Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
February 13th, 2008

Another Cell Phone Milestone

I have written several columns about cell phones in the past. Each one was due to milestones of growth. The speed of growth in the use of cell phones continues to be astounding. It was announced last week by the International Telecommunication Union that the number of total global cell phone subscribers will exceed the number of non-subscribers for the first time in 2008.

When you stop and think about it, this is nothing less than amazing. This means that more than half of all human beings alive today have cell phones. That includes all children, all the elderly, all the people living in poverty around the world, all the people living in underdeveloped countries and all those living in remote areas of the world where there is no cell phone use. Of course there are a number of people in the U.S. and elsewhere that have more than one cell phone, but that is a very small percentage of total users.

In 2006, when doing research on my forthcoming book and for speeches I deliver, the latest projections at that time suggested that this 50% threshold would not be crossed until 2010 at the earliest. This time compression of projected growth of electronic connectedness has become a familiar experience to me. In addition to cell phone subscriber projections there has been an almost constant upward estimation of Internet users and terabytes of content coursing through the Internet. Research conducted on these growth projections has to be regularly revisited.

We get overwhelmed with this type of rapid growth so that we think that the hard to conceive speed of growth we are living through is as fast as it can get. We then take that rate and project it into the future. Two years later we find that we have underestimated how fast accelerated growth is. We always think that it has to slow down, but it never does. We are racing toward an ever more connected and immediate world.

I believe that this dynamic is moving us to a singularity in connectivity. We are literally erasing time and distance from human communication. If one had the appropriate calling plan from a cellular carrier and one had the phone numbers of the 3 billion people who have cell phones one could immediately connect with that many people at any time, wherever they are. That potential, that growing possibility is unlike anything that has ever existed in human history. In the short time since 1985, humanity has gone from place based phone connectivity for hundreds of millions to mobile connectivity for billions.

Cell phone technology, unlike most other technologies, is a leap frog technology. What that means is that it allows people and countries to leap over some of the historical infrastructure process of development experienced by the countries in the developed world that moved from agricultural, to industrial, to information age and now to shift age societies. Telephone growth was based upon the laying of cable and the stringing of wires; a geographical, wired growth. While the U.S., Europe and Japan went through this sequence of growth, developing countries such as India and China did not. In those two countries, a lot of the industrial to information age development was leap frogged.

Sure, the growth of the Internet has made the laying of cable imperative around the world, but now with the growth of broadband wireless, even that is being leap frogged. When you combine that development with the present and soon to be accelerated growth of Internet access via smart phones the future can be clearly seen. Ever more powerful hand held devices that start to resemble computers combined with ever growing wireless bandwidth creates something that has only been present in science fiction. Humanity has portable, fits in the pocket computing power that also allows us to be all connected.

We all get caught up in the convenience, speed, always available aspect of this development as we talk, type and view content. However, as Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message”. What he meant was that the fact that tens of millions of people were watching television at one time was a more important reality than whatever it was they were watching. This is now true with cell phones and wireless devices. The fact that 3 billion people are now connected with always on connectivity is a fact that is more significant that what they are communicating. It changes the environment in which we live. It is a new environment.

Cell phones are transformative. The cell phone is the global technology. It is one of the key forces that have brought us to the global stage of human evolution. We have created cell phones and they are now one of the forces creating our new world.

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  • AJ Swenson

    Great post. The statistic you posted is fasinating. It is no longer such a big world now, with the growing technology, making the ability to communicate with others so easy. Intriguing posts as always.

  • Celisa Steele

    The stat that opens this posting is arresting.

    Here’s a Forbes.com piece from the end of October 2007–I really like the interactive map that breaks down cell phone adoption rates by geographic areas.

    http://www.forbes.com/2007/10/25/mobile-market-subscription-technology-personaltech-cz_1025mobilemap.html

  • The freedom to communicate with anyone from everywhere has led to what I have described and written about as
    The Chattering Society(and now world) Besides making
    driving more hazardous it rearranges how we use up our
    finite time. The big question is whether it advances
    or hinders the quality of relations between human
    beings -both family and non-family- and whether its effect is to unite people in the world or divide them.
    It is still hard to tell the consequences of this
    enormous evolution shift. Please stay tuned.

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