(This article was co-written with Victoria Greenhalgh on April 19th, 1997 for publication in Mobile Latino America magazine, a UK magazine covering mobile phones in South America.)
It is readily apparent that cellular communications have become much more than a convenience to those who have them. Beyond the ability to remain “in touch” at any time of the day, anywhere you are ( within the limits of the cellular coverage areas, of course ), there lies the world of fashion and status. More and more we can see that mobile communication devices are seen as a status symbol. Owning a pager, cellular telephone or a personal digital assistant with communications features is a way to separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” It has now reached the level where, whether in business or in the world of the fashionably hip, not having a cellular phone is akin to not existing at all.
This is particularly so in those areas where mobile phones are a recent addition to society. In Indonesia, ladies out shopping have their maids call them every fifteen minutes, thus making them look important in the eyes of those around them as they hunt for bargains. Latin America is certainly not immune to the image boosting effect that posession of cellular phones can provide. During a recent police campaign in Chile against people using cellular phones while driving, over one third of those pulled over were using fake plastic phones to appear “important.” With increasing frequency, tables in cafes and night clubs are littered with mobile phones, the owners of which hardly speak to each other as they eagerly await the next call. How they can hear them ringing or even talk when they are in a loud, thumping night club is beyond the point. Simply having the devices on display is enough.
As a recent adopter of cellular communications, the Latin American market has seen its share of pagers and phones that, in the USA, Europe or Australia, would be seen as hopelessly out of date. The late entry of cellular communications in this area has allowed manufacturers to unload their old analogue systems that were no longer selling in other markets. While cellular phone companies in the United States were, towards the end of the analogue reign, giving away Motorola TAC II’s to all people who signed on, this has only recently started happening in Latin America. This is an indication that a transition is beginning here. Merely having a cellular telephone is no longer enough in the fashionable scene. When anyone on the street has the chance to get a mobile phone bundled with their account, those who want to differentiate themselves from the crowd have to go to the next level. Naturally, many start to ask themselves what comes next after mere possession?
Beyond having a cellular phone comes the two part thrust of style and technology. When everyone has a cellular phone ( well, everyone worth knowing, at least ), status is defined by those who have the most recent model, the best looking or most limited production unit or, in a direct challenge to the sexual environment, the smallest. In France, the leading fashion designers were creating limited edition mobile phones proudly displaying their names. While these were only intended for the Paris metropolitan area, similar concepts are certainly occuring here in Latin America. It is not uncommon for people to be able to purchase devices in many colours, allowing the sartorially concious to ensure that their entire outfit is co-ordinated, right down to the piece of technology continuously on their ear. Furthermore, customised accessories such as carry cases can be obtained to enhance the visual aspects of the humble phone.
For those who are not concerned with the fashion aspect, each year brings new products that offer more features, better reliability, longer battery lives and more compact cases. Having the latest digital phone that, in addition to simply letting you talk, can store your faxes, receive your pager messages and (maybe one day) help program your VCR, all while fitting comfortably inside your shirt pocket, can only help one’s status in the business world.
In some Latin American countries there is a definite drive towards modernism and keeping up with the cutting edge as defined by the USA and Europe. This is dramatically driving the fashion and status aspects of mobile communications ever upward. No longer is it just a nice house and good car that indicate when you’ve “made it” here, it is ensuring that in addition to having the latest, highest-tech and sexiest unit, so too do the rest of your family. In most other countries where cellular phone useage is taken for granted, people are considerate enough to turn their equipment off during concerts, recitals and speaches. In Latin America, the status symbol feeling is still quite active and to be demonstrated to everyone around whenever possible. At a recent poetry session in Buenos Aires, the dramatic recital of a pained monologue on the solitude of modern life was interrupted by the shrill cries of a mobile phone, demanding the attention not only of its owner, but of everyone present. It would appear that while the transition from mere possession to having the best available is occurring here, it may be some time before it is completed.