Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

IMG_20100831_202009-1

There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Brain Withdrawal

I’m really getting into using PersonalBrain, the newly launched version of a decade-old program that should have swept the world by now. But there’s a downside to relying on one piece of software so much: When it goes wrong, you’re adrift.

Luckily the guys at PersonalBrain are looking into it, but I had to stop using mine about 24 hours ago when I noticed weird things happening. My brain is now on their operating table and I’m praying I’ll get it back soon because I just have no appetite to do anything meaningful without it.

PersonalBrain fills that hole I’ve often felt existed between having ideas, finding snippets of information or encountering websites, companies, people and books I encounter in my day. Before I would not know quite where to put them so I could find them when I needed them, and invented dozens of systems to try to solve the problem. None worked very well, because they all relied on me remembering what I’d added and where.

As you may have found, most of what we know doesn’t fit neatly into a structure — that PR guy we met last night? Should we put him under PR, or the companies he handles, or the fact that actually he was much more interesting on credit card fraud, and he could definitely be lured out on a date with one of the legions of single females we seem to know?

And what about that idea you had in the bath this morning, where you wondered aloud whether the plethora of news stories on global warming was evidence of a) a sudden increase in global warming, b) a sudden increase in journalists’ interest in global warming, c) a sudden increase in editorial commitment to educate the public about global warming d) a pathetic hope on the part of editors that global warming stories may sell more papers or e) a sort of new tacit agreement between media and public that now we all agree that climate change is happening, we need to be reminded of how clever we are? If you’re not sure, where are you going to put that in your database? Future media? Future of newspapers? Cynical ploys? Global warming? Great ideas you have in the bath that don’t sound so great when you’re not?

The answer: with PersonalBrain you can put it anywhere, and, more importantly, have a higher chance of finding it again. Quickly PB envelopes your processes and shifts them into a different gear. Which is why it’s sooooo hard to function when your file gets corrupted and needs to go in for surgery. (Yes, it’s worrying that software can do this, but we should have gotten used to it by now. I’d much rather there was software that wasn’t perfect but which reached for the stars than some more basic mush that always worked but never transformed how I worked.)

So. I’m brainless, gormless, mindless, whatever you want to call it until the doctors call. Next time I’m going to back up my brain every hour and hope this doesn’t happen again. But I’m excited, too, that I care enough about a piece of software and how it can help me that I feel so bereft. I haven’t felt like this since Enfish Tracker Pro.

Update: An all nighter by the PersonalBrain people and my brain is back, fixed and missing half a dozen thoughts (out of 7,000). I’ve been assured the problem is being investigated and future versions of the software will include an automatic backup option each time the program is closed.

Loose Bits, Nov 28 2006

From my PR intray, some surprisingly interesting little odds and ends:

LocalCooling is a 100% Free power management tool from Uniblue Labs that allows users to optimize their energy savings in minutes and as a result reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. The software “automatically optimizes your PC’s power consumption by using a more effective power save mode. You will be able to see your savings in real-time translated to more evironmental terms such as how many trees and gallons of oil you have saved.”

Sim CityElectronic Arts Inc. today announced SimCity for mobile, which “lets mobile phone users create and manage the growth of a living city in the palm of their hands. Originally created by Will Wright, SimCity is now available on major U.S. carriers.” Not sure how this works, as there’s nothing yet on EA’s site. It does sound a bit like milking a cash cow or is it flogging a dead horse? 

free spam filterCyberDefenderFREE is “a full internet security suite that can operate  standalone, or complement existing security software to add an existing layer of early-alert security to the desktop.” As far as I can work out, this is a competitor to Windows Defender although it seems to include a collaborative element, where users report either manually or automatically dodgy software and sites they’ve come across. I think.

Model Presidents, And An Updateable Heirloom

I’m a huge fan of The Atlantic Monthly, but sometimes I suspect it’s less for the articles and more for the ads. This month’s edition, for example, has two notable products up for grabs.

First, there’s the Toypresidents, limited edition 12″ talking action figures which are “not just electable, but collectable” (“Each collectible comes with its own individually numbered Certificate of Authenticity”). The ad in the mag includes a figure who could be more or less anyone, but turns out to be Bill Clinton. He says things like “Education is a critical national security issue and politics must stop at the school-house door”.

For $30 one is yours. Who would want one of these things? Apart from me, I mean. As the Christian Science Monitor reported last week, the dolls “demonstrate an American adage”: If you make it, someone will buy it.

That may well go for globes currently being advertised by Eureka Globes, which are both antique-looking enough to qualify as “heirloom quality” but also, apparently, “updateable” (“A removable pin releases the globe from the meridian for easy replacement”). Nothing like an heirloom that you can pass onto your grandchildren, confident that they can easily update it to reflect changes in geopolitical boundaries, loss of land-mass to global warming, etc etc..

Warm Your Coffee With USB

Not a lot of interesting stuff to report today so I thought I would offer you this (not particularly new, but still cutting-edge) gadget for USB port: a coffee warmer. AkibaLive reports the Sunbeam USB-bus powered coffee warmer will “keep your coffee warm at a temperature of around 40 degrees Celsius for 120 minutes. The device can fit any size coffee cup, comes with a power on/off switch and is made of high quality insulation material so you won’t get burned. Oh, and it doesn’t need a driver.

If you’re really serious about the issue of warming your coffee, here’s the company webpage showing a chart comparing the temperature of your coffee with or without a USB-bus powered coffee warmer. The warmer comes in blue, white or yellow, along with a warning — Don’t touch the metal heat area — and a whacky catchphrase: “Warm your coffee or tea in a cool way!”

Sunbeam are actually way ahead of the pack on cool post-tech uses of the computer. I already have their USB-powered fan — “This nifty UB Fan is dvisable either to cool you on the way, in a stuffy meeting, or to protect your Notebook as an external cooler” — but am saving up to buy their desktop PC CD-drive replacement cigarette lighter which comes with the obligatory warning (“Please don’t touch the Cigarette Lighter after heated!”) and will, like all good cigarette lighters, also recharge handphones. To be honest, I’m still trying to work out when I would use this product, but that won’t stop me getting it.