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Why the disaster in Japan made me want an iPhone

by Garth Bray

They look too big to carry comfortably in your pocket. And your ear bumps the screen and before you know it you’re messing up a call. They’re basically for wankers, aren’t they?

Or those tragics who absolutely live on Facebook and tweet every bit of nonsense that comes out of their mouths. Do I really need my friends to see my GPS location at any given moment? Do I need to see theirs?

They’re more a fashion accessory. A flash toy. They’re way too expensive for a phone. And the data charges, it’ll cost you a fortune. And all those functions and transmitters drain the battery flat in no time.

Why would you want to become an iPhoney?. That’s what I used to think. Then I saw the light. I saw it coming from an iPhone, in the darkness, as the owner steered us through the twisted streets of Tokyo.

We were hunting for a petrol station still selling gas in a crowded city in a land where none of us could speak the language or read the road signs, a land reeling from a cascading catastrophe of tremor, flood and nuclear terror.

iPhone in hand our driver navigated by virtual map from bowser to bowser, chasing the little screen icons like Pacman going for the power-up. In the end it took a mistake though, a lag in the processing time or delay refreshing the map and a wrong turn that dumped us off the toll way at Saitomo, and right outside the only place still filling tanks.

Our tank was practically full but two hundred kilometres up the line, our driver’s brother had maybe a quarter before he hit empty. The brother was 70km from a nuclear power plant now venting radioactive caesium and iodine. The latter gets into the water and the milk I’m told, but can be blocked if you’re taking a saturated solution of potassium iodide. The caesium though is light. It floats around or comes down with the rain. It washes off but don’t dare inhale or swallow the tiniest speck.

Cradling his iPhone, steering with one and a half hand and looking a little sleepy now, our escort was texting as he drove. The replies from up north were getting a little anxious - just come even if you can’t get the gas and we’ll work it out - siphon tanks or something like that, I suppose.

We ignored that advice and luckily so. None of us might have made it back.

Rolling south at last, now with a carload of anxious evacuees in train, we were doing better than retracing our unbelievably circuitous steps. We were looking afresh at the GPS and working out an even better route, quicker, one that might pass a fuel stop that was open and trading.

Finding one that would sell more than six litres of petrol per vehicle proved impossible and as we pushed on, queues grew outside even the empty stations as others lined up for the chance to be first when a truck finally delivered.

I looked across at the woman sitting next to me, three of us wedged into a back seat made in Japan. She had her iPhone out. On Facebook.

Now, as a former knocker and only occasional Facebooker, I’d have scorned her. At a time like this, you’re giving status updates, checking who has a birthday, who’s just broken up with their girlfriend? Just how funny is “Charlie bit my finger”, really?

But I watched my fellow passenger as she filed a stream of updates to friends still stuck, or stubbornly sitting tight, back in Iwaki, the city closest to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and its six nuclear reactors in various stages of distress.

Route 4’s good. Get off Route 11 here. Big boulder over the road here so just turn off early back here. No petrol yet. This one’s rationing, so bring a can, drop someone off with it just before you queue up and maybe they can score an extra six litres.

 I had a lump in my throat. The technology behind us was failing catastrophically. The technology in her hand was striking a blow against cruel fate and indifferent nature. This was so far from “who’s still good for yum char?” or “lol what a hangover”. This digital trail of breadcrumbs could be leading others out of harm’s way.

It really hit home as we pulled over to quickly assemble a live broadcast for the 6pm news back in New Zealand. Just a few years ago this would have been nigh impossible without several suitcases full of tech, a guy with a Leatherman and years of experience and perhaps an hour to assemble and point a satellite dish.

We had a single case with a BGAN device, to hook us up to the Broadband Global Area Network. With a dish the size of a small chilly bin lid, a laptop and some cables we were live from the roadside in roughly twelve minutes, and I was a slightly blocky Legoman on screens back in Johnsonville and Geraldine.

And in the Far North, where no doubt my parents found it immensely reassuring to see their eldest son looking ok and moving away from the big nuclear emergency.

When BGAN arrived, I thought it was fantastic and I still do. The ability to do what we do from almost anywhere on the face of the planet is opening up so many possibilities for broadcast news.

But all I could think was, if we’re supposed to be fleeing, albeit calmly, why oh why have we had to pull over and stop to talk about it?

The Facebook Angel was by now taking photos of all this action. She’d already used her iPhone to Skype back to her family in Rotorua, to give them what we’d label an exclusive first look at our convoy, to show and tell those (and only those) to whom she matters most that she is safer and closer to home.

Broadcasting is far from dead, but it is changing. It has to. And I’m buying an iPhone.

Garth Bray is a journalist with TVNZ's ONE News. He has been reporting from Tokyo and Fukushima on the cascading effects of the disastrous earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency there.

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