Writer: Sumanto Chattopadhyay - Wednesday, Jun 22,2011 9:30 AM
Sumanto Chattopadhyay @ Cannes: Connecting through words in the digital age

When we think of social networking, we think smart phones and tablets, but it is the humble SMS on a basic mobile phone that has promoted the kind of connectivity that touches and changes the lives of vast swathes of humanity in a meaningful way.

When the earthquake ripped through Haiti last year, Mission 4636 helped save lives by bringing food, water, shelter and medical aid to those who needed it most, through a free texting service.

Today, more than half the adult population in Kenya uses ‘mobile wallets’ to make payments or send money through an SMS-powered service called M-Pesa (M = Mobile, Pesa = Money in Swahili) – a boon for people living in villages far away from banks.

Education is the next critical wave in SMS powered social networking. In Bangladesh, BBC’s project, Janala (‘window’), helps people learn English so that they can contribute to the country’s economic development. There are 50 million mobile users in Bangladesh and inexpensive education through calls and SMSes could make a big contribution to lifting the country out of poverty.

Bill Barhydt, the CEO of M-Via, an international mobile remittance service, brought the word ‘social’ in ‘social networking’ to life by telling us these stories of how the SMS is changing the lives of the world’s disadvantaged in Haiti, Kenya, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Barhydt was one of the two speakers for TED@Cannes: The Meaning Of The Connected Experience – the seminar presented by the Starcom Mediavest Group.

Their second speaker, author Tom Chatfield, took a look at the other end of the social spectrum – the über-connected. The privileged who are plugged in, so to speak, every waking moment.

Chatfield observes that this state of connectedness is the new default mode. This has its advantages: It creates a God-like ‘hive mind’ that helps calculate, co-ordinate and research in an unprecedented way. But it has its price too. It sacrifices some of the benefits of the ‘unplugged’ state: Originality. Initiative. Freedom.

Chatfield shows us a picture of a telling sign in a first class train compartment that designates it as a ‘quiet carriage’ – truly a new age want. The freedom, solitude and tranquility so necessary for deep reflection is the prime victim in the email-a-minute lives of the world’s well-off. And unplugging is the luxury that they now crave.

The seminar ended with a mesmerising performance by Sarah Kay, a 23-year old poet. ‘Performance’ is the right word because ‘recitation’ does not capture the beauty of how she brought to life two poems, one of which was about her travels through India.

Kay is the founder of a group called VOICE that is dedicated to using the spoken word as an inspirational tool. She proved herself the embodiment of this purpose on the Cannes stage and gave a fitting conclusion to a seminar about connecting through words in the digital age.

(Sumanto Chattopadhyay is ECD South Asia at Ogilvy Mumbai.)

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