Cultural and personal impact

XV.6 November + December 2008
Page: 59
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWHow society was forever changed

Brian Romanko

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I found myself reading Richard Ling's The Mobile Connection in the discomfort of an airport terminal gate. When I say discomfort, I refer not only to the hard vinyl seat and poor lighting but also to the multitude of fellow passengers chatting loudly on cell phones. The audible barrage of one-sided conversations is a distraction to which society is reluctantly growing accustomed. We soon may not imagine a world without it. While the book did little to quiet the Bluetooth-equipped gentleman sitting next to me, it did provide an illuminating and enjoyable understanding of how and why we arrived in this cell-phone-rich society.

Truly disruptive technologies are rare. New products that fundamentally shake the status quo don't just grow on trees. Even more rare are technologies that disrupt society and fundamentally alter interpersonal communications. With rapid advances of technology, the mobile phone has done all this with unprecedented speed. The astounding pace has fascinated researchers and businesspeople alike. Rich Ling is one of those fascinated researchers, and he has documented the rise of the mobile phone in captivating detail in the Mobile Connection.

Ling has the appropriate background for the task. His career as a research scientist for Telenor (Norway's largest telecom company) provides a foundational body of experience. His work there focuses on the interplay between technology and society. The Mobile Connection appears to be a culmination of his research findings as applied to mobile telephony.

At a tactical level, the book is logically organized into eight chapters across 200 pages. A historical perspective of mobile phone adoption is provided, followed by five chapters dissecting the impact that cell phones have had on our lives. For instance, Ling describes how mobile telephony enables a new level of "microcoordination." This is "the redirection of trips that have already started [and] the iterative agreement as to when and where we can meet friends." We are no longer required to agree on meetings with a fixed time and place. Coordination is fluid.

These five chapters don't focus entirely on the enablement offered by mobile devices. Equal time is spent discussing the ways in which the technology has become a sociological pain. Unfortunately, for every person who finds benefit from cellular phones, at least one other has the opposite response. My time at the airport is evidence of this.

The final chapter recognizes the fact that a book about mobile technology's impact on society can quickly become outdated. Ling takes a broad, forward-looking glance at everything that mobile technology has already accomplished and prods the reader with provocative questions about what society is and how we are all tied together. It's a logical conclusion, but I can't help feeling that something is missing. With the popularity of smart-phones like the Blackberry and iPhone, additional mobility features will become mainstream. Mobile Internet, location-based services, and other new technologies are already prevalent. A discussion of the impact of these technologies would be a much-welcomed addition. Nevertheless, it's worth mentioning how well Ling is able to stick to topics that are likely to stand the test of time. The mobile phone industry's product life cycle is measured in 18-month intervals. Considering that The Mobile Connection was published in 2004, I was expecting more of the content to seem irrelevant. Ling avoids the issue by sticking with capabilities at the core of mobile telephony.

Throughout, The Mobile Connection is full of both quantitative and qualitative research findings. The data sources referenced are distilled from almost a dozen primary research studies from the likes of Telenor, The Pew Research Center, and Rutgers University. Insights provided are backed by verifiable data and are incredibly relevant for design decision making.

However, the most compelling aspect of The Mobile Connection is the anecdotes from various research subjects. Research-related books often feel dull and impersonal. Distilling facts to their essence has the unfortunate side effect of losing the details that make individuals interesting. While trends and patterns provide evidence for decision making, they don't make for compelling reading.

Ling recognizes this and makes sure to regularly interject interesting stories from his myriad interviews. These often funny, regularly insightful interludes keep the book well paced and interesting. For example, take teens Anders and Harald discussing the aesthetic considerations of their cell phone choice:

  • Anders: The model has a lot to say, you know. A Philips "Fizz" from 1995 is nothing that you show off.
  • Harald: I think that blocks of cement are cool.

The same position that cellular phones are seen as a statement of fashion could easily have been presented with survey results or questionnaire samples. It's the personality and humor present in these interviews that gives The Mobile Connection charm.

Ling provides a compelling, easily digested overview of the important research into the cell phone's impact on society. Ultimately, The Mobile Connection is a great book for anyone working in the mobile industry or interested in the impact this device has had on society. It's a quick read that you'll likely find yourself using as a reference book in the future. We now take for granted the fact that cellular phones have penetrated our culture deeply. This book is an interesting dissection of exactly how the roots were planted and disseminated.

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Brian Romanko is a technical architect with frog design in Austin, TX where he acts as a technology strategist, leader, and visionary responsible for software application architecture, use case discovery, and the recommendation of appropriate technology platforms and practices. Brian has worked in the industry for more than a decade creating innovative products for clients such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and several startups. He holds a bachelor's degree in information technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology and is pursuing his MBA at the University of Texas.

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/1100  $5.00

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