Cultural and personal impact

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 55
Digital Citation

FEATURETaken for granted

Rich Ling

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It is sometimes interesting to look at the parallels between the development of the mobile phone and the automobile. In the century since the late 1800s the automobile moved from being a odd contraption on the edge of society to being a taken-for-granted factor in everyday life. In the late 1800s none of the major elements of today's automobile culture were in place. Cars were rickety contrivances. There were rarely cabs for the passengers, cars needed constant prodding and maintenance, and they were more often seen as the hobby of determined tinkerers or eccentric millionaires than as an item of daily necessity. As if to ensure cars' marginalization, the roads were poor, and there were few gas stations and even fewer automobile-repair shops. If you were an early user, it was almost in spite of their usefulness. Society was clearly oriented toward other forms of transportation. This had consequences for the way that people organized their lives. Work, shopping, and schooling were often within walking distance. Daily activities did not require the individual to move about to the degree that we often see today. Neither the automobile nor the culture of the automobile had gained the purchase that they have today [1].

If we fast-forward 100 or 130 years, we see the difference. There are parking lots, paved roads, service stations, and all the standard automobile-related features of life. While there are often downtown areas in the towns and cities, the automobile has also spawned strip malls and shopping centers. It is often easier to drive a few hundred yards from one strip mall to another (and belch out the consequent pollution), since walking involves detouring around multilane streets that are more car than pedestrian friendly. In addition, there is a whole sector of society that is oriented toward servicing the automobile and the passengers within. There are not just "filling" stations but service areas where the nutritional needs of both the car and the passengers can be attended to and where we can also buy music, kitschy art, and reading material.

Unlike the early motorists, our lives are in many ways defined by access to the automobile. We need it to get to work, to deliver the children to after-school activities, or to go shopping. Serious courting takes place in the car. Our vacation habits are often tied to driving, automobile-friendly hotels, and automobile-accessible sights and locations. The cars we drive are, for some more than others, a reflection of who we are and what we want to be. If we do not need it directly, then the wares that we purchase in the shop were delivered using the automobile/truck-based system. Perhaps the most telling indication is that it is difficult to think of carrying on our daily life in the absence of the automobile.

All of this has resulted in an over reliance on the automobile. In effect, we have a system of reasoning that assumes access to and use of the automobile. It has moved from being a somewhat risky curiosity to being a central part of everyday life. It can be said that, with our willing acceptance, the automobile has restructured society in its own image. Bringing this back to the mobile phone, we can ask if we are in the process of developing a similar logic on that front.

back to top  The Structure of a Mobile Society

The ownership of the mobile phone is not—at least not yet—ubiquitous. The landline telephone has been a part of the scene and indeed has established its own logic. We have ordered Chinese takeout, swapped numbers with potential boy/girlfriends, and then sat by the landline phone awaiting their call.

Following the example of the automobile, however, we can speculate that the mobile telephone will develop its own logic. The story of the mobile phone is shorter than that of the automobile or the landline phone. While various forms of mobile radio contact have been possible since the early 1900s [2], the popular adoption of the cellular-based mobile telephone system is more recent. To draw somewhat more clearly the parallel with the automobile, until recently mobile communication was the province of either the rich or the technically determined. Mobile phone devices were heavy and required inordinate amounts of power to use. They were quirky and the coverage was spotty. From the mid-1990s, we have seen the rapid acceptance of the mobile phone in first the developed and now in the developing world. Indeed, in many parts of the world, mobile telephony is taken for granted as part of daily life. Mobile communication devices are available from dedicated stores, kiosks, in grocery and convenience stores, and over the Internet. They let us chat with friends, send and receive text messages, order goods and services, find the address of a restaurant, take a photo, listen to music, and keep a calendar of appointments. Interestingly, the development of so-called m-marketing challenges some of the dynamics of traditional store- based (and strip-mall-based) marketing.

back to top  Individual Addressability

One of the most striking aspects of the mobile phone is that it makes each user individually addressable [3]. That is, with the mobile phone we call individuals, not locations. This basic characteristic means that we have an alterative way of interacting. We need not take into consideration where our interlocutor is since he or she is always reachable. In addition, the rise of texting means that we do not need to engage in extensive forms of greetings and monopolize one another's time. If we need only a short bit of information, texting allows us a discrete form of contact. Because of these characteristics—ubiquitous and yet discreet reachability—this technology has become a tool of the intimate sphere [4]. Research indicates that we are mostly using the mobile phone to talk to our closest family and friends.

One of the main effects of the mobile phone is that it changes the way that we micro-coordinate our everyday affairs [5]. Previous to the rise of the mobile phone, we most often coordinated activities by agreeing to a time and a place where we would meet. In this regime, there was—and indeed often still is—the assumption that all participants have access to a correctly synchronized timekeeping device. Thus, we coordinated our meetings by referring to our watch and assumed that the other meeting partners also did the same, with a device that was in good working order. If they had forgotten to wind their watch, if it was running fast or slow or, in more contemporary times, the battery of their watch was dead, the efforts at coordination were frustrated.

The mobile phone changes this process. We can negotiate both the time and the place via the mobile phone in real time [6]. If one partner is a bit late because of traffic, for example, he or she can simply call or text to the others in order to rearrange the meeting. If the cafe where we were to meet our friend is too full, we can suggest an alternative. If we do not remember if our spouse wanted cheese or milk from the store, a quick call will clear up the issue. The ability to micro-coordinate may indeed be the most profound social consequence of the mobile phone. It provides us with a simple way to keep in touch with one another and to make, and re-make, arrangements.

It is wrong, however, to think that the mobile phone is used only for instrumental interaction. It is also a channel through which we express our emotions ("I love you so much John, but I still need to divorce Harry"), we experience power relations ("Smithers! I want that report on my desk by Monday"), and we work out our feelings about others ("I saw Frank at the party, and he was being an absolute boar"). We can give a friend what Ito and Okabe call a discrete "tap on the shoulder" [7], or we can carry on a full-blown impassioned argument. Thus, in addition to its function as a coordination device, the mobile phone is a channel through which we maintain and develop the relations in our intimate sphere. We can tell jokes via the mobile just as we can gossip, nurture, flirt, quarrel, condole, assuage, and scheme. In the process of doing this, we work out—or perhaps destroy—our sense of trust with one another, and by and large we cement our relationships [8].

The very accessibility afforded by the mobile phone also means that we often need to manage our communications in different situations. Using the mobile phone can disturb well-established routines and assumptions about accessibility and who is able to speak to whom at different times and places. Is talking with our children during an intense business meeting just as inappropriate as talking to a business partner when we are at home intensively reading a bed-time story to the child? Because of these considerations, romance, courting, the courtesies of working life, and family interactions have taken on new dimensions as a result of the mobile phone.

While the device helps to maintain our interactions with those in the intimate sphere, it can also be a threat to our sense of local sanctity. We are attuned to rules of courtesy that govern our copresent interaction. However, since people from our intimate sphere have direct access via the mobile phone, we are faced with an awkward situation. In some cases, we may have to choose between using the mobile phone to speak to those who are emotionally close to us or to put them on hold while we maintain our copresent interaction with individuals who are perhaps more peripheral. Because of this we are in the process of developing strategies with which to limit mobile access. We are also working out how to deal with our more intimate interactions that take place in the public sphere. Different types of barriers are used to work out the degree to which the moral logic is applied.

back to top  The Reciprocal Taken-for-Granted-ness of Mobile Communication

There are various ways in which the mobile telephone is establishing its place in our lives. It has become a quasi-indispensable part of our daily kit. Perhaps the way to best understand this is to think about what it is like to do without the device. Leaving without our mobile phone is somewhat like leaving without a wallet; it's the occasion of a short panic. Forgetting our phone also means that others must work around our forgetfulness. Given other's assumption that we can plan—and re-plan—our meetings with friends, not having a mobile phone means that we are cut off from others. Being without a telephone means that we do not know the latest changes in the plans of our eventual meeting partners. If being phoneless it is not a problem for us, then, as James Katz reminds us, it presents a problem for others [9]. This means that we not only take our own phone for granted, but more important, others take for granted that we have one. There is a developing web of reciprocal expectations with regards to our ownership and use of mobile communication. Not having a mobile phone can be seen as a sign of independence, but it also means that others increasingly have to make special considerations with regard to the phoneless individual.

The automobile and the mobile phone are curiously linked. The automobile gave us a certain radius of travel. The adoption of the automobile resulted in the expansion of cities, the dispersion of travel and commuting, and increased complexity in daily transport. In many ways, the mobile phone completes the automobile revolution. Given the automobile-induced diffusion of individuals, the mobile phone reconnects us with our closest family and friends. In that process it is becoming an assumed part of daily life.

back to top  References

1. The inspiration for this article arose out of a discussion with my colleague Jonathan Donner as well as the insightful comments of James Katz.

2. Farley, T. "Mobile Telephone History." Telektronikk 3, no. 4 (2005): 22–34.

3. Ling, R., and J. Donner. Mobile Communications. London: Polity, in press.

4. Ling, R. New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

5. Ling, R., and B. Yttri. "Hyper-coordination Via Mobile Phones in Norway." In Perpetual Contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance, edited by J. E. Katz and M. Aakhus, 139–169. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

6. See A. M. Townsend, "Life in the Real Time City - mobile telephones and urban metabolism," Journal of Urban Technology 7 (2000): 85–104; and R. Ling, The Mobile Connection: The cell phone's impact on society. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2004.

7. Ito, M., and D. Okabe. "Intimate Connections: Contextualizing Japanese youth and mobile messaging." In Information Technology At Home, edited by R. Kraut, 235–247. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

8. This is not to say that we can not also argue and bicker via the mobile phone.

9. Weiner, E. (2007). Our Cell Phones, Ourselves [Electronic Version]. National Public Radio website. Retrieved 31 January 2008.

back to top  Author

Rich Ling is a sociologist at Telenor's research institute near Oslo, Norway and a guest professor at the IT University of Copenhagen. He has been the Pohs visiting professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he holds an adjunct position. He is the author of New Tech, New Ties (MIT) and The Mobile Connection (Morgan Kaufmann). Along with Scott Campbell he is the editor of The Mobile Communication Research Series.

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