At a recent conference, I listened to an Indian entrepreneur talking about the importance of mobile phones in his country, which with around 900 million active accounts is exceeded only by China’s one billion. The totals involved are staggering. Yet mobile communications are revolutionary in a country like India, he argued, precisely because they permit people to pull each other individually out of the crowd, not because they allow them to join it.
The most important features of a mobile phone in nations like India aren’t internet access, cameras, music, storage or email; they’re the practical necessities of good battery life and an integrated flashlight, for when both mains power and light are in short supply. Similarly, from traders in flower markets to businessmen keeping in touch with distant relatives, what matters most of all in communications terms is being able to get hold of the small number of people closest to you, personally and professionally; and ensuring that your interactions with them are reliable, exclusive, unobtrusive and secure. The rest – Facebook and the wonders of the world wide web included – is largely detail.
Consider this: why is it so many of us find it so stressful to be without our mobile phones, even for a short time? To answer this question accurately, it’s worth posing a related, if more macabre, query: why is a fully charged mobile phone the item people most request to have buried alongside them in a coffin?
The answer in the second case is that they desperately want to be able to make a phone call or send a message at what might just be their time of greatest need. Similarly, our great attachment to mobile devices in daily life isn’t about random messages from people we don’t care about – it’s because we want to be able to make or to take that crucial call, the as-yet-unknown interaction with someone close to us that might signify marvellous or appalling news.
Technology’s greatest claim on us, here – and it is a claim that is increasingly making mobile phones more like an extension of our minds and bodies than a mere tool – is its promise of constant connection to our innermost network.
It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.