Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Mobile Connections

Sometime before the Portuguese economic crisis could get compounded to the even greater mess it is now in; when Portugal was seeking financial aid from the European Union and a right-wing Finnish political party threatened to block this possibility, a highly entertaining and enlightening video made its appearance. This video, which premiered at the Estoril Conferences, soon made its way to the internet, where it continues to educate the world about the Portuguese, their achievements and their idiosyncracies. Did you know, for example, that the Portuguese have more mobile phones that inhabitants?

It took a while to make sense of this bit of information. How could this be possible? Unlike the irrepressible human, mobile phones don’t just jump off the shelf and procreate. How then to explain this multiplication? The first logical step was to recognize that unlike in the ‘old days’ when a mobile phone was expensive, today even younger persons have the option to gain a mobile phone. But acknowledging this possibility does not indicate how the number of mobile phones outstrips the inhabitants (not just the Portuguese nationals) in the country. The easy answer it turned out was that almost every Portuguese has at least two mobile phones. Some even have three.

The easy question having been answered, the next question was why would any person want more than one phone? What earthly reason could motivate a person to collect phones in this manner? Was there some unique social need that the mobile phone was enabling? For example, as a conversation with a social activist in Goa pointed out, the mobile phone does meet a variety of social needs in Goa. In circumstances where physical privacy is hard to procure, and where romantic intimacy outside of marriage exists but is socially unacceptable, the mobile phone manages to provide the space that is not otherwise unavailable. If such is the case in Goa then, is it possible that the mobile phone is being put to similar use in Portugal? Could it be that there is one phone for use with the family, and another phone, whose number is handed out to paramours and the like, the existence of whom is unknown to the family?

Sadly it turns out, such flights of fancy cannot be sustained, given that the answer was once more or less straight forward. It turns out that there are around three major mobile phone service providers in Portugal; Optimus, TMN, Vodafone (listed in alphabetical order). Each of these service providers, in a bid to gain a large a share of the market as possible, offer schemes where for a little extra cash, one can speak for an unlimited amount to phones within the same service network. It turns out therefore, that when one has a large social network, and one wishes to be in touch with them all the time and not crimp on the amount of time spent on the phone, having more than one phone and enrolling in these loyalty schemes allows one to talk as much as possible.

There are other questions that emerge from this revelation. These are questions about what this kind of arrangement indicates about the Portuguese economy as well as society. One of the features of Portuguese society is the tight relations that exist not just among family, but among friend circles as well. Could the owning of multiple cell phones be another strategy through which Portuguese society innovatively harnesses technology and the market to maintain these kinds of solidarity networks? These however, are questions for another day.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 30 Oct 2011)

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