Ecologizing Mobile Media
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Sep 09 08:45:00 GMT 2004

The mobile telephone has quickly, profoundly, and unexpectedly altered many aspects of human life -- social, economic, cultural and political.

Although social scientists have looked into several of these areas of change, little is understood about the whole system of changes: exactly what the late Neil Postman would call a problem of "media ecology."

I propose that we -- you, the readers, and I -- apply Postman's "Ten Principles of Technology" (from The End of Education) as probes into this complex storm of forces most people in the world find ourselves experiencing in our daily lives.

Last November, we had a lot of fun, and perhaps sparked a few insights, applying McLuhan's "Laws of Media" as conceptual probes in "McLuhanizing Mobile Media." In a similar manner, I will lay out here the basic questions as Postman proposed and offer my own takes on answers. But the rest of the exercise depends on reader participation -- I know that readers of my articles will know more than I do about most of what follows. And perhaps we'll discover that we know more together than any of us knows alone.

1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.

I'll go for the low-hanging fruit on this one: a great advantage of the mobile telephone is that people are always in touch, always reachable; and a great disadvantage is that people are always in touch, always reachable. The same capability that grants freedom can also enslave; untethered from a desk doesn't mean untethered from the boss. I'm sure there are others, but this is the most obvious.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.

With close to half a billion mobile phones sold just this year, I suspect the great divide is not going to remain the one between those who can afford access to phones and those who can't. Increasingly, the advantages are available differentially to those who know what those advantages are and how to make use of them -- the divide between the "know- how" and "don't-know-how" populations. It's a matter of literacy.

3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes tow or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives an accomplishments and to subordinate others.

Texting favors terseness and is often about staying in touch more than transmitting meaningful content -- the meaning is in the continuous communication and coordination of activities, not the text of the messages themselves. If email reawakened writing, will texting put it back to sleep, or favor poetry over prose?

4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a "worldview".

Again, I will take advantage of my position as first commenter by making the obvious observation that untethering communications from the desktop means spending more time on the move, in the park or at Starbucks, and less time at home or the office. Communication addiction no longer dictates agoraphobic behavior patterns.

5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.

More people can organize collective action with people they weren't able to organize before, at times and in places they weren't able to organize before. The ways cities are used, political demonstrations are organized, entertainment is scheduled and daily life is coordinated are already changing.

6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.

Mobile voice communication is "hotter" in the McLuhan sense, conveys nuance, and leaves less for the recipient to fill in. Texting is "cooler" and leaves more interpretation of nuance up to the receiver of the message.

7. Because of the accessibility and speed in which information is encoded, different technologies have different political biases.

In Seattle, Manila, Seoul and Madrid, we've seen regimes toppled and Presidents elected because texting enables spontaneously self-organized demonstrations and get-out-the-vote. If broadcast media is biased toward centralized control, mobile media are biased toward decentralized out-of-control.

8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.

This is an interesting one, and I'm a bit baffled. Mobile voice communication has a completely different sensory bias from SMS, and picturephoning adds yet another dimension. Readers?

9. Because of the conditions in which we attend them, different technologies have different social biases.

Here is the source of the social collisions we see on trains when people loudly tell invisible others that they are on the train -- the mobile communication device enables every individual to escape to, dwell in, and impose their personal social space on whatever space they are in, private or public.

10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.

I can see the audio capabilities of mobile devices improving dramatically, and high-resolution video is a matter of bandwidth, but no content beyond voice and music is going to be widely popular unless it works well with a tiny screen.

Those are the ten principles and my brief responses. What are your takes on these?