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Constant Touch – John Agar *****

At first sight it might seem odd that this little book has been awarded our top, 5 star rating. A book about mobile phones? Not much science. Not all that exciting. But John Agar does all the right things. In a simply superb way he weaves together the technology, society, politics and business in a way that works wonderfully – and serves as a strong reminder that science never operates in a vacuum.
In this case, of course, it’s a remarkable technology, not so much from it’s scientific wonder as the speed with which it has become pervasive. Agar argues persuasively that the mobile (cell) phone wasn’t just technologically impossible 50 years ago, but sociologically as well.
He covers the phone’s introduction across the world, why the US lagged behind Europe in second generation phones and how mobile phones have even caused the overthrow of a dictator. Agar conjures up a parallel between the mobile phone and the pocket watch as a portable technology that changes our lives, though there are also strong links made with the automobile industry.
The only glaring omission is that there is no mention of the phone’s capability to act as a portable payment device. About ten years ago, the town of Swindon in the UK was home to a fascinating experiment called Mondex, where plastic cards replaced cash. Although a lot of people never really got the hang of it, those who really got into Mondex found a huge freedom from not having to fiddle around with change, drive to cash machines, and generally handle filthy lucre for transactions too small for a credit or debit card. Mobile phones could provide all of us with instant electronic payment, with the cash coming off your phone credits – but Agar doesn’t seem to have come across this concept.
Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s simply a great little book – as with many of the Icon science books it is very short, but this is an exception where that shortness never comes across as oversimplification.
Review by Brian Clegg


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