Monday, September 24, 2012

Smarting Smartphones

They take photos, record videos, send real-time messages, play games, keeping personal diaries, access radio and television channels and tap into the internet superhighway giving the user millions of possibilities. This combined with the fact that some perform their core function of calling with flair makes smart phones science’s best gift to mankind.

Owning one of these handheld mini robots, especially among the urbanite young and young at heart, is the new craze in town. Smart phones are the frontiers of mobile telephone technology which has advanced through the decades from crude and cumbersome contraptions to the modern day super gadgets. 

Makers of these “intelligent” phones are capitalizing on this by launching new models after every few months, the latest being Apple’s iPhone 5 that will go in the market of September 21st.

But this evolutionary communication technology, scientists warn, has come along with not only a high economic price tag but also a cultural and social one. The highly interactive nature of smart phones is creating habits and addictions among users that sometimes interfere with their daily lives.
Researchers have identified a tendency they call “checking” where smart phone owners frequently look and tap on their phone menu screens to check emails, news and update information on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The scientists from Helsinki Institute for Information and Technology (HIIT) also claim that users are constantly engaged in the “checking habits” throughout their waking hours.

“What concerns us here is that if your habitual response to, say, boredom, is that you pick up the phone to find interesting stimuli, you will be systematically distracted from the more important things happening around you,” explained Anti Oulasvirta, lead researcher during the HIIT study. “Habits are automatically triggered behaviours and compromise the more conscious control that some situations require”.

The checking is characterized by browsing while commuting in a Matatu to check the current trends in Twitter, or up date a status in Facebook or check the latest scores between Manchester United and Fulham before one reaches home or home pub to watch it live. Others are taking the habit too far by even going to bed with their phones, literary. Many consider these tendencies irritating rather than a form of addiction.

“Being “hooked up” to the smart phone emanates from the fact that they can perform so many actions from a single platform”, observes Michael Ochula, a communication expert and lecturer at University of Nairobi. “From sharing weather information, listening to favourite radio shows, charting to watching movies and YouTube videos smart phones are fast becoming the most preferred adult plaything both in Kenya and Africa, with the number of those accessing internet via mobile outnumbering those doing so via desktops”.

But he says that although smart phones have made communication a one stop shop where users can do tasks in one platform he says they are also breeding a class of lazy and poor citizens. 

“This is because smart phone users mostly spend their time in social sites like Facebook rather than in places where one can get valuable knowledge,” he claims.

And with the smart phones rapidly changing and adding new complicated applications meant to appeal to users’ entertainment needs, scientists say we might end up having more smart phones in the hands of a dump population in the not-too-distant future. 

The entry of cell phones in the Kenyan market a decade ago led to men priding themselves in statements like “mine is smaller than yours”, a rarity in this side of the world, since then smaller phones were considered cool and classy. But thanks to smart phones matters mobile are playing unto the hands of the age old male obsession with every thing large, from cars to physical attributes.
Unlike many ordinary phones, smart phones usually come in big frames because of the components and the technology that they are designed to support. 

“The reason why these devices are bigger than ordinary phones is the fact that they support more components and actions, which is made necessary by the fact that people buy them principally because of the applications rather than calling,” explains Charles Ryoba, an information technology consultant. “They have faster processors and speedier network connections to make it easier for user watching videos, reading magazine articles, playing games or charting in real time”.

This and the fact that they need bigger batteries to support the numerous functions also add to their usually large size with most of the space dedicated to the screen, the most important feature of a smart phone. 

While the Samsung Galaxy Note, a crossbreed between a smart phone and a tablet often referred to as “Phablet”, has the biggest screen at 5.3 inches smart phones have gradually increased in their size since their inception from 3.5 inches to 4.5 inches and beyond. 

The Nokia Lumia 920 is 4.5 inches, Samsung Galaxy Nexus has a screen size of 4.65, Motorola Droid is 4.3 inch and the iPhone 5 is 4 inches.
Besides the screen sizes, smart phone users also take great pride in the width of the gadget which has pushed manufacturers to ensure each of their release is slimmer than its predecessor. 

During the iPhone 5 launch in San Francisco its creators were quick to emphasize that the phone was “the thinnest smart phone in the world with a glass and aluminum body that is 18 percent thinner and 20 percent lighter than iPhone 4S”.

As a sign of how advanced smart phones have become they are now said to pack more computing power than the spacecraft that took the Apollo 11 astronauts that included Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.
To confirm their frontline position in the advancement of modern technology National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is said to be developing a spacecraft powered by commercial smart phones. 

“The idea here is to integrate cheaper, off-the-shelf smart phone components into platforms for which NASA often builds its own technology from scratch,” explains an edit from the organization “This will allow NASA to take advantage of Silicon Valley’s rapid-refresh approach to technology development that pushes new devices and technologies into the market place at a torrid rate”.

One of the most sort after smart phones in the market right now is the Samsung Galaxy S3. Marketed through the popular tagline “inspired by nature, designed for humans”, this gadget is implanted with software that responds to look and voice in a robotic manner. 

“With S Voice, you can tell Galaxy S3 to turn off the alarm for a few minutes so you can snooze a bit more,” the manufacturer’s website explains. “You can also answer or reject a call, turn the music volume up or down, even tell the camera when to shoot”.

Released on a fancy fanfare in London in June 2012, Samsung claims that its flagship product has sold more than 20 million units since its inception in the fiercely competitive global smart phone market. However, this is dwarfed by its competitor iPhone 4S which is said to have sold more than 30 million units in its first three months in the market.  

The iPhone 5, released to the market last week, is Apple slimmest phone with an inbuilt ability to operate 4G internet networks. Many smart phone market observers are already speculating the features that they expect in Samsung Galaxy S4 expected to be released to counter the iPhone 5.

The competition between Apple and Samsung, who enjoys a smart phone market share of 50 percent between them according to market research companies, has been so furious and intense that their lawyers are perpetually working round the clock.

The recent spark was triggered by Apple who accused Samsung of duplicating features of the iPhone series in the production of Galaxy S models. A judge in the United States, Apple’s home country, ruled in favour of Steve Job’s empire saying that the first two models of the Galaxy S imitated significant features of iPhone in a manner that warranted a ban in Uncle Sam. 

Samsung lawyers and market competitors read business politics meant to boost the profile of the iPhone 5 launch which they claim is expected to boost the US gross domestic product (GDP).

The court awarded Apple a whooping $1.05 billion (Sh82 billion) which led to rumours in the Internet, later proved to be a hoax, claiming that Samsung had decided to pay the fine in 30 truckloads of five cent coins. 

But while the two giants engage in a titanic battle of supremacy to control the global smart phone market, users are the biggest beneficiary since the gadgets are becoming better and fancier. This means they can perform more functions and interact with their owners at a more humanly levels.

“Smart phones have brought in productivity in terms of efficient time management,” explains Ryoba. “This cuts across all spheres of life from students, businessmen to the average daily user since they can do many things on one platform without leaving the comforts of their homes”.

He explains how a student can study or research for his term paper while seated in a Matatu while a businessman can handle an internal purchase order and source suppliers for a tender in the middle of a traffic jam. 

“But it has also been a source of constant disruption especially when a user becomes too attached to their gadgets,” Ryoba explains. “If a juicy gossip or story is going on in the social networks you can find yourself browsing instead of sleeping while between the sheets or checking your emails while in a meeting or a conference”. 

He concurs that smart phone addiction among the middle class youth is bound to be a major issue as most of them become hooked to games, social networks, charting and watching stuff on their smart phones.

But compared to countries like the United Kingdom (UK), Kenya is still in its infancy when it comes to smart phone addictions. A report released by the UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom indicated that a quarter of British population and half its youth owns a smart phone, making the country one of the most smart phone addicted countries in the world.

The riots that rocked London last year were said to have been accelerated by youths communicating through the free and untraceable Blackberry Messenger (BBM) service. 

Go-Globe, a Gulf-based internet research company says that the countries with the highest smart phone penetration in percentages are Singapore (54), Canada (39), Hong Kong (35), Sweden (35), Spain (35), USA (35), Australia (33), Norway (33), New Zealand (32) and Denmark (31).

Mr. Ochula says that smart phones are affecting social skills since people are becoming comfortable and confident communicating through virtual platforms like Facebook and Twitter than they do face to face. 

“Before these gadgets happened in our society people would call or visit people where they would have face to face conversations,” he says. “Today smart phones and technology are killing this since one can chart, Skype, text, or simply interact on the social platforms without ever meeting the person face”.
He also says that smart phones are also fueling anti- social behavior among Kenyan youths like watching pornography and promiscuity promoted by social network dating.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Poorism: Slum Tourism

Scenes of camera wielding gangs of exotic foreigners in colourful attire strolling through filth-ridden slum alleyways, charting with locals and buying trinkets while cheerfully inhaling whiffs of rotting garbage and open sewers are becoming common in Nairobi, Cairo and other African cities. Seeing how the world’s downtrodden live is the new craze as tourists seek more adventure away from the typical fare of resorts and game parks.

“Some tourists want to get an integral view of the country they are visiting,” says one tour operator. “Because of globalization, it’s no longer possible to ignore how the biggest part of mankind lives in the so called third world. Tourists are not only interested in landscapes or wildlife or shopping. They want to see and understand social and political problems.”

Poverty tourism-sometimes called poorism-is a rapidly emerging sector in the leisure travel industry that provides guided tours into the slums of major cities in the developing world. A two sided argument has been raging on between proponents and opponents of     this controversial phenomenon. While tour operators argue that the trips demystify poverty and improve lives of slum dwellers through the generated income, opponents of slum tourism have branded it unethical, voyeuristic and intrusive. Critics have gone on to say that it sacrifices the hallmarks of human dignity on the altar of entertainment and capitalism.

Although there are reports of tourists whose philanthropic soft-spirit was touched by what they saw and decided to sponsor a kid’s education or some other project, how the concept is being marketed tells more about slum tours’ motives than its promoters would readily admit. “Where can the wealthy world traveler go when she’s tired of the ski slopes, beaches, spas and wildlife watching? Where can you ride around in air-conditioned comfort, press your nose against the glass while sipping your bottled water and see how the financially destitute live? Did you know that the very worst slums of Africa are becoming a tourist destination for those who’ve done it all?” taunts one website in a manner meant to whip up the traveler’s appetite for adventure.

Goaded by such literature tourists these days are frequently finding a few hours off their routine itineraries to “slum it out” whenever they are in a major African city. This is an opportunity for the free spending rubberneckers to gawk at third world urban poverty first hand; families cramped in tiny shacks, naked babies clinging on desolate looking mothers, tiny alleys bleeding with dark green trenches of open sewers and huge garbage damps. Besides snapping enough shots to grace their travel albums, already laden with photos of migrating wildebeest and mating lions, the slum misery confirms the skewed picture of Africa reinforced in the visitors’ minds by the western media.     

Apart from the enterprising tour operators the media and showbiz, either intentionally or otherwise, have been a major force behind the rapid growth of poverty travel. Movies like Kibera Kid and City of God, both shot exclusively in Kenyan and Brazilian slums respectively, glamorizes shantytowns by portraying them as easy-go-lucky societies bubbling with drama, vices, despondency and cultural vibrancy all begging for exploration. The meteoric success of the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire lifted poverty tourism to unprecedented levels of popularity in the world. Tour operators in Mumbai’s Dharavi slums, where the award winning movie was shot using a section of local cast some of whom still wallow in poverty, recorded a phenomenal 25 percent increase in business after the film’s release.

Whenever poverty tourism is mentioned Kibera slums in Kenya immediately pops in mind. Harbouring an estimated 800,000 people crammed in shacks squeezed in a three kilometer long valley in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kibera holds the unenviable title of being the biggest slum in Africa.

Overcrowding stretches sanitation and other facilities to unimaginable limits. With each pit latrine said to cater for almost a hundred souls and few able to afford the community toilets that charges per usage, “flying toilets”-excrement-filled plastic bags usually hurled on rooftops or on the streets-is an option for many. Extensive media focus on such seemingly bizarre issues have turned this shanty neighbourhood into an icon of poverty and one of the most popular spots for slum travels in Africa.   

Tour operating companies have popped up in recent years to cater for the rapidly growing number of clientele. Branding Kibera “the city of hope” and “the world’s friendliest slum” the companies’ web brochures are full of vivid praises for slum trips. One company is particularly sentimental, purporting to have ventured in what it calls “pro poor tourism” as “a means of creating awareness of the plight of the poor in Kenya with an intention of wiping out the slums in Africa and reducing poverty by engaging the poor to participate more effectively in tourism development in Kenya.”

Foreigners are charged a minimum of US$30 per individual for a four hour stroll along the tiny sewer drenched alleyways watching, among other “attractions”, the manual draining of pit latrines using buckets and visiting a few families in their hovels where they might donate freebies, while rapidly clicking on their state-of-the-art Kodaks. Although the tour operators claim they recoup back a significant percentage of their earnings to local schools, orphanages, individual households and other projects Kibera residents tells a different story.   

“They see us like puppets, they want to come and take pictures, have a little walk, tell their friends they’ve been to the worst slum in Africa,” says car-wash worker David Kabala. “But nothing changes for us. If they really want to know how we think and feel, come and spend a night or walk around when it’s pouring with rain here and the paths are like rivers.”

But the tour operators are not the only enterprises that have been accused of sustaining their existence by marketing or glorifying poverty in the slum. The place swarms with a plethora of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) some of which residents claim are being used as fronts by individuals whose motives is to tap into donor money. “Our slums are the worst places to live but they have, probably the most expensive toilets in the world-not because they are the best toilets, but because on average each toilet built in Kibera is claimed by many NGOs and institutions. It’s possible to have as many as ten organizations all claiming to have built the same substandard toilet in Kibera, at a cost of millions of shillings,” complains a lobby group calling itself People’s Parliament.   

Slum tourism is no longer a reserve of backpackers in khaki shorts and colourful rubber flip-flops if the number of high profile individuals that frequents Kibera is anything to go by. Under the disguise of official reasons like “touring projects”, almost every foreign dignitary visiting Kenya always finds the time and excuse to make a stopover in this world famous slum. From Ban Ki Moon, Barrack Obama, Magdalene Albright, Gordon Brown, Koffi Annan to Chris Rock the list reads like a roll call of world celebrities. The traffic of limos dropping VIPs in the slum-mostly to interrupt residents’ lives in exchange for a few group photos-was so high a while back that it was becoming a nuisance.   

“What is this fascination with Kibera among people who do not know what real poverty means?” asked a Daily Nation editorial. “More to the point, how do Kenyans themselves feel about this back-handed compliment as the custodians of backwardness, filth, misery and absolute deprivation?”

Although a joint UN-Habitat and government funded upgrading project is going on with 100 families already moved into new units a few months ago, the drive to replace the entire slum with decent low cost housing remains a Herculean task due to the myriad of unseen forces at play. Besides the slum landlords, the Nubian community that claims communal rights over the land and other parties whose lifeline depends on the slum’s existence, Kibera is an important political province for one of the country’s most powerful politicians.

Eradicating slums in any society, either by upgrading or simply flattening the shacks, is usually a delicate and potentially explosive affair. This was witnessed in Zimbabwe a few years ago when the government embarked on an aggressive slum bulldozing campaign dubbed Operation Murambastvina (wipe out filth). The disastrous venture left many citizens homeless and pushed the politically volatile country into deeper crisis.

Townships are the South African version of slums or informal settlements which were established by the apartheid regime to house people of colour who could not be allowed to reside in the “white suburbs”. Located in the outskirts of major cities and housing huge populations, townships were hotbeds of resistance against the apartheid rule hence they have an important historical significance. With the majority of black urban South Africans still living in these ghettos sixteen years after the end of apartheid, townships have developed their own unique culture over and above the traditional African culture. There is a new influence on music, dance, dress and speech all portrayed in the numerous artist studios and festivities that take place here.

Unlike slum trips in Nairobi, Mumbai or Rio where tourists hurriedly walk through the shantytown and leave before dark fall in township tours the visitors mingle with the residents on a more personal level. Besides eating out and spending nights in special inns there are other moments that makes a township visit a uniquely emotional and sensory experience, like having drinks with locals in the Shebeens ( brewing houses) and seeking remedies from the sangomas (witchdoctors) who sells muti or cure for every ailment.

Just outside Johannesburg and housing more than 3.5 million people Soweto Township, a conglomerate of twelve informal settlements, is one of the most popular spots for tourists because of its antiapartheid landmarks and authentic township ambience. In this neighbourhood visitors can see Hector Pieterson Memorial that commemorates the 1976 students uprising where more than 500 people were killed and Nelson Mandela Family Museum where Madiba once lived. Other major “squatter camps” are Khayelitsha, Crossroads, Gugulethu and Alexandra.

Unlike Kibera and other slums in the world whose main attraction is poverty, South African townships have been hailed as cultural centers which tell the story of the struggle against the apartheid rule. However due to poverty and unemployment crime rates in the townships is astronomical hence visitors have to be escorted. Besides Soweto being classified as the most dangerous urban center in Africa outside war zones, it is in the townships that tens of foreigners were murdered and hundreds of thousands of others left homeless during the xenophobic attacks in 2008.
Although most poverty travels to Africa are inspired by the spirit of adventure and curiosity to confirm the content of Western media, scholars say that slum experience prompts demands for social justice, motivates philanthropic tendencies and helps eliminate stereotypes.