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Sunday, January 6, 2013


I’d like to expand on my prior post, on this notion of being fettered. The freedom promised by communication technology is a farce, an illusion. We live in an age where our technology affords us a level of mobility like nothing we have experienced in the past. Temporal and physical spaces no longer define our lives; we can live in one location, work in another, and establish, develop and maintain social ties across vast distances. But do all of these affordances mean that we are any freer now than we were in the past? Have we not simply exchanged one set of chains for another? Have we not traded our attachment to places for attachment to devices? I would argue that we have. 

According to Campbell and Park (2008) “we have entered a new personal age of communication technologies. That is, the communication technologies predominant in today’s society, particularly mobile telephony, are characteristically personal in nature” (p. 372). Now, this is not to say that our communications are more personal, but rather our interaction with technology is decidedly more personalized. It’s all about us, or, more precisely, me. The ‘me’ being whoever ‘you’ are, so long as you are connected. Confused yet? Let me explain.

Nowhere is the personal age of communication technology better exemplified than in public spaces. Walk into any park or mall and what will you see? Many people engaged with their devices, checking emails, tweets, posts and the like, swiping, tapping and typing. I have noticed this at work, particularly in the minutes before a meeting is about to start. A group of people sitting around a boardroom, pleasantries taken care of, madly working their devices, responding to and sending messages across the ether. “Mobile communication around copresent others not only personalizes public space, it also personalizes the communal experience of being in that space” (Campbell and Park, 2008, p. 379). We are no longer participating in the construction of a common space between copresent others. We are not finding common ground and in that common ground, the freedom of knowing that we are not alone. When we engage with our smartphones as intermediary to communicating with the outside world, we have more than just checked out. We’ve checked into our own personal world in a way that excludes all else. 

Campell and Park (2008) explore this personalization further: “Previous to the adoption of the mobile phone, individuals would have more bounded interaction with friends. They would perhaps save bits of information in anticipation of their next meeting and then use that time to update each other. The mobile telephone means that there is no longer the need to deal with this backlog of information. The members of a social group are frequently updated as to the issues and events taking place among their peers” (p. 380). So, we’re no longer wasting time hearing about what has happened to each other in between the times that we actually speak to each other because we already know via the multitude of tweets, posts and so on….I guess that’s more efficient. But does this free up our time so that we can discuss more pressing issues when we actually do get together? In her blog, Katie Benedict reflects upon her personal relationship with her mobile phone: “I am always checking my text message, facebook posts, tweets and emails. If I don’t see my red light blinking on my phone I feel, “what’s going on?” I sort of feel lonely.” So, as I have witnessed around the boardroom table, time spent in social situations with others is more often spent attempting to churn up and consume even more information, reading up on and providing more updates via our devices. And I suspect that the time spent waiting on the blinking red light, is further time taken from engaging in the here and now. 

Walker et al (2009), studied the iPhone as an example of an emergent product design strategy that engages users, knowingly or not, in the personalization of their device and the further development of the technology. “Far from being rigid, fixed, bureaucratic and very ‘technology-like’, the iPhone is instead open, flexible, adaptive, with a lot of underlying technology largely hidden from view” (p. 206). Products like the iPhone are designed to set the stage for personalization and consequently, further development. They are built not with an end product in mind, but rather a set of conditions that will allow for further development. While this may be true, Goggin (2011) suggests that “the playground of apps [the software that allows the user to personalize the device] remains tightly controlled by particular corporations—such as Apple, Google, Samsung, Nokia, and others—and the rules of the apps stores that each has created” (p.150). In his blog, Mike Mitchell asserts that, “apps allow us to track nearly everything we do and with more ease than ever before. They allow us to do the things we want faster, easier, and more inclusively. Like any other market, the market for apps is subject to the laws of supply and demand. It searches for profit first, community interest second.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s supply and demand and profit and loss that ultimately dictates what apps are available. So, while we may feel a certain freedom by personalizing our devices with our ‘own’ apps, it’s the companies that supply those apps who have the ultimate control over how we interact with our devices and consequently how we employ them to communicate and interact with our world.

In my previous post, I talked about getting out from behind the LCD and back to the social side of human services. While I was chained to my desk, I noticed something about myself. Social skills are like any other. Use it or lose it.   I was becoming more socially inept as days past sitting in my cubicle, interacting almost exclusively with hardware and software. This was one of the motivating factors that led me to my present vocational direction: the need to trade interaction with electrons for interaction with neurons, hardware and software for wetware. 

But what I found when I accepted my smartphone, was a world of ubiquitous communication, facilitated and mandated by mobile electronic devices. This wasn’t my first experience with the communication technology of the information age, but it kind of closed the loop for me. Work was the last bastion, ironically, where communication had its limits: the confines of my cubicle and my workday. Such is the world that we live in, though. Through mobile communications, we have exchanged wires for microwaves and, in doing so we have also traded the option of turn-off and tune-out for the promise of all the time and anywhere.

Ann blogs about her experience as a baby boomer teacher of Gen Y students in this personal age of communication technology. “How do I work with this phenomenon – do I integrate it – ignore it – ban it – give up? I text – some; I have not (as yet) linked my workplace email to my phone – I do not want emails to reach me at all hours at which they are sent; do I take my iPhone to the bathroom – no – but I have thought about it! I can live without mobile phone access 24/7. Can (and should) Gen Y – who are my student base? “ Those are salient questions that illustrate a struggle and frustration similar to my own, I think. To conclude this post, I’ll attempt to sum up my reflections on my relationship with ubiquitous communication technologies.

I, like many others of the human race, have a compulsion to communicate. I really do. Just not with you. And, not with all of my friends and family and coworkers, present and past. And, certainly not with a multitude of people that I don’t know. Not all the time anyway. And truth be told, probably not often enough. So, this is the dichotomy that I struggle with and it is exacerbated by the ubiquitous nature of communication technologies today. To the point, I marvel at the apparent freedom to communicate anytime anywhere, but I abhor the compulsion to communicate all of the time, wherever I happen to be. I am at once free and shackled by ubiquitous communication technology.   


Campbell, S. W. and Park, Y. J. (2008), Social Implications of Mobile Telephony: The Rise of Personal Communication Society. Sociology Compass, 2: 371–387.
Goggin, G. (2011). Ubiquitous apps: politics of openness in global mobile cultures. Digital Creativity, 22(3), 148-159.
Walker, Guy H., Stanton, N., Jenkins, D. and Salmon, P. (2009). From telephones to iPhones: Applying systems thinking to networked, interoperable products. Applied Ergonomics. March 2009, 40(2), 206-215.

Image courtesy of wandee007,

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