#2: Going Mobile

By | September 12, 2006

The first time I traveled to Philippines to visit my maternal grandparents, I was astounded to learn that they didn’t have a telephone in their home. It was 1989, and there was only one telephone in their entire town of Burauen, Leyte.

To communicate with my grandparents, my mother in Connecticut had to either write them a letter, or,  call the lone telephone in the village and leave a message that she would be calling back at a specified time. The owner of the telephone would then have someone walk, bike or drive to my grandparents’ house to fetch  them so they would be present for the call when it came in.

A few years and many infrastructure improvements later, my grandparents eventually got their own phone line and their own phone number.

Today, the Philippines is widely known as the world’s text-messaging capital. It seems like everyone there has a mobile phone. Wireless devices are cheaper than land lines. And most people, especially young people, use the cell phone for text messaging, because it’s costs less than making a call. 

The Philippines, a country of 85 million people, has only 2 million Internet users and 3 million people with land-line telephones, states the August 2006 Washington Post article, “Going Mobile: Text Messages Guide Filipino Protesters.”  “But there are more than 30 million cell phone subscribers here, according to government statistics, more than double the figure in 2002.”

The rise of mobile and text-based communications technology in the Philippines is just one example of how computer-mediated communication devices have changed how society operates.

Barry Wellman, in his essay “Community: From Neighborhood to Network” puts forth the idea that neighborhoods of human beings living and working next to each other in the physical sense no longer defines “a community.” 

 “The proliferation of computer-supported social networks has afforded changes in the ways that people use community,” Wellman argues. “Instead of isolated and tightly bounded groups, social circles are partial, permeable, and transitory. “

With technology in hand, communities of human beings can be linked to each other wherever they are.

“Protests [in the Philippines] once publicized on coffeehouse bulletin boards are now organized entirely through text-messaging networks that can reach vast numbers of  people in a matter of minutes,” the Washington Post article states. “When President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in 2001, he bitterly complained that the popular uprising against him was a “coup de text.” 

When my parents travel to the Philippines for extended periods, I communicate with them, almost exclusively, using text-messaging. It really is cheaper than calling them directly. And we’ve all gotten pretty good at typing quickly on the tiny keypad, although not nearly as fast as the ‘Thumb Tribe’ in Tokyo, as discussed by Howard Rheingold in his essay, “Shibuya Epiphany.”

Those Japanese youths can compose messages with their thumbs and not even look at the keypad, Rheingold discovered. Wow.

Computer-mediated communication tools – mobile phones, PDAs, email – are able to complement face-to-face contact by giving people more than one way to connect to each other, Wellman observed. This increases “the frequency and intensity of the overall contact by linking people wherever they are.”  

I agree, and I’m grateful for the technology because I can talk to my parents in the Philippines as easily now as I do when they are in Connecticut.

“Most people communicate with their friends, relatives, neighbors and work colleagues by any means available, online and offline. The stronger the tie, the more media used,” Wellman concluded. “The person has become the portal, with each person operating a unique personal community network.” 

However, the ease of communicating with our own “communities” via  wireless devices has led to some negative residual effects. 

How many of us have been witnesses to, or unknowingly guilty of, loud, private phone conversations in shared spaces? 

Because people can take the mobile phone or PDA with them wherever they go, people tend to use it whenever, regardless of their surroundings. So many shared spaces – the locations that used to foster community with face-to-face communication – have suffered.

A 2005 CNN.com article, “Where are your wireless manners?” examined how “Cell Yell” has deteriorated public spaces.

In the CNN piece, Lew Friedland, a communications professor, called the lack of manners a kind of unconscious rudeness, “as many people are not aware of what they’re doing or the others around them.”

“It takes what was a public common space and starts to parcel it out and divide it up into small private space,” Friedland said.

According to Rheingold’s essay, Japanese youths who felt they did not have any private spaces within their small crowded homes, turned to mobile technology to hold text conversations with their friends that couldn’t be overheard by the adults.

At least sending text messages is silent. In the United States, where people have plenty of space, there is still inappropriate use of mobile, wireless technology. There are quite a few business people I know who can’t stop checking their BlackBerry devices during meetings, and even during face-to-face conversations with others.

Honore Ervin, co-author of “The Etiquette Grrls: Things You Need to Be Told” agreed. In the CNN article, Ervin says, “The more gadgets there are, the worse things seem to get. People get really wrapped up in their little technological world, and they forget that there are other people out there.”

Let’s face it. Technology-enhanced social spaces are the norm today. But just because mobile communication devices allow people to be connected continuously with their virtual social group, it shouldn’t, as Rheingold concludes, “isolate them from co-present others in the public space.”

I’m hopeful that the computer-mediated communication habits of modern society will evolve with the technology and strike a balance, so we can all keep in touch with our friends and family wherever they are, and be good neighbors to the people actually standing next to us.

Citations:

  • Wellman, B. (2005). Community: From neighborhood to network. Communications of the ACM, 48(10), 53-55.  
  • Rheingold, H. (2002). Shibuya epiphany (pp. 1-28). Smart mobs. New York: Perseus.
  • Pimentel, Benjamin (2001, February 11). Cell Phone Craze May Be Key to Philippines’ Future. San Francisco Chronicle. [ html ]
  • Jordan, Mary (2006, August 25). Going Mobile: Text Messages Guide Filipino Protesters. Washington Post. [ html ]
  • Cox, Amy (2005, October 18). Going Mobile: Where Are Your Wireless Manners?. CNN.com. [ html ]

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