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Phoney friends

Why are we getting intimate with our mobiles?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Science & Tech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Texting, says one British teenager, is ‘a more intimate way to flirt. You’re not doing it to their face’. ‘I love my phone’, says a 32-year-old teacher. ‘It’s my friend.’ Suddenly, the Carphone Warehouse advert portraying phones with feelings doesn’t seem so daft after all.

The two phone-lovers quoted above were talking, not to friends on the other end of the line (network? wavelength? whatever), but to focus groups set up to research a new pamphlet, Mobilisation: The growing public interest in mobile technology, produced by the UK think tank Demos (1). In discussing the use and appreciation of current mobile technology in the UK, the author, James Harkin, notes how widespread use of mobile phones has given rise to a particular mobile phone culture, in which individuals experience their relationship with their phones in a highly personal, intimate way.

No doubt the teenage pregnancy-obsessed UK government will be comforted by the rise of the notion that Text beats Sex. But some of us might find it quite disturbing. What is it about a portable phone that can attract such fawning fondness? Haven’t we got better friends, and better things to do?

Sadly, no. As Harkin’s report persuasively argues, today’s ubiquitous mobile culture is shaped, not by the exciting new technology, but by a rather dull, restrictive and insecure reality. This risks impeding the development of mobile technology, and is not great for the rest of our lives.

Following the discussion of phone-as-friend, Mobilisation goes on to deal with other aspects of mobile development and usage, and how these are experienced. In addressing ‘Phone fears: the mobile as a locus for social anxiety’, Harkin points up the paradox of the mobile phone mast: that while everybody wants a mobile, nobody wants to live near a base station, because of unproven fears about potential health hazards.

It was these fears that prompted the UK government, in May 2000, to publish the Stewart report – the result of an independent scientific enquiry into the possible harmful effects of mobile phones. The study found no evidence of harm, yet nonetheless proposed a precautionary approach to their use – resulting, as Harkin explains, in the message that ‘“mobile phones are safe but take care using them anyway”’, which ‘seems to have done more to stoke irrational public anxieties than to assuage them’. The UK government’s failure to take a firm lead in this situation has resulted in an unhealthy wave of public anxiety, and slowed down the development of new mobile infrastructure.

Here, it is clear that the problem is not existing mobile technology, but the broader climate of risk-aversion in which this technology has been developed. Everyone can want a phone, masts can have been cleared of all wrongdoing by a panel of scientists, and yet still the technology gets the rap.

Another ‘phone fear’ that is often voiced relates to the use of mobiles within the world of work. ‘Critics are concerned’, explains Harkin, ‘that mobile working erodes the barrier between work and our private lives, unwittingly transforming us into the slaves rather than the masters of the technology’. Yet while some people no doubt experience this problem, this is because there is a general erosion in society between work and private life, which might be expressed through the tyranny of mobile contact, but is not caused by it. Harkin found, therefore, that ‘the acceptability of the “always on” nature of mobile work depended largely on existing relationships of trust and power in the workplace’.

In a culture that too often tends towards technophobia, blaming new technologies for pre-existing social problems, it is rare and refreshing to read an analysis such as Harkin’s – which consistently points to the problem, not of mobile itself, but how this technology is used. Just as he rejects the notion that the mobile phone is to blame for the shift in power relations within the office, for example, he is critical of the notions put forward by apparently tech-friendly politicians about how such features as e-voting can reinvigorate politics and public life (see Big Brother and the ballot box). Harkin’s aim is to strip away both the irrational fears surrounding mobile and the silly ambitions attached to it, in order to promote the positive development of this technology.

But having done all this, what do you end up with? Strikingly little – or so it seems to me. In arguing that mobile should be treated less like a toy and more like a tool, to enable society to develop better and faster, Harkin is undoubtedly right. But the point at which Harkin’s pamphlet starts to read like something out of, well, Demos, is when he attempts to spell out the practical, positive applications for mobile in the near future – many of which sound pretty low-key.

This is hardly Harkin’s fault; it reflects the broader context in which new technology is being developed. Even once the hype and the panics have been stripped away, it is questionable whether today’s society has the dynamism to do much more with mobile than simply play around.

Take, for example, Harkin’s excellent critique of the problem with ‘location aware’ technology: mobiles that ‘will not only be able to tell who we are but where we are’, which are set to develop as part of the third-generation (3G) mobile. The big danger of this is to do with the relationship between individual liberty and the power of the state.

Noting the trend towards increasing state surveillance, and the ease with which new technology can make this happen, Mobilisation strongly recommends that ‘if it wants to maintain and build confidence in mobile technologies, the Home Office should give an undertaking that the police will only request mobile location data as part of their investigations into clearly defined categories of serious crime and terrorism’. If the state refuses to set clear limits to how it can use mobile data as a tracking device, ‘there may well be a backlash that will impede the development of the technology itself’.

The potential for the state to use location awareness for its own dubious ends is considerable. However, one cannot help the guilty thought that this might also be the most obviously useful application of the third-generation mobile (which is precisely why it should oppose its use in this way). Harkin reacts against ‘the cynical joke within the industry that the three Gs in “3G” stand for girls, gambling and games’, but finding examples of potential future mobile usage that neither fit into the ‘toy’ model nor become co-opted by a repressive state machinery seems like something of a struggle.

Applications such as being able to locate a licensed taxi firm within the vicinity of your mobile, or phones that alert ambulance drivers to the scene of an emergency when the caller may not know where they are (or, indeed, lose consciousness), are fine; but they are not exactly going to change our world. And, as the logical conclusion of Harkin’s analysis suggests, from the most trivial application to the most potentially useful, all may find themselves thwarted by the social and cultural environment in which they take off.

So back to intimacy. Teen culture has absorbed the mobile, and with it given a hi-tech expression of the narrowness and mistrust that characterises much of the everyday interaction between people. In a climate when people are nervous of speaking to each other, texting is seen as intimate; in a culture of cowardice and mistrust, dumping one’s boyfriend by text message is highly acceptable, as is storing his messages to you (just in case he dumps you and lies about things he once said).

Wireless technology has the potential to bring people together from wherever – but as Harkin points out, its main use in everyday social life is ‘to shore up existing and highly personal networks of friends and family’. This means, he says, ‘that mobile communications can fuel our retreat into personal networks’. Yet even when mobiles are used in an apparently more political way among large groups of people – Harkin cites the recent protests by schoolchildren against Gulf War II – what brings them together is not the handset, but some pretty lousy politics.

A communications technology can expand the potential for communication, but in its own terms it cannot even expand communication – let alone give people something to communicate about. By all means, let’s challenge the nonsense holding mobile back, and push the technology to its limits. But we should also be raising our social horizons.

Read on:

Big Brother and the ballot box, by James Harkin

(1) See Mobilisation: The growing public interest in mobile technology (.pdf 321 KB), James Harkin, Demos, June 2003

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Topics Science & Tech

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