“The Cell Phone and the Crowd” by Vicente L. Rafael is an essay on technology and democracy in the Philippines, centered around the events in January of 2001 during which a “civilian-backed coup overthrew President Joseph Estrada.”Estrada was evading impeachment after running a corrupt government, and the middle-class was furious when “his impeachment trial was suddenly aborted by the eleven senators widely believed to be under his influence.” This revolt was special and revolutionary because of the role played by a new technology: the cell phone. It was through the use of the cell phone that a massive crowd was able to rapidly mobilize and stage a demonstration “at one of Metro Manila’s major highways, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, commonly called Edsa.
The cell phone was introduced to the Philippines in the 1990s and became enormously popular because of its affordability and reliability. Land lines in the Philippines are expensive to acquire, as is the Internet and personal computers. With the availability of pre-paid phone cards, cell phones are the most affordable of modern communication technologies. Beyond that, postal services are “slow, unreliable, and expensive” as well. But cell phones proved “literally handy in spreading the rumors, jokes and information that steadily eroded whatever legitimacy President Estrada and his supporters still had during the impeachment hearings.” More specifically, Filipinos loved texting because it was close to free. In 2001 the Philippines was apparently the texting capital of the world.
Some Filipinos criticized the use of texting, just as I remember people criticizing it in the US. Rather than enjoying their face-to-face interactions, people would be staring at their phones at dinner with friends, at the mall, even at funerals! But the exciting part about this new technology was that anyone could do it, and that it gives the user “a sense of being someone, even if he or she is only a street vendor or a high school student– someone who can reach and be reached and is thus always in touch.” The cell phone became a part of the body– an extension of the fingers or the mouth. (Side note: it is remarks like this that make ask if the singularity has already begun. While we are waiting around for an obvious moment when we become part-robot, machines are slowly and seamlessly becoming a part of our biological selves. :O )
Rafael describes how the norm of texting was to immediately forward a received text message to all of one’s friends as a way to spread news. This is a use of texting that is relatively unfamiliar to me, but is very similar to the way we use the Internet today. We share, retweet, and reblog on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as a way to spread news to a wider audience, but if we lived in a society where everyone could afford a cell phone but no one could afford a computer, we would certainly use texting for that purpose. I found it interesting that people seemingly treated forwarding messages along to their friends like a civic duty, especially surrounding the Estrada controversy. The network of cell phone users became like a manual Internet as the people continuously received and forwarded messages. Or perhaps they were like neurons in a brain. Either way, a greater consciousness and community arose. “The power of texting has less to do with the capacity to elicit interpretation and stir public debate than it does with compelling others to keep messages in circulation.” Through texting, people kept their fellow citizens in the loop.
After describing the awe-inspiring network of cell phone users in the Philippines, Rafael begins an urban sociology section on the Crowd. He describes the lack of effective urban planning in Manila, and how walking through the massive crowds on the dirty, congested streets can give one a “sense that there is no single, over-arching authority.” This is a common theme in urban sociology– discussing how design of a city can affect behavior. In large, private spaces like malls, they sometimes play very loud music as “a way of reminding mall-goers they [are] not in the streets, that someone [is] in charge and watching their actions.” Crowds in Manila break down social hierarchies, as they are dense and anonymous. “The power of the crowd thus comes across in its capacity to overwhelm the physical constraints of urban planning and to blur social distinctions by provoking a sense of estrangement.” Rafael describes the crowd as “not merely an effect of technological devices, but as a kind of technology itself.” It is exciting, it carries the potential of something unexpected to happen. The chance for something unexpected to happen– that is just what urban designers in the documentary Urbanized say is the magic of cities. For Rafael, it is the magic of crowds. The two seem interchangeable.
The organization and news-spreading around the impeachment of Estrada that happened through the use of cell phones was physically actualized, finally, in a Manila shopping mall, as Internet user Flor C. describes in the last section of Rafael’s essay. Flor C. let herself be carried by the currents of the massive crowd, relishing the power of its movements and sonic waves. She participates in the protests by herself, letting her body be washed away by the force of something bigger than her. At times she is ecstatic, at other times she fears for her life, being suffocated and trapped by the mass of bodies. But instead of panicking she trusted the patience and movement of the crowd and eventually got out safely.
The cell phone and the crowd are both opposites and complements in this story. They are both demonstrative of the power and numbers of the Filipino people in their search for justice. The use of the cell phone network created a virtual crowd, while the crowd created a physical network of people. Like in Snow Crash, people carried out their business in both worlds, the real and the virtual.
How do you think the story of People Power II in the Philippines in 2001 relates to the political world we know in 2013? Do you see connections between the use of cell phones in Manila and the use of Twitter in more recent revolutions, like the Arab Spring? Do you agree that the network of cell phone users served the same purpose as social networks we use today?