Cell phones save lives, help the poor tend the garden better

Africa transformed by cell phonesCell phones have the potential to transform our existence, as any parent of a teenager knows. There are benefits and costs to making cell phones are central part of our lives. Some of the dangers are not well-known, but neither are some of the benefits.

As cell phones become ubiquitous in the West, the dangers begin to be revealed. Environmentalists warn us of the dangers of improper disposal of cell phones (see this outstanding primer on the perils of e-waste), and of the dangers to wildlife and aesthetics (visual pollution?) from cell tower construction. Cell towers also cause nearby house prices to decline (though just by a little bit).

Cell phone radiation dangers have long been known, although the higher risk to children is becoming more apparent, and the Environmental Working Group has a great website that ranks currently-sold cell phones in terms of radiation danger. (I used the EWG database in picking out my last cell phone. I also now carry my phone in my pocket less frequently, and don’t keep it between my legs when driving, for what should be obvious reasons.)

A bigger danger than radiation is addiction—these little devices become yet another channel by which we plug into virtual worlds instead of real worlds.

A test for you: Can you take a technology Sabbath? Can you turn off cell phones, televisions, computers, video games for a whole day and find yourself connecting to God and his creation, your family and your neighbors? If we can’t do that once a week, or even once a month, we have to ask ourselves what kind of people we really are? Are we really still fully human, or are we becoming trans-human, combinations of flesh and technology? Do we want that?

Still, on the whole, I’d say cell phones help us do good things better and more efficiently. It would take a lot to make me give mine up.

Cell phones in the developing world

But in the non-Western world, cell phones are also transforming whole economies. Just this month in Scientific American, development expert Jeffrey Sachs writes about the role of mobile technology in fighting poverty. He highlights the usefulness of cell phone for community health workers with only basic training, but who can coordinate with hospitals, fight malaria, check to see if a doctor is available before transporting patients to a hospital, and determine proper courses of treatment by SMS text.

And there are environmental benefits from cell phone technology in developing countries, where mobile technology is making folks whose livelihoods depends directly on creation better off.

Farmers and fishermen are using cell phones to determine where they can get the best prices for their goods, before they transport them or land them in port. This leads to better prices for sellers AND for buyers. That makes a big difference in times of food shortage, since prices are high in famine regions, and sellers in surplus regions can make good money transporting their food to regions of scarcity. More food on the market in famine-stricken areas brings prices down—a classic market-based win-win situation facilitated by cheaper information. One study suggested cell phones already helped lessen impact of the 2005 food crisis in Niger.

Just as health information is available by text, making a database of short and long-term weather forecasts available by cell phone in the developing world will be a key strategy for climate-proofing smallholder agriculture, and helping poor farmers adapt to a changing climate system. Agricultural extension advice by SMS would be similarly helpful.

Conservation efforts are likewise being transformed by mobile technology. In Kenya, farmers are using PTT (Push-to-Talk) technology on mobile devices to alert ranchers when elephants are threatening their crops, reducing conflict making it more likely that elephants and people will be able to coexist on the landscape. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, timber companies are hammering tags with bar codes into legally-felled trees and then uploading their GPS coordinates into a live database, to ensure that tree-felling is done in accordance with environmental laws and with respect to property rights of indigenous people.

With companies like Nokia beginning to churn out very inexpensive handsets, soon mobile technology will be in the reach of the poor, if not yet the poorest of the poor.  Nokia has got a clear mission, and it isn’t to dominate the American smartphone market. Their smartest products are hardware and software tailored to the developing world market.

As Nathan Wyeth, editor of the website nextbillion.net writes, “[Nokia’s] new “1280” mobile sells for $30 before taxes, and if you live in energy poverty without access to electricity, it’s got apps for that: standby battery life of 22 days, an FM radio receiver, and a flashlight. Also, recognizing that handsets are frequently shared, it’s got capacity for up to five separate address books.” The company tries to keep the total cost of ownership down to get as wide a distribution as possible.

Sachs is hopeful that expert systems, running on inexpensive mobile networks, will “revolutionize rural farm yields, disease control, business networks, rural finance, education systems, and much more. Soon farmers will be able to enter local data for advice on specific soil needs, timing on the planting season, drought and rainfall forecasts, market prices, and logistics.”

Nokia, for example, is already beginning to expand a set of services called Life Tools, that provides Nokia cell phone users in India, and now in Indonesia, access to information about agriculture, including up-to-the-minute prices information and news about 275 different crops.

Wyeth figures the impact of cell phone technology, combined with inexpensive handsets, may be bigger than any other global development strategies currently in place.

And for poor people directly dependent on creation for their survival, that’s a good thing.

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