Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Asia puts faith in mobiles

Mobile phone use is growing across Asia

Mobiles phones are not usually seen in the West as a way of keeping in touch with God.
But the growing popularity of communication technologies is providing a way for people in Asia to express their faith, say researchers.

"What technology is doing is allowing people to continue their religious practices and expand them," said anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell.

"It suggests a completely different way of thinking about technology. In the West, we have traditionally held technology and religion apart from one another."

Faith on hand

Dr Bell has spent the past two years travelling around Asia, looking at how people are using technology in their daily lives.

For her research, she visited 100 homes in seven countries such as diverse as India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia.

She noticed that technology was being adapted to fit in with cultural habits, in particular when it came to local beliefs.

"One of the most popular services on China Mobile, which is one of the large mobile phone providers in China, has been the lunar almanac," Dr Bell told the BBC programme, Go Digital.

"Each night you get sent a list of things that are auspicious to do on the next day. This is a traditional activity in Chinese homes.

"You would have had a calendar on the wall. Now the phone has become the platform for it," she said.

In her travels, she has come across people using mobile phones to show them the direction of Mecca or remind them of when it is time to pray.

"There have always been ways in which religious institutions have appropriated new technologies to use them to do interesting things," said Dr Bell, who is doing the research for chip maker Intel.

"What is fascinating to me is why that is something we don't feel we can talk about this. What is the social taboo about saying 'I go online and pray' or I am using faith-based dating services."

New thinking

In the West, the phone is considered an information and communication tool. But Dr Bell says that what is happening in Asia is a "re-imaging" of the role of the mobile.

This will become increasingly significant, she argues, as the number of people with mobiles in Asia starts to outstrip those in the West.

China alone already has 290 million mobile subscribers, outstripping the number of people with a landline.

"Even five years from now, between a third to half of all mobile phone users will not be using English as their primary language," explained Dr Bell.

"They will be Chinese and have a completely different understanding of the world of social relationships and technology."

Source: BBC

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