The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society
Morgan Kaufmann ISBN 1558609369 $34.95
Rich Ling’s recent book, The Mobile Connection, has been written in response to the relatively recent large-scale adoption of mobile technology. As he puts it, mobile technology is "becoming a taken-for-granted part of the social landscape in many countries" (p. 21). This phenomenon, however, is "more than simply a technical innovation or a social fad," but also an opportunity to better understand "some of the broader machinations of society" (p. xvi). It is in this spirit that Ling presents us with an important, accessible book on mobile telephony that is well worth reading. The author is a researcher at Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications company, and also holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. His focus in this book is on social consequences of and for mobile telephony over the past five years. The book has data from 2002 and 2003, as well as earlier studies.
The first section of the book lays a methodological foundation that can meet the task of understanding the adoption of mobile phones. Ling argues convincingly that the mobile phone is "more available for interpretation" than other technologies because "[the] time, place, reasons for use, and the way they are used are, in many ways, more open [than for other technologies]" (p. 22), and thus adoption of mobile phones needs to be studied in an appropriate way. Ling’s interest is sociological, to uncover what our mobile telephony behavior says about us and our social world. "From a sociological perspective, the process of socially defining the mobile telephone is revealing in itself… [and allows] us to see how the innovation is accepted and how it causes the revision of existing values and practices" (p. 23).
Ling is thoughtful and deliberate about his approach to sociological research. He has chosen the "domestication" approach, which focuses on the consumption and adoption of technology with special attention to the social interactions that mediate consumption and adoption. To help the reader understand the significance of choosing the domestication approach over other available techniques, Ling contrasts it with technological determinism (how a new technology monolithically alters our social world) and social determinism (how a new technology is a freely interpretable entity, a tabula rasa on which we inscribe uses and effects). Domestication is shown to be a useful hybrid, avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of monolithic determinisms. The author also discusses an affordances-based approach, drawing on the work of Gibson and Norman’s later transformations of it. Unfortunately, this discussion is too brief (and Gibson’s name is misspelled as Gibsen). Part of this is understandable, because affordances were not the focus of Ling’s study. This reader, nevertheless, found it a weak point. Notwithstanding this quibble, Ling’s argument for the domestication approach is cogent, as one would expect from such an active proponent of it.
With reference to the work of Silverstone and Haddon, Ling presents the five-step adoption cycle of the domestication approach: Imagination is a sort of projection of the device into our lives. Appropriation is when the device enters "our sphere of objects" (p. 28). Objectification is roughly the sense of in what ways a device comes to represent or reflect our values and aesthetic sensibilities. Imagine the new family dog, and how it becomes socialized to behave in ways the family deems appropriate (while at the same time, remaining stubbornly doggish in some habits). Incorporation delineates the functional side of the device (especially its in-use functions instead of those designed) and its assimilation into everyday routines. With conversion, the adoption cycle switches away from the individual to observers, and is what others think about the adopter of the device through their use of that device (e.g., the perceived stylishness of the iPod).
The methodological foundation is followed by details of Ling’s data sources. Though normally an unremarkable part of a book, it is important to note that in his research Ling has had access to mainly Norwegian and European data, with only a smattering of data from other regions. Many of the findings of the book seem likely to generalize to other regions, though the adoption of mobile technology has proceeded somewhat differently in North America and Asia than in Europe.
Research-related foundations aside, Ling begins his investigation of mobile telephony with a brief history. He begins with Marconi’s ship-to-ship telephony during the 1899 America’s cup, and moves through the development and establishment of broadcast radio. His discussion of mobile telephony proper begins around 1976, when New York City had 550 mobile users and a waiting list of 3,700. Of course today, mobile telephones fit in the pocket, and provide nearly seamless "mediation of interaction between private individuals" (p. 1).
Ling’s investigation of mobile telephony includes chapters discussing common applications and aspects of the technology. A chapter on safety and security indicates how these concerns are the most basic reason for acquiring a mobile phone. (This has, ironically, led to the commonplace use of mobile telephones while driving, which actually decreases safety.) A second application is the coordination of everyday life. Mobile telephones have enabled micro-coordination, or "harmonious interaction" (p. 57), in an unprecedented way, and so have eroded the "hegemony of time-based coordination" (p. 58). Ling considers micro-coordination the greatest social consequence of the mobile telephone.
Ling’s research indicates that there are two main forms of coordination, one of making and revising arrangements, scheduling, etc., and another of integrating social networks. His research shows that there are gender-based differences in these forms of coordination: Men are more likely to coordinate arrangements, and women are more likely to coordinate the social world.
Ling has also studied the relation of mobile telephony to the public sphere and the effects of telephony on the public sphere. He reports that the effects on social cohesion are two-sided: While mobile telephony encourages "balkanization" and the "tragedy of the commons," it also strengthens group ties and provides for a new kind of supplemental sense of presence through "short bursts of communication" (p. 185). Ling suggests that while the mobile telephone can develop some amount of social capital, at the same time it "plays into the institutionalization of individualization" (p. 189).
In chronicling the intrusive nature of the mobile phone, Ling invites us to observe how people erect "social partitions," in order to manage our social space. Drawing on Garfinkle, Goffman, and the tradition of conversational analysis, Ling provides convincing insight into our social interactions with the mobile telephone. The clear examples taken from direct observation are well chosen and provide a clear sense of how each activity is given social meaning. In this discussion, as in others, the reader is given a richer sense of the social world in which we live. What is described is both immediately obvious (because we all behave in these ways), and at the same time illuminating and insightful.
Ling also provides a discussion of text messaging (or "texting"). Texting is not as prevalent in the United States as it is in other parts of the world. In the U.S., the lack of a unified technological infrastructure (the U.S. has a number of competing mobile technologies) and a co-payment billing structure (where both sender and receiver pay) seem to discourage texting. Texting is much more prevalent in the parts of the world (including Europe and Asia) where there is a more unified technological infrastructure and only the sender pays for text messages. For instance, in 2004 in Norway alone, eight-million text messages were sent every dayand that for a country of 4.5 million people. Indeed, the growth of text-message use on a worldwide basis has been phenomenal. Ling presents data showing that in January 2000, only four-billion text messages were sent worldwide, while by June 2001, there were 20 billion messagesa quintupling of messages over an 18-month period of time.
Ling argues that texting has been so successful because it is inexpensive, easy to budget, convenient, unobtrusive, and affords a brevity not generally possible in phone calls (the average text message is only six words long). Ling presents data documenting the dramatic adoption of texting by teenagers and young adults. He also discusses gender differences with regard to texting: Teenage and adult women tend to send longer and more complex text messages to coordinate plans for the immediate future; men, on the other hand, tend to send shorter messages that facilitate plans for the middle future.
How can so much communication happen in messages that are on average six words long? Ling explains that the language used in texting is neither exactly written nor verbal language, but rather a new linguistic phenomenon that is a combination of both. This language has the immediacy of spoken language, but affords asynchronicity like written language.
For Ling, the mobile telephone "represents the completion of the automobile revolution" (p. 176). This statement is portentous, as it comes directly after a convincing explanation of how the automobile has had an enormous and far-reaching impact on our social world. At the same time, domestication research’s focus on the private social world limits how much this broader sociological phenomenon can be investigated. At any rate, the mobile telephone is seen at times as a domesticated member of the household, and at times as an untamed force that has changed us and our social world. "The mobile telephone shifts ideas about where and when we can travel, how we organize our daily life, what constitutes public talk, and how we keep track of our social world. In addition, our use, or refusal to use, says something about us as individuals" (p. 23). The social reality of mobile telephony is still being written, with no evidence that we are nearing any kind of fixed or final assessment.
Overall, The Mobile Connection has the feel of a guidebook to the mobile phone and its place in shaping and being shaped by our social world. Ling is a useful and engaging guide, pointing out the various flora and fauna in the ongoing reshaping of our social world of mobile telephony. In the end, one finds the book engaging and tantalizing, at times raising more questions than it answers. In any case, after reading this book it becomes impossible to think about the mobile phone in quite the same way.
About the Author:
Jeff McNeill is a doctoral student in Information Management and Systems at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He teaches courses in the School of Communications, the College of Business Administration, and Pacific New Media. Jeff has worked in MIS departments for six years, most recently as a network analyst and engineer. He has designed and deployed secure, distributed, networked information systems. Jeff has a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies and an MS in Information Management and Systems, both from the University of California at Berkeley. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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