzes through the neighbors' azaleas.

"Mobile phones are more than utilitarian. They are an important means of self-expression," says Donovan. "There are 17 different colors of Motorola Razr. In Asia, there are mobile phone charms -- a Hello Kitty doll, a skull -- a physical thing that sets you apart."

This is true. Think charm bracelet, only tackier. For $1.90 you can get a small piece of plastic to hang from your phone that is an uncanny replica of a fatty piece of Braised Pork in Brown Sauce.

"All the Hollywood celebrities have Sidekicks bejeweled with crystals," Donovan continues. "Recently, you have the high-end luxury phone line. Nokias with $100,000 worth of rubies by Vertu. Demonstrating how these things have transcended mere technology, there is a Prada phone, a Ferrari phone, a Versace phone."

Control, Out of Control

You can look at a honeybee for as long as you like and never guess that a large collection of them would transform into an entirely different kind of organism -- a hive -- with astonishing capabilities.

Just so, what emerges when intensely personal and insanely powerful pocket gadgets allow more than half of all people on Earth to connect for the first time? Is this a tipping point?

"At some point your society gets so big that it's plainly different than a hunter-gatherer village. This is a threshold you only pass a few times in the history of life, when you build something that looks like a superorganism," says Robert Wright, author of "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny."

"All of these technologies have the potential to make human social groups more efficient 'superorganisms' on larger and larger scales. Corporations today are bigger and more efficient than they were 50 years ago. They're more responsive to change in a shorter time and cover more ground because of these sorts of technology. They are more vividly like organisms.

"But the implications are that terrorists can be multinational. In the long run these technologies have the capacity to bring social order on a larger scale. But in the short run, the tendency is towards turbulence. China is dealing with this in particular. Cellphones play a role in protests and riots. They make crowds seemingly spontaneously appear.

"Are you more free or less? Both. You're less confined to a single space. But ultimately it feels pretty damn tethered. That network of e-mail correspondence that you have to respond to. You give people your cellphone number so they can reach you at any time. You're choosing to build this prison. But it is a prison.

"And remember, there is this creepy underside to the superorganism metaphor. It was always thought to have a kind of fascist or totalitarian overtone. That turns out to be wrong. The control is not central. But it does feel like control."

Wright muses about adults in this new world: "An organism only gets to new levels occasionally. I wonder, has it ever seemed to any other generation that this is just a different world than the one you knew in adolescence?"


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