Southeast Asia: Resisting the Nokia E90

Ringtones set on high volume, screaming into the microphones, business people are announcing to the whole world how 'V.I.P.' they really are.

In Southeast Asia, size matters. You enter one of the chain cafés in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Jakarta (if you're after foamy cappuccino or latte, one of these cafés may be your only option) and you will be welcomed by the latest display of the newest smart mobile phones. Their owners will make sure that you see their beloved gadgets from all sides — they will talk on them, take photos, play music, maybe even videos. They will simply make sure that you notice that they own the latest models and that they know how to use at least some of the features.

The new credo in Southeast Asia may well be: "You are what you have attached to your belt or what is sticking out of your handbag" (there is definitely gender equality in the obsession with communicators and smart phones). The Nokia E90 is what you want to be seen with these days, although you can also show off with some the latest multimedia features of the N93. The Sony Ericsson M600i is a bit too old; their W950i model is much more prestigious. And if the style and elegance is more important than the megapixels in the camera, you should probably aim at the LG Prada.

In Southeast Asia it really doesn't matter too much what exactly you have to say, as long as you say it very loudly, in a place that is considered chic (mainly American-style chain restaurants or cafés you wouldn't want to be seen in, in New York or in London), preferably into the microphone of your latest expensive gadget.

In Japanese trains, you have to leave your seat and go between the cars to talk on your mobile phone. In Europe it is considered openly offensive to send text messages or to speak on the phone while you are meeting your friends for lunch or for a drink. But in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, the opposite is the case. Ringtones set on high volume, screaming into the microphones, business people are announcing to the whole world how "V.I.P." they really are. They are, after all, the very same men and women who delight in driving their BMWs through the miserable shantytowns, observing children beggars, many suffering from malnutrition. It is all about being "different," "cutting edge;" and about humiliating others — the less fortunate (or more decent) ones.

My Sony Ericsson 750i broke down in Samoa, probably from the excessive heat and humidity. I had developed certain feelings toward the phone. It was simple and bulky and friendly. I managed to program an old Cuban song as my ringtone, and then advanced even further, downloading as a screen background a photo of a round stone dragon from a provincial Japanese temple located in an area where I like taking long walks to think. That's all I needed — I could call and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages, and find necessary phone numbers. Its sudden collapse left me in limbo.

Jakarta's Sony Ericsson service center couldn't find necessary spare part to fix it, and as a temporary substitute I had to pull my old 610 out of a closet. This made me look, of course, quite impossible. Waitresses ceased to smile at me; my acquaintances averted their eyes in embarrassment from the lovely but obsolete bulky "thing," whenever it decided to ring. Books that I published, films that I made — it was all truly irrelevant. What mattered in Southeast Asia was that my mobile phone sucked, and consequently I sucked with it.

My humiliation was so complete that I eventually stopped combing my hair and trimming my beard. It was pointless; with my 610 I had no right to even aim at looking presentable. Then, one day, I saw an advertisement on the back of The Economist — the Nokia E90; the talk of town, the latest "must have!" It was elegant, manly and very expensive looking. It was, in fact, a small computer and a mobile phone and a movie player and who knows what else! I am sure it would massage my back if I asked for it, and kiss me good night for good measure.

I abandoned the manuscript of my atheist play, as well as my anti-globalization novel. I began the search. No "unlocked" version of iPhone was coming to Southeast Asia anytime soon and iPod Touch is a communicator, but not a phone. Blackberries had no impressive entertainment features; and the Palm Treo kept crashing. Smart phones from Sony Ericsson have peculiar keyboards, sharing two letters on each key. Instead of researching my upcoming trip to the Marshall Islands, I was browsing Amazon.com, reading reviews and frantic criticism from smart phone users. Yet I was in Asia, and wasn't even expected to go to a decent toilet without a smart phone.

Developers were burning big parts of Greece, proving that turbo-capitalism is willing to destroy everything, even one of the most beautiful countries on Earth in order to satisfy its limitless greed. Yet, I was still searching for the smart phone that would "fit my needs." The West was moving closer to a war with Iran, while I was weighing my options — do I need bigger screen more than a bigger keyboard? Am I going to watch videos or listen to the music? And what operating system is really suitable for me?

Jakarta was, in the meantime, falling apart. The city center was gone, replaced by outrageously ugly, suburban-looking shopping malls that were not even interconnected by zebras or overpasses for crossing the streets. The pollution was unbearable, corruption reaching epic dimensions, the Indonesian press going back to the dogs — to the dark ages when one didn't even need censorship, as there was plenty of "self-discipline" on the part of local and "imported" editors. Poverty, misery and ugliness had already swallowed the entire city, yet the press was still trumpeting to the world, as it did for decades, that Jakarta is a beautiful, sprawling metropolis.

But the smart phones were never quiet. They kept ringing and ringing and Mafia-style Indonesian elites kept screaming ludicrous orders into them that were helping to bring true hell on Earth to this unfortunate country. Cafés and restaurants, those clean ones built for the elites and expatriates, were offering free copies of dozens of flashy advertisement magazines displaying the latest Nokia and Sony Ericsson models.

Indonesia is brutally divided. On one hand there are the one percent of those with the smart phones who wrap themselves in luxury brand clothes from LV and Prada, play golf on the courses built after criminal public land-grabs, and drive the latest European cars. They are the corrupt Indonesian officials, military top brass, businessmen (mostly unscrupulous gangsters with better PR), and religious leaders building hundreds of new mosques in the city that is lacking space, public parks and children's playgrounds. On the other hand, there is misery, malnutrition, filthy water, a collapsed educational system and medical care. More than half of the country lives on less than $2 a day, pro-market and religious propaganda.

But even in that "other" Indonesia of misery, fear and hunger, there are increasing numbers of mobile phones. People are not encouraged to think, to criticize, or to analyze their situation. But they are pushed to "communicate," to bark and to whisper pointless, meaningless phrases: "How are you?" "I am good. And you? Good. And children? Very good, happy!"

One month after my 750i broke, I am still with my 610. But I am getting used to it. The phone rings, sends and receives text messages almost as well as my more advanced model used to. I am still undecided about what new phone to buy, and when — or whether I should at all.

In the meantime, I am slowly returning to my writing. Periodically, I have memory flashes of all those brilliant photos depicting the Nokia E90. I feel like a recovering alcoholic or a person who recently quit smoking. I still want it; want it very much, but I am resisting. If I were to buy the E90, it would probably take one entire year of my life to learn how to operate it.

Instead I am, once again, beginning to think and to write about Greece, and Iran and Jakarta.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Andre Vltchek.