We often talk about our cellphones feeling like extensions of ourselves, and usually we mean that rather casually. However, as I argue in my book, this is one of those little throwaway lines that actually is pretty true. If you buy the idea that information technologies can be parts of our extended minds, then cellphones as parts of our extended selves makes sense.
Recently I came across another, rather macabre example in the 2013 World Disasters Report, in an account of the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a disaster that (officially, anyway) killed 1,129 people. This is from p. 46:
While searching through the rubble of the Rana Plaza, looking for survivors after the building collapsed, civilian rescuer Saydia Gulrukh noticed that many individuals had died clutching identity cards and mobile phones....
Gulrukh says this response can be tied to another factory disaster in November 2012, where a fire tore through the Tazreen garment factory, also in Dhaka, killing more than 100 people. Government estimates of the missing were low, in part because many families had no records of their loved ones to help identify them. This made it difficult for them to claim bodies and prove that they qualified for benefits.
Now, it's pretty clear that one of the first things lots of people do during disasters is try to call loved ones. Tel Aviv University researchers Akiba A. Cohen and Dafna Lemish found that during the 2000s in Israel, cellular traffic spiked tenfold in the hour after a suicide bombing; as they put it, "When the bombs go off the mobiles ring." In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, cell networks had trouble staying up under the crush of traffic.
For the workers in Rana Plaza, their phones weren't just a way to call for help; a lot of them probably knew that the odds of being rescued were very small. For them, their phones were their best chance of being identified, and having their bodies returned to their families.