Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff


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.

How To Handle Your Communicator With Style

Nc-00I wrote a couple of weeks back in the WSJ (subscription only, sorry) about the Nokia Communicator (aka The Brick) and its enduring popularity in Indonesia, where it plays important role as fashion symbol, ostentatious and yet deliverable gift to impressionable officials and, where necessary, hand combat weapon. What I found difficult to capture in print are the distinctive, and distinct, ways in which Indonesian users carry, hold, or use their Communicators. It’s a subculture of its own that deserves a grant or two.


Luckily while I was in Surabaya, where the conference of Nokia Communicators was held, I stumbled upon a National Leadership Meeting of Gapeknas (a horrible website, I don’t recommend you visit it. Gapeknas is the acronym for Gabungan Pengusaha Kontraktor Nasional, or National Contractors’ Association) where the photos outside captured better than I could these important behavioural indicators.

First off, usage. As illustrated by our Gapeknes model, Communicator users are most likely to be found hunched over their open devices, the right hand cradling the buttons on the right hand of the screen, the left resting somewhere near the ‘A’ key, either about to fire off a deal-making SMS message or else trying to figure out how to to turn the unit on.

Nc-02When not in use, the unit can either be placed on the table in front of you, usually closed but at an angle in case the above action needs to be perfomed in a hurry. Alternatively, if engaged in conversation, the user can hold the device in his or her right hand, the keyboard facing inwards (see picture). This ensures that a) the device is visible at all times to the interlocutor, b) it can serve to emphasise any points the owner should choose to make, by raising the device around while being careful not to knock over any of the ubiquitous glasses of water found at such events, or, c) the unit can be deployed as a weapon should the conversation get heated.

Nc-03Finally, when mobile, the device is best inserted in a leather holster (provided) attached to one’s belt. The holster can be as ostentatious as one likes, since much of the value of the Communicator lies in its visibility. Holsters can be horizontal (see picture) or vertical. The important thing is that they should not be hidden by outer garments, and the user must be practised in removing them quickly, in case, for example, of passing through metal detectors or comparing them with fellow enthusiasts.

Nc-04Lastly, I mentioned in the piece that Nokia was successful at the convention — the biggest ever gathering of Communicator users, they say — at getting everyone to stand on their seats and wave their devices around in the air in exchange for prizes (more holsters). Here’s a picture, courtesy of Nokia, of them doing it. I particularly like the blue glow given off by the units’ displays, and, the fact that only a pregnant woman and an elderly, somewhat baffled, gentleman on the left, aren’t joining in. Clearly not die-hard Communicator users.


Are Watches Dangerous?

Bruce Schneier points to a Guardian story about watches being a security threat:

At Labour’s Brighton conference in the UK, security screeners are making people take their watches off and run them through the scanner. Why? No one seems to know.

Bruce rightly points to the absurdity of the idea of a watch being a terrorist weapon — or a timer for one — but to me the bigger problem is about having security personnel check something without them knowing what they’re checking for. What is the point of instructing personnel to get civilians to take off their watch and put it through a security X-ray when they don’t actually know why they’re doing it?

It reminds me of the security officers in my country of abode, Indonesia, waving their metal detectors around the inside of a car without having a clue about what they’re doing. The longstanding joke is they’re testing to see whether the wand detector is on or not. “It’s beeping. It’s working. Great. Thanks for letting me check. You’re free to go now.”