Let there be cellphone light

A telling snapshot of Indian economic development: Mobile phones with built-in flashlights.

Published April 9, 2007 5:51PM (EDT)

Sometimes just one sentence can summarize an encyclopedia. Witness this line from a Financial Times story about Nokia's new mobile phone manufacturing plant in Chennai, India.

Local production also allows more nimble response to the Indian market, which tends to favor brightly colored handsets that are dust proof and have built-in flashlights, handy during the country's ubiquitous power cuts.

If cellphones are a modernity marker, symbolizing the best interconnection state-of-the-art semiconductors can deliver, then what do we make of the fact that India, which overtook China last year as the world's fastest-growing cellphone market, prefers models with built-in flashlights because the country's power infrastructure is so fragile?

The spread of cellphones in India is a data point indicating how new technology allows developing nations to leapfrog some of the stages laboriously struggled through by the developed world. But the flashlight feature simultaneously symbolizes how far India has to go. It's one thing to be able to skip the costly logistics of wiring a huge nation, telephone pole by telephone pole, but the hundreds of millions of Indians living in poverty will still need power and roads and clean water if their living standards are to be improved, no matter how many gadgets their Swiss Army cellphones are equipped with.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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