The Dawn: June 3, 2016

PUNJAB NOTES: Cell phone: empowering the working class?

Mushtaq Soofi 

Communication revolution is one of the most wonderful things to have happened. It has irrevocably changed the way we live at individual and collective level. Technological inventions and innovations generally tend to strengthen the position of the already entrenched ruling elites. If such advances benefit the under privileged, it is not the intended result but rather a matter of what is generally known as trickle-down effect.

Whether you are in the countryside or urban areas of Punjab, you see almost all the members of working class, male and female, with a gadget called cell phone or mobile making its palpable presence ubiquitous. There is nothing unique about it. It’s a universal phenomenon. But what is unique about it is the way it has changed the way of life of workers in public especially at workplace in a region that is otherwise stagnant reeking of the dead past. Owning a cell phone here gives a worker sense of empowerment; the feeling that may be worth nothing but psychologically important; he can afford to possess what the privileged possess. Such a fleeting feeling of being equal though baseless or flimsy is nevertheless somewhat significant in its social and cultural implications. Technology, one is tempted to think, can have a levelling effect in some way reducing the socio-cultural distinctions born of social stratifications.

An irresistible attraction of this technology lies in its ability to enhance the level of connectivity not witnessed before in history. The entire world is within your easy reach. The real and virtual worlds stand blurred. The whole concept of distance stands fundamentally transformed. Nothing is at a distance as you can get connected to any place in the world in a jiffy. The phenomenon of distance, being away from your ancestral home or among the aliens with no contact with your near and dear ones, has inspired the poets and bards for thousands of years who created fascinating poetry and stories on the theme. ‘Pardesi’ (someone who is an alien or a person among the aliens away from his home and country) is a character in Punjabi lore and literature worth exploring in sociological and anthropological contexts. He epitomises loneliness and lack of assertion. He evokes intense emotions, pathos and pity, a feeling of helplessness and nostalgia. His image as a lost lover in faraway lands stands out etched in our collective memory. Why has he to leave his place, one may ask. Basically the reasons are economic. Prospect of better livelihoods forces one to leave one’s home and country. Leaving for greener pastures is as old as recorded human history. It may be older than that. Sultan Bahu with his usual eloquence captures the angst when he says: “let on one be a wayfarer. Even the twigs have more clout than him”. Social norms demand that he be shown kindness. In Lahore and other cities and town we come across names followed by sobriquet “Pardesi”. “Pardesi” may be a motor mechanic, a plumber, a baker, a construction worker or a home help.

Modern times instead of slowing down the process of economic migration have in fact accelerated it with the help of modern communication technology which is discreetly manipulated by the capitalist job market. What has mitigated the effects of being away from home, family and one’s people is the technology that facilitates connectivity. Keeping the people connected keep the people less unhappy. And the less unhappy tend to work more and produce more in the world that increasingly has become consumption oriented. Cell phone helps make the alien environs less alien for a worker by creating an illusion of his being one call away from his family and home. Man though lazy by nature never ever gets tired of talking. He must talk and cell phone has made it easier for a worker to talk. If the people around do not care to talk to him, he can talk to the ones somewhere far away who are not only ready but eager to share his experience of the day. So this small gadget, his constant companion, helps him overcome his sense of overwhelming loneliness in a metropolis full of people who are strangers to one another. It makes the lonely crowd a little bearable.


The downside of the whole story is the damage it does to the way of doing things which at times can prove to be lethal. The small portable machine doesn’t come free. Working class spends a sizable chunk of its earnings in buying the set and hiring the service if we keep in the mind the average wages. Cell phone bill forces him to defer his other needs which may be more important at some level. Secondly, making and receiving calls while working has become a matter of habit with most of the workers that not only affect the quality of the work but can be fatal. Talking on cell phone while operating a machine or driving a motor cycle can end your or someone else’s life. The possession of cell phone makes the worker modern looking and he feels he is not out of sync with times. But sadly cell phone has become an obsession with the working class in Punjab; it’s their opium. An ambiance of a virtual connectedness can create an illusory comfort zone. Not that a worker doesn’t need such a communication device. The real question is that of its use. Its judicious use can be an enriching experience. But its obsessive use on the one hand can surely cut into a worker’s earnings and on the other can increase his neurosis born of chaotic and dehumanised working conditions. —

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