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"I'm a real mobile phone, me too. You don't take me serious, do you?"

The daring new speakers with their colourful phones

Anna-Maija Gruber

 

A random tram ride in the centre of Helsinki will, at any time of the day, reveal a surprising scene: the trams seem to serve as huge telephone booths, rather than as means of transport. They are loaded with cheerful noisy people of all ages, most of them happily prattling away on their colourful mobile phones. What has happened to this nation of silent people, who used to be speechless in two languages, Finnish and Swedish, as the old saying goes?

For some unknown reason, the Finns are very fond of all kinds of new technological gadg- ets, which probably explains to some extent the immense mobile phone boom. But there must also be something else behind all this voluble infatuation, which may look pretty strange to the chance observer.

New expressions of the northern dimension?

“The Finns have a bipartite way of communicating, because they mostly come from the countryside. They still keep quiet in a larger group but tend to communicate freely in any smaller familiar surroundings,” says the human resources consultant, M.D.Ph.D. Heimo Langinvainio, Head of the Stress Research and Treatment Unit of Diacor Medical Centre.

But, surely, a crowded tram full of strangers does not count as smaller familiar surroundings? No, says Langinvainio, but the talkative Finn in question is not communicating with the tram but with his mobile phone.

The phone has demolished the distance between the two speakers and in this way changed their social positions. Thanks to the new mobile technology, the speaker is now independent of any real geographical distance. Suddenly, all people are virtually equally near to each other and easily accessible. The typical Finnish ‘small-territory reaction’ has changed its nature, and the factual topographical social culture has been broken by this tiny gadget, the mobile phone!

Strange or familiar guests?

“Finland is a very sparsely populated country and, with the exception of the capital, Finns have a very short history of living in towns. For us, communication is a deep-rooted question of mutual trust, because, in the countryside, most people used to be strangers,” says Langinvainio and points out some revealing peculiarities of the Finnish language.

Even though the language has a huge vocabulary (which does not really indicate a very silent nation), the word ‘vieras’ means both ‘guest’ and ‘stranger’. Similarly, the word ‘kylä’ stands for both ‘village’ and ‘visit’, revealing a lot about local geography and culture.

But Finns are not hermits, and despite their much cherished summer cottage infatuation, they don’t like to live or work in seclusion, says Lan-ginvainio. This is clearly visible in any Finnish work environment. People want to have their own, clearly defined responsibilities – their own territories – but they still expect regular response from management and colleagues.

“This is a symptom of the so-called hedgehog phenomenon: how to define the optimal distance? If you come too close, you may by rebuffed by others. But if you stay near enough, it is much warmer together,” says Langinvainio describing the secrets of this ‘territory psychology’.

The challenges of ‘live presence’

“The mobile phone and other technical innovations, such as e-mail and video conferencing, are all going to change our ways of communicating,” says Langinvainio. “Any congress, conference or meeting has to offer something special, some value-adding ‘live’ feature, before it is worth while organising,” he points out.

If everything can be communicated by electronic means, why should anybody take the trouble to travel around the world in order to receive information? Obviously there must be some special attraction, something that cannot be transmitted by technology. It is the quality of the relation that will count,” he prophesies.

Calling for quality life in a network

The man-machine relationship has changed irrevocably, and so has the person-to-person relationship. The means are not important any more; it is the quality of the relationship than counts, which may be positive, negative or neutral. Also the experience of the relationship is going to change, says Langinvainio. A mobile phone may turn into the means for living a new kind of networked life, where you jump into any social environment and can even adopt a new, disguised personality. The actual surroundings and their social structure have lost their importance. As a result, the mobile phone will offer people the chance to live up to their own concept of the ideal self.

According to Langinvainio, this shows that our social existence has reached a new phase. The definition of personal territory has been expanded by electronic communications, and the concept of time and place has undergone a shift. The primary unit will be the quality of a human relationship, and the quality of life equals our ability to experience a rich life.

Does radio frequency radiation affect the human brain?

The question of the effect of cellular phones on the human being is raised regularly, especially by the media and also by hopeful individuals who would like cash in on claimed damages. About 60% of Finns, for instance, use mobile phones, so the possible effects or even potential risks, injuries or damages would be of great biological, economic and psychological interest.

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has studied the possible effects of mobile phones on the human brain. The results of a study by Maila Hietanen, T. Kovala and Anna-Maija Hämäläinen conclude that the exposure to radio frequency fields emitted by cellular phones has no abnormal effects on human EEG activity. The voluntary 19 test subjects of this study were healthy people who were exposed for 20 minutes to the radiation. A German research on young men had similar results, but another study found alterations that first appeared 15 minutes after the exposure.

One further Finnish study, also carried out by Hietanen and Hämäläinen at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, tested the effects of radiation exposure on patients suffering from electric hypersensitivity in a double-blind provocation study. The results of this study were somewhat contradictory, as the patients could not differentiate the symptoms of real radiation from the fake ‘exposure’.

So far, no clear, indisputable indications of any risks have been found, and the final conclusions about the health effects of mobile phones on human beings are yet to come. Several studies are presently being carried out by the WHO and also through European cooperation.