photo by John Hill

For all those folks whose only impediment to climbing Mount Everest has been their inability to Tweet updates while on the journey: your excuses are now dried up. Representatives from Ncell, Nepal’s main mobile network, announced recently that they have installed cellular service that reaches all the way to the top of Mount Everest, the world’s highest point. According to the Reuters report:

“The installation could help the tens of thousands of mountain climbers and trekkers who visit the Mount Everest region in the Solukhumbu district every year. They have to depend on expensive satellite phones to remain in touch with their families as the remote region lacks proper communication facilities.”

This development has interesting implications for the Cyborgology blog’s ongoing discussion of augmented reality and the limits of material experience. When we think about the material world being augmented by virtual content, we tend to think about it in an urban context, usually in tandem with marketing or networking efforts. But how do we begin to think about augmenting the reality that exists in the remotest and most dangerous of regions, like the summit of Mount Everest?

The statistics aren’t entirely clear, but best estimates say that the number of climbers who have successfully reached the summit of Everest only goes into the low two thousands, and at least two hundred of those who have attempted the climb have perished. Most of those who the mountain has claimed remain where they died, frozen into the rock for all time. Some of those bodies are plainly visible from established routes up the mountainside, mummified by the dry air and harsh wind at that altitude. That’s some pretty real reality right there. So how augmented could it get?

Of course, the primary purpose of this technology isn’t Facebooking your awesomeness from twenty thousand feet; this is intended to be a life-saving endeavor that connects climbers to their emotional and physical support systems at the base of the mountain in a way that has never been available before. But you know who else may want that kind of connectivity, or may want their reality augmented a bit? The two-thirds of Nepal that currently lives without any networking capabilities. From the bottom of that Reuters report:

Telecommunication services cover only a third of the 28 million people of Nepal, South Asia’s poorest country… [Major Ncell shareholder] TeliaSonera [will] spend over $100 million to expand its facilities in Nepal next year and ensure mobile coverage to more than 90 percent of the Himalayan nation’s population.

It seems, then, that social class plays a big role in who gets to augment and who gets plain old material reality. Those who climb the mountain are predominantly tourists (though, of course, they are often accompanied by local guides and assistants). These tourists have economic resources not available to local populations; the permit to climb the mountain alone costs nearly US $25,000. This sits in stark contrast to the people of Nepal, who earn a rough annual per capita income of about US $1000.

The question of access is just one more example of how the material world increasingly bleeds into the virtual; because access to virtual resources involves access to material resources, the two are invariably linked. But under these conditions, it appears that, along with elements of augmented reality, we are also importing our uneven power relations from the material world into the frontiers of virtuality.