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Slaves to technology
Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2018

By Raffique Shah
April 11, 2018

At the recent launch of its newest smart-phone, Samsung's sales manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, Terry Weech, was asked what was the best feature of the Galaxy S9. Without hesitation, he said, "The camera!" He proceeded to promote the US $1,000-plus device's 12- megapixel camera that captures photographs and videos that are "comparable with the quality used by media houses", but said hardly a word about its communications prowess and other features that might propel me to hobble off to the nearest mobile phones dealer and buy one.

And I sat in my chair and wondered…

I envisaged hundreds, maybe thousands, of Trinis, for whom the brand-name and model of their mobile devices, status symbol that they are, rushing off to acquire this newest gizmo. Leading the pack will be members of the nouveau riche, as well as the not-so-rich who will borrow money to buy such gadgets, only to keep up appearances. I thought of owners of Samsung's main competitor, Apple's IPhone8, who might be tempted to give up the latter's highly-touted "smartest chip ever" and wireless charging feature, switching from brand USA to brand Korea, much to Donald Trump's dismay.

Most of all, though, I thought of how consumers across the world have been enslaved by technology, mesmerized by speed, conditioned into buying gadgets with features they will hardly, if ever, use. But captured by clever marketing, they buy and spend, creating and further enriching members of the 2,000-plus world billionaire's club, and widening to rich-poor gap to dangerous distances that can only be bridged by very violent implosions.

I am not dismissing technological advances that have revolutionised global communications over the last 50 years, but more innovatively during the past 20 years. Given that the first computer, all 1,800 square feet of metals and electronics, was commissioned the year I was born (1946), we have come a long way, baby.

Information and communication technology really took flight in the mid-1970s with the advent of the personal computer (PC), and soared when Toshiba introduced its first laptop in 1985. I should add, for the benefit of those who may deem me a technology dinosaur, I was among the first wave of journalists who were equipped with the Toshiba marvel. Not only did I use it to write my stories and commentaries on Microsoft Word, but I also mastered a database programme, pre-Excel, that I used to computerise the marathon entries and results.

I also acknowledge that the advent of the mobile phone in the mid-1990s (starting with the Nokia 1011), and the world wide web (www) in 1989, altered forever the way we access information and communicate with each other. No one can deny that the rapid advances since those virtually pre-historic days have made life easier even as the new technologies have simultaneously opened a Pandora's box for trolls, "sickos", and seemingly legitimate enterprises (like Cambridge Analytica) to stalk and steal from billions of people who use the Internet unmindful of the reality that it is a very public domain in which privacy does not exist.

More to the theme of today's column, the literal explosion in ownership and usage of mobile phones and other devices has opened opportunities for technology wizards and their companies to build multi-billion-dollar empires that feast off people's propensity to purchase devices they do not need or will hardly ever use.

For example, journalists and many professionals need to be informed of developments in their respective fields, hence their need for "smart phones" with WiFi or wireless access to the Internet. Students who conduct research also require such technology, hence the devices.

But why do ordinary people spend money on these expensive gadgets? To "macco" what scandals are trending on Facebook and other anti-social websites that prey on people's stupidity?

In case you did not know it, let me give you some startling data on our abusage of mobile devices and related technologies-these from the Telecommunication Authority of Trinidad & Tobago. In a population of 1.4 million, there are two million mobile phone subscribers! Given that there may be approximately 300,000 children under age 12, who presumably do not own phones, the data, which is based on the actual number of phones for which subscribers pay the providers, we can safely conclude that on average, each subscriber owns two mobile phones.

Assuming that each phone cost TT $1,000—and that's a low average—Trinis will have spent $2 billion or more, all in foreign currencies, to purchase them.

According to TATT, for the year ending September 2017, mobile-phone subscribers paid providers (TSTT, Digicel) $2.3 billion. That, for talking, texting or "maccoing" the anti-social sites, is close to 50 percent of what we spend on food, which we moan about. Separately, we spend around $1 billion a year on Internet services, and another $730 million on pay television (cable or wireless).

The TATT has no way of monitoring consumers' usage of and subscriptions to online entertainment and communications sites like Netflix, FaceTime and Whatsapp, some of which are pay-sites, in US dollars, of course.

Overall, per annum, Trinis spend at least $5 billion on these services. Of this, maybe 30 percent can be considered essential. Talk, and generally "playing the ox" in cyberspace, is definitely not cheap.

But we eagerly pay up without complaining, slaves to technology that we are.

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