The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society

The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society

by Rich Ling

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Has the cell phone forever changed the way people communicate? The mobile phone is used for “real time” coordination while on the run, adolescents use it to manage their freedom, and teens “text” to each other day and night. The mobile phone is more than a simple technical innovation or social fad, more than just an intrusion on polite


Has the cell phone forever changed the way people communicate? The mobile phone is used for “real time” coordination while on the run, adolescents use it to manage their freedom, and teens “text” to each other day and night. The mobile phone is more than a simple technical innovation or social fad, more than just an intrusion on polite society. This book, based on world-wide research involving tens of thousands of interviews and contextual observations, looks into the impact of the phone on our daily lives. The mobile phone has fundamentally affected our accessibility, safety and security, coordination of social and business activities, and use of public places.

Based on research conducted in dozens of countries, this insightful and entertaining book examines the once unexpected interaction between humans and cell phones, and between humans, period. The compelling discussion and projections about the future of the telephone should give designers everywhere a more informed practice and process, and provide researchers with new ideas to last years.

• Rich Ling (an American working in Norway) is a prominent researcher, interviewed in the new technology article in the November 9 issue of the New York Times Magazine.
• A particularly "good read", this book will be important to the designers, information designers, social psychologists, and others who will have an impact on the development of the new third generation of mobile telephones.
• Carefully and wittily written by a senior research scientist at Telenor, Norway's largest telecommunications company, and developer of the first mobile telephone system that allowed for international roaming.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" important, accessible book on mobile telephony that is well worth reading." - J.R. McNeill, Interactions

"Rich Ling provides a compelling examination of the real impact of mobile telephony. It's not about technology, it's about people. We need more of these kinds of studies."
Don Norman, Co-Founder, Nielsen Norman Group and author of Emotional Design.

Product Details

Elsevier Science
Publication date:
Interactive Technologies
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

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Read an Excerpt


The Cell Phone's Impact on Society
By Rich Ling


Copyright © 2004 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-051893-0

Chapter One



Not long ago I was looking through some of my grandfather's papers when I came across a newspaper clipping from the front page of the Denver Post dated August 20, 1946. The main upper fold headline, in all caps, was "RADIO-PHONE HOOKUP BEGUN IN COLORADO." The article described an experimental project carried out by Mountain Bell, then the local telephone company in Colorado. It dealt with the provision of radio-based telephony to residents of Cheyenne Wells, a small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, near the Kansas border (Figure 1.1). The article started by stating: "For the first time anywhere in the worldwide Bell system, that grand old institution, the party line 'went radio' at Cheyenne Wells, Colo., Tuesday noon." While there had been radio-based communication using Marconi's wireless radio for some time prior to this, here was radio-based telephony being applied to the needs of common individuals. The technology was not being used to send messages from ships or to broadcast baseball games, as in the case of commercialized radio stations. Rather it was being applied to the mediation of interaction between private individuals. Indeed this was one of the ancestors of modern radio-based mobile telephony.

My grandfather was an engineer in Mountain Bell and an early radio enthusiast. While at college at the University of Colorado in 1919, he built what was probably one of the first radio devices in Boulder, stringing an antenna between the old engineering building and the smokestack of the power station. He participated in the Cheyenne Wells project as the chief radio engineer; and thus the archiving of the article among his papers.

If I know my grandfather, he was far more excited by the details of the technology than by its impact on the lives of the farmers living in Cheyenne Wells. His papers from that period are full of technical drawings of circuits, switch interfaces, etc. Radio technology was, after all, a way to quickly establish a telephone service without having to go through the laborious process of building the physical telephone lines.

Nonetheless, local access to telephony was nothing if not revolutionary for these people living on the high plains. Claude Fischer provides an account of how early telephony had perhaps a more profound impact on rural communities than on more urban locations. He tells how the landline telephone — sometimes even using barbed wire fences in lieu of traditional wiring — were used when "calling for help in emergencies, obtaining weather forecasts and crop prices, ordering goods, recruiting temporary labor, and so on" (Fischer 1992, p. 98).

If we move our locus from the plains of eastern Colorado to the Chittagong region of Bangladesh and shift in time from 1946 to 2003, we find a similar type of development under way. Using radio senders along the local train tracks, Grameen telephone in Bangladesh has used its system of no-collateral microloans in order to distribute mobile telephones with solar-based battery rechargers to women living in rural villages. While not ignoring the fact that Bangladesh has one of the lowest adoption rates in the world — less than one telephone subscription per 100 persons — like the project in Colorado, access to telephony has the potential to revolutionize the lives of the local villagers. It provides them with direct access to agricultural commodity pricing and thus provides improved bargaining power vis-à-vis commodity wholesalers. In addition, it allows the management of payment and transfer of funds, access to medical services, contact with distributed family members in the case of family emergencies and medical situations and on various social occasions, aids in the arrangement of diverse official papers, etc. (TDG 2002; Singhal 2002).

If we move the scene once again, this time to my location in Oslo, Norway, as I write these words, we find other consequences of mobile telephony. As opposed to the relatively functional use of the device as seen in the previous situations, we find a thriving culture of mobile telephony in which the mobile telephone is used to coordinate peoples' everyday comings and goings. It is being used to chat. It is being used by teens to send text — and even picture — messages. It is being used to call sick aunts and by parents to organize children's birthday parties. It is being used by lovers to exchange endearments. It is being used by businesspeople to buy and sell. It is being used by tradespeople to keep track of their assignments and to assist them in their work. It is being used to surf the Internet and to send multimedia messages. It is being used to give people last-minute directions and to make last-minute arrangements. It is being used to delay or rearrange meetings. And, sometimes simultaneously, it is bothering others, who happen to be within earshot, almost to tears.

From Japan to the Philippines, Europe, North America, and beyond, the mobile phone has announced its presence. We see — and hear — it in unexpected locations at unexpected times for unexpected reasons. In Scandinavia, Italy, Israel, Korea, and Japan, it is common to see people chatting on their mobile phones as they walk down the street. In the United States, people are using up their nationwide-whenever-wherever-anytime minutes to keep in touch across time zones. Teens — who are the archetypal mobile superusers — "text" to each other quite literally throughout the day and night. Plumbers, carpenters, and other blue-collar workers whose place of work shifts from day to day have found that mobile telephones allow them to work more efficiently and to blend their work and private lives. Business- and tradespeople use the device to make their days more effective. People use it, perhaps unwisely, while driving their cars, and others make calls while on public transport — to the eternal annoyance of their fellow passengers. In short, it is being used to spin the web we call the social network. The scene in the street immediately below me is also being played out in other "mobile" cities and countries. Teens in Rome, Manila, and Seoul, mothers in Jerusalem and Den Haag, and businesspeople in Tokyo and Helsinki are all using the mobile phone in the course of their everyday lives.

In the early 1950s Harold S. Osborne — the recently retired Chief Engineer for AT&T — predicted that mobile telephony would eventually allow us ubiquitous access via small portable devices. He foresaw that anytime we wished to talk to another, we would simply use a small device to punch the appropriate number. He thought that these devices would allow us to hear the voice of our friends and to see them in three dimensions (Conly 1954).

We are beginning to see the fulfillment of his prognosis in a technical sense. But obviously, all of this has not happened without controversy. The mobile telephone's invasion of restaurants, buses, parks, and even public toilets has given new meaning to the concept of eavesdropping. Smith noted in a Readers Digest article from 1937 that "there is no room in the house so private that he cannot crash it by telephone" (Smith cited in Fischer 1992, p. 225). The mobile telephone extends this lament to the far reaches of civilization, and, as many suggest, beyond.

Although people complain of the mobile phone's intrusion into polite society, there are many other aspects to this phenomenon. We rely on the mobile telephone. It helps us coordinate our lives while on the run; it provides us with a sense of safety and gives us accessibility to others. We personalize the device, and in doing so we make a statement as to who we are and how we want to be seen. It is also worth noting that this transition has come quite quickly. A decade ago the mobile telephone was the symbol of yuppies, not teens. Now it has nudged and pushed its way into our everyday lives in new ways. The rise of mobile, push to talk, multimedia messages and various handheld computing devices will add a new twist to all this.

This book looks into the social consequences of mobile telephony. The particular focus is on the private sphere. It examines how the mobile phone is used to provide a sense of safety, to coordinate activities, and to provide accessibility, and it studies how this device disrupts the public sphere. The mobile phone's appearance in society has resulted in turbulence. In this process it has exposed the "taken for granted" assumptions regarding how society and social institutions function. It provides insight into how adolescents manage or — to use the concept developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967) — how they shape their emancipation. It is used in the integration of the teen peer group, it allows for "real-time" microcoordination of social interaction; it "softens" appointments and questions our assumptions about the sanctity of formalized meeting times; it engenders new notions of safety and security; it enables us to colonize portions of the public sphere for personal interaction; and it even exposes the elasticity of language, as seen in the rise of Short Message Service (SMS) and texting. At a slightly more abstract level, we can see that the mobile telephone lowers the threshold for social interaction within groups and, at least within the groups, contributes to the maintenance of social capital.

Thus, the mobile phone is more than simply a technical innovation or a social fad. The examination of its adoption and use, and of the attitudes associated with the device, provides insight into some of the broader machinations of society. In this process, the sociologist is provided with a rare opportunity to see the social adoption of a new technology and its various consequences (Silverstone and Hirsch 1992; Silverstone and Haddon 1996; Palen et al. 2001).

My window on this development has been that of an expatriate American in Norway, where I live and work. Along with the other Nordic countries, Norway has been quick to adopt and use the technology. While there are special issues and adaptations associated with the Nordic scene, the quickness with which mobile telephony was adopted and the ongoing love/hate relationship with the mobile phone perhaps provide insight into the broader social dynamics of the device. Thus, in Norway I can observe a relatively mature mobile culture. Norway was one of the countries supporting the development of the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) standard that allowed for international roaming. In addition, it participated in the specification of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard. It is also a country that has taken mobile telephony into everyday life and is indeed among the countries with the highest rates of ownership. Thus, it gives insight into the benefits and problems of mobile communication.

Beyond the Scandinavian experience of mobile telephony, this book considers the cross-cultural dimensions of the phenomena. Cultural differences, differential access to equipment, alternative-pricing systems, and different needs are all elements that can play out in various ways. Within Europe there are definite east/west, age, and gender-based differences in ownership and use (Mante-Meijer et al. 2001; Ling et al. 2002). Beyond Europe, the experience of I-mode in Japan, the rise of texting in the Philippines, and the intense use of the mobile telephone in Korea provide us with an alternative perspective. The somewhat more cautious use in the United States acts as a type of counterpoint. A completely different picture regarding the diffusion of mobile telephony arises when we look at the experience of, for example, Grameen Phone in Bangladesh.

This book will look into these social consequences of mobile telephony. It will consider the impact of the device on our everyday lives. It will examine how we are domesticating the device and how it is changing the way we consider issues such as accessibility, coordination, safety, and teen use of mobile telephony. It will consider why texting and SMS has grown to be a dominant service and study the role of the mobile telephone in the public sphere.

History of Mobile Telephony

Contemporary mobile telephony is an offshoot of the more general development of radio communication that started in the late 1800s. Following on the work of Maxwell, Hertz, Hughes, and others, Marconi became central in the development of radio-based communications (Farley 2003). Through the 1890s, he sent radio signals over progressively longer distances, ranging from a several hundred meters to several kilometers and eventually to transoceanic communications. By 1899, Marconi was able to equip two ships with radio transmitters in order to report the progress of the America's Cup. Two years later, he successfully sent a radio message from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada.


Excerpted from THE MOBILE CONNECTION by Rich Ling Copyright © 2004 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of MORGAN KAUFMANN PUBLISHERS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rich Ling is a senior research scientist at Telenor, Norway’s largest telecommunications company, where he researches issues associated with new information technology and society. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Udine, Italy. Ling has published numerous articles and has organized and participated in numerous international conferences. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado, Boulder in his native U.S.

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