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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Discourse 222 GSM

Friday Discourse 222
Dr. Aliyu Tilde


Due to an unavoidable incident, this column could not feature in the past two weeks. In its last article, the column discussed agriculture and technology as part of the series that intends to highlight the impact and prospects of technology on our lives. Today, we are set to discuss how the GSM in particular is changing our lives for the better in this country.
Let us begin with King Solomon in his encounter with the Bilkis, the Queen of Sheba, because to my knowledge it represents one the fastest executed communications in ancient times. Certainly, the Hoopoe bird, al-Hudhud – did not carry a GSM; otherwise, it would have reported its findings about the Queen to Solomon instantly before returning late and running the risk of the King’s punishment. Or it would have quietly sent an SMS text to him, narrating everything about the Queen, her Kingdom and, possibly, her GSM number. Their majesties would have communicated live even before the bird returned to Solomon’s court. In that case the royal bird would not have suffered a returned journey to Sheba, carrying Solomon’s letter to Her Majesty, for which an SMS text would suffice. The only aspect of that narration which still appears too advanced for our age is how “the one who had knowledge of the book” fulfilled his promise and brought her magnificent throne to Solomon “within a twinkle of an eye.”
Three weeks ago, you may think I went a bit mental because I left my village early in the morning carrying all the electrical and electronic equipment I possessed: torchlight, digital address book, notepad, television, telephone, camera, video recorder and player, radio, alarm clock, stopwatch, calendar, computer, telegraph machine, walkie talkie, GPS, and calculator. Unfortunately, within few minutes, I lost all these to the people of the underworld.
Oh my reader! You must have felt sorry for me. Perhaps you are even contemplating writing an email to me expressing your sympathy. Thank you. Amma mai da wukar! I did not lose much, and thousands of Nigerians are losing these tools in every unblessed day whenever they lose a handset. All the above equipment are today compressed into that small devise which has reduced the hustles of life for many, and connected millions of others with civilization. One could imagine the cost of acquiring all the above listed equipment in the past, even as late as the 1980s. He really needed to be a multimillionaire. But the following day, with N20,000.00, I was able to acquire another set.
Before we start listing the opportunities that GSM communication provides, let us tarry on how the devise has emancipated us from the tyranny of NITEL, our national landline carrier. I will not forget that morning in Jos, in 1997, when many NITEL subscribers gathered at its headquarters, as was the daily routine throughout the country. Everybody there came complaining about the fault with his line or about the discrepancy in his bill. It was the fifth day for me in just a week; yet, nothing came out of the effort. I shook my head and told another subscriber sitting by that very soon this frustration will come to an end. Very soon, I reiterated, none of us will have any business being here to complain of anything; very soon the mobile satellite phone will arrive. And it did come. Today, Nigerians like me are relieved of that frustration forever.
With the GSM we can reach out to any part of the world, without the IDD of NITEL, the International Direct Dial on which the national carrier once demanded a deposit of N200,000.00 from each subscriber! For those of us who could not pay, certainly we did not miss the queues at the NITEL headquarters booths. We can now text friends overseas; we can speak to them from the comfort of our bedrooms without stepping an inch outside.
GSM has made the world more horizontal, more flat than it was. With its help, I can today monitor my cows that are kilometers away from me in the bush. I can say good morning to them and bid them goodnight in the evening. I will receive an order of yoghurt from Bauchi or Kano and immediately dial the GSM numbers of various herdsmen, demanding specific liters of milk when they milk the following morning. In the same way, they can subscribe to the instant service of a vet anytime they suspect a problem with any of the animals. That MTN advert on NTA of a herdsman from my village has become a reality. I wonder why the communist did not invent this egalitarian tool before.
The most important contribution of GSM phone service is its conquest of both space and time, smashing cultural, political and economic barriers on its way. I always tease girls that they are very cheap today. I remember the days we used to wear our best costumes and trek kilometers to the next village just to catch a glance at the girl we were courting. We would carry along with us presents of various kinds. On arrival we had to send someone to inform her of our presence. Enthused by our unexpected visit, she will in turn take her time to prepare for the meeting, coming along with a friend. She will stand yards away from us, and always too shy to say anything, leaving us or the friend who accompanied her to do most of the talking. It was then that girls knew who truly loved them, because, as the saying goes, the foot, among all organs of the body, does not lie at all. Those girls belonged to the class of gwamma malama, who, according to Shata, was like an anthill rodent that was difficult to dig out but whose meet was sweet.
Today, those days of innocence are gone. Girls are no longer that expensive. With a credit of only N25 in your phone, the voice of the girl can be heard aloud for a whole minute, without seeking any permission. Sometimes, she makes the call and does most of the talking. Oh girls of today! You are too cheap. You are rodents or the rubbish mound, which is cheap to dig but whose meat, according to Shata, should be discarded for its bitterness. That is why my Mary is different. She insists that I have to play the game by its old rules, hence preserving the sweetness of our relationship. She has a firm grasp of Adam Smith’s positive correlation between the labor of acquiring a commodity and its market value.
On the plane of logistics, GSM has made work easier for both the noble and the wicked. A parent can track the movement of his child, especially with the GPRS service now available in some countries; an employee can reach out to clients and masters; a customer or retailer can order for a product without traveling any distance; politicians can reach out to their constituencies and supporters easily; radio listeners can express their opinions live in programs like the BBC’s ‘have your say’, or ra’ayoyin masu sauraronmu, or FRCN’s hannu da yawa; and, of course, even armed robbers, as do security agents, can coordinate their operations more efficiently than before.
In all the above, we are most likely to emphasize the physics of GSM and overlook its economics. Admittedly, it makes things easier and faster; less work and less energy, as Isaac Newton would admit; but more importantly, Adam Smith will add, it makes the capital more efficient by using just N15.00 of credit card in place of N50,000.00 of flight ticket. Less people travel on our killer roads today than ten years ago and the number will continue to subside. And by extension, less Nigerians are exposed to the hazard of road travels: fatal accidents and armed robbery.
On the political plane, the GSM is a veritable tool for cultivating awareness, improving vigilance and expression of opinion. Perhaps, Obasanjo should enlist the GSM as one of the armies that fought against his third term agenda, not as one of his achievements. Messages against the President and his agenda were flying the air daily, and free media houses, like those broadcasting from overseas, were daily broadcasting short messages of listeners who were overwhelmingly critical to his inordinate ambition.
Just two weeks ago, I was assuring a herdsman who gave me a lift on his motorbike that rigging election, which he was bitterly complaining about to me during that ride, would not be possible in the near future. I told him that just as he never dreamt of owning the means of communicating with the outside world before from his hut in the bush but which he does now easily via GSM, one day, communication technology will dispossess any cheat the capacity to rig elections. Then, ‘read only’ election results will be sent through global satellite cells from polling stations to state and national headquarters of INEC. There will be no need to cease the return sheets of an agent or changing them thereafter. I assured him that this will happen during his lifetime, and this is the type of warning signals that technology is today issuing to imprudent politicians.
Another area that GSM could improve in our lives as Nigerians is crime control. I wonder why still thousands of Nigerians have to lose their lives to armed robbers or at roadblocks, in spite of availability of GSM signal on most of our highways. Except in Lagos, no roadblocks are required to check crime anymore. One or two may be maintained at borders between states for collection of revenue or checking contraband goods and so on when necessary. All that is needed to curtail highway robbery is good coordination and mobility, not checkpoints that have become death traps and avenues of corrupt practices.
GSM service providers can also help by providing valuable information to law enforcement agencies on the location of criminals. If armed robbers would raid a house and, as they often do, cart away with handsets, the service providers could aid investigations by providing the numbers called using each of those handsets even where the SIM cards of their original owners are discarded since every handset carries an identity number that serves as its fingerprint and which is registered by the service provider’s machine immediately it links with its network at first instance. Where the SIM is not discarded but used by the thief, it all becomes pretty easy, for the numbers called will be registered and printed out by the service provider. When they activate their GPRS, service providers can even tell the location of the handsets.
Unfortunately, so far, the attitude of GSM service providers has been very discouraging in this regard. They will demand a High Court order and ultimately when it is provided they will fail to comply with it. Understandably, they are trying to run away from the responsibility of providing such information on daily basis to the police or from losing their customers who will feel that their privacy is not secured. But if they will cooperate for even six month, thieves will stop stealing handsets and people like me will never have felt the loss of hundreds of telephone addresses and other valuable personal data.
Now, every advantage has a price. The GSM has made our lives less private than we would wish. I remember receiving a disturbing hate SMS message late one night. It was then I realized that my handset is part of my privacy and so it is safer to limit the circulation of its number. Numbers become prevalent after sometime. And for some Nigerian public servants this could be sickening. I have since adopted a policy of changing my numbers seasonally to enable me some degree of privacy. For those with criminal intention, their use of GSM certainly makes them vulnerable as information about their movements could finally be traced using global positioning devices. We also have the experience of how the Russians and Israeli intelligence agencies used satellite phones to kill prominent freedom fighters in Chechnya and Palestine respectively. The same may happen here. The fact that every conversation or data sent on the GSM could be recalled and printed would make governments, like that of Mr. Bush, peep into the privacy of individuals at liberty. Under that pressure, our darling – the GSM – will, against its will, betray our trust.
What impact will this ease in communication have on public morality is, in my opinion, left to the prudence of the individual. Every devise could be put to use positively or negatively. A knife could be used for domestic purpose as well as for a criminal one. And so is the gun, VHS recorder, camera and even scholarship. The GSM is as innocent as any of these; it could be a morally neutral tool if its user decides so. But whatever would be our decision on it, the GSM is a product of the technological society, and, as we said in our first article in this series, it will not retreat. It will only advance and conquer more our social space, challenging our cultures and opening million gates of opportunities for us.
Though we may not be blessed, as was one of the courtiers of King Solomon, with “knowledge of the book” that will enable us transport cargoes and luggage from afar, we are nevertheless contented with the GSM, regarding it as our modern camel that will, as God would say, carry our loads of information, within seconds, “to lands that we could not otherwise reach except with souls distressed. Surely, our Lord is Most Kind, Most Merciful.”

6 July 2006

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