Pakistan didn’t see it coming. The early 90’s insidiously ushered in a potent addiction which never made it to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). When the Y2K didn’t turn out to be a virtual apocalypse and Pakistan made it to the early 2000’s, this particular addiction was already too deeply rooted and quickly imbued in the culture for there to be any room for intervention. Different dealers package it under different names, and ‘cell’ it with various attractive freebies. Welcome to the world of the ‘debaucherous’, the invisible and the deprived, where mobile phones are one of the rare objects of everyone’s obsession.

A Brief History of the Addiction

In 1999, when Instaphone and Paktel were the popular networks in Pakistan and GSM was not part of the vernacular, the business man, the corporate executive, the spoilt heir, all flashed their bulky Ericsson flip phones with certain aplomb. Nowadays, if anyone’s going for the ‘look’, their only reassurance is that their domestic help, their 4 year-old’s nanny and the grandma aren’t carrying the same iPhone 4. Recently I walked into someone’s kitchen in Karachi to witness the cook talking to himself while working; oh no! It was his Bluetooth hands-free set that was hidden by his hair! By the way, I think there’s a huge downside to the cook, the driver, or the cleaning lady owning cell phones; taking advantage of them just keeps getting easier for the women who treat them like machines.

This restless hand syndrome (mobile addiction) has permeated from the urban to the rural; villages in Sindh that till recently didn’t have a source of electricity still managed roughly 3 cell phones per house! Is that an anomaly? It wouldn’t seem so since Mobilink, one of the leading GSM network providers, launched Mobilink Kisan. This service provides farmers with weather updates and produce rates at their fingertips. Telenor Pakistan, in conjunction with Tameer Microfinance Bank, has introduced branchless banking with the introduction of easypaisa.  For people living in remote villages where most banks see no profit in opening a branch, easypaisa will eventually allow people to transfer money to accounts locally and internationally; thought at the moment the services are limited to the payment of utility bills. All through the mobile phone!

The Present and Future of the Spreading Virus

Of course, where the rural population is benefiting the urban centers have all but exploded with the hyperbuzz of being connected to everyone, everywhere, at the same time. The question in 2011 is “what can’t you do with your cell phone?”  IPhones, Windows-based phones, Androids, Symbians; each operating system offers its own unique and cross platform applications for everything.  You can now become a photographer, a writer, a stock market trader or savvy political analyst; if you’ve got the right phone. All you need is a camera phone and GPRS and you can participate in real-time news streams, Facebook updates, tweets and blogs.  Young and old corporate employees are often seen juggling not one but two Blackberry’s in the name of business and personal use. Time-off no longer means no work; it’s just the new briefcase with homework.

But in an increasingly volatile urban environment, most people consider cell phones to be a constant safety blanket. Young women travelling alone at night will keep their mobile within reach; many stay on the phone to feel safer. Parents hand their young ones limited service mobiles as their children hop from one tuition to the next. Though ironically, in recent reports, security personnel have been noted to be extremely distracted texting and browsing.  With an increase in attacks at military and police security check posts, this mobile addiction seems to be a lapse in security waiting to explode (no pun intended!).

From the CEO to security guard; that amounts to plenty cell phones.  In 2000, Pakistan had some 300,000 mobile users, now it boasts 90 million mobile users. The upside? These numbers garner investments; Polar Wireless, a Canadian company, has signed an exclusive distribution contract with Karachi-based Hasan Associates for Pakistan and the UAE. These numbers bring opportunities to fingertips (worn smooth with furious texting) that ten years ago were a dream and continent away. And of course, at the same time these numbers also encase each person in a bubble where in a room full of people, the glowing LED indicator is the only thing demanding attention.