[iDC] mobile phone sociability

John Saccà aqueduc at gmail.com
Sun Jul 9 15:41:12 EDT 2006

On 09/07/06, Mark Shepard <mshepard at andinc.org> wrote:
> The Japanese word for mobile phone – keitai, roughly
> translated as "something you carry with you" – provides a clue to its
> role within Japanese culture.

Similarly, here in Egypt, one of the ways of saying "mobile phone" is
"telefoon mahmool" ("carried telephone"), though the English word
"mobile" is often used in everyday speech.

> These devices are used less often for voice communications
> than for asynchronic exchanges of text and images between close
> circles of friends or associates.

Here, people often send each other a text message, or call each other
briefly, just to make contact, to check up on each other.  One
Egyptian told me that for him, that was a sure sign of real
friendship: when someone calls you just to make sure you're OK.

Egyptians circulate jokes, rumours and bits of news via mobile phone
text messages the way Westerners circulate them via emails, by
forwarding them to everyone in their phone's address book.  Thus news
spreads via small networks of friends, and can spread very quickly
throughout the country.  In order to counteract the effects of
rumours, the Egyptian government has taken to sending out text
messages to all mobile phones.  For example, a few months ago, there
was a rumour that doctors were giving unsafe vaccinations to children,
and I received a (very brief) text message from the Ministry of Health
saying that the rumour was false.

I've heard that news of upcoming political demonstrations tends to
circulate in the same way here, whereas it seems to me that Western
activists tend to use the more centralised model of the mailing list.
I've also heard that the state monitors the mobile phone
communications of known activists, which explains why the police often
arrive at demonstrations before the demonstrators.

A recent Egyptian newspaper article (I can't seem to find it now)
compared the effect of mobile phones to the detrimental effect of
television on communication within families (family members sit
silently watching TV together instead of talking).  The article
suggested that, when people are in public places and thus surrounded
by others, they increasingly talk on their mobile phones instead of
talking to the people around them, to the point that communication
only occurs with people who are physically distant rather than with
people who are nearby.  This gives people the impression that they are
communicating more and more, while in fact they are isolating
themselves more and more.

Yet my subjective impression is that Egyptians are still very sociable
in a traditional sense: friends often call each other to arrange to
meet up.  In the evening, cafes here are full of groups of friends
sitting and talking, and the streets of Cairo are full of people
strolling together in small groups (I often see three or four people
all walking arm in arm), talking to each other rather than on their
mobile phones.


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