Living Loud: the Mobile Lifestyle
By Justin Hall, Mon Aug 19 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Mobile phones have changed our minds and our manners.


We are now accompanied by a constant purse and pocket companion that didn't exist ten years before. We are adapting mobile devices for our lifestyles. Or maybe we are finally figuring out how our lifestyles can adapt to mobile devices. As alien and accelerated as our lives on the mobile Internet might seem, most of what is on the mobile Internet is us.

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Mobile Internet users exist in two places at once. For years, people have had Internet email addresses accumulating correspondence while they proceeded with their offline lives. Now those worlds are merged. We are seldom far from our electronic friends; we are closer to them all the time - closer than we are to anyone else. Our mobile Internet friends are always with us, through our small devices.

These mobile Internet friends reach out and tap us on the shoulder: "Hey - I'm bored, I'm thinking about you." Their messages originate from the widest range of locations. We accompany our friends on their job interviews, funerals, and days at school - nearly anywhere they can be online. Occasionally we accompany them on errands - the conversation stops for a moment while they request extra mayonnaise on their sandwich. Or the conversation ends entirely when they arrive at their previously scheduled engagement and we realize that our conversation was a convenience; briefly we were more stimulating than their surroundings.

Increasingly people without mobile Internet access seem like citizens of another country - a country you might like to visit once in a while, but certainly not a place you live. It is as though they are asleep - not active friends; they're only awake for meetings in person, in specific places at specific times. Calling them requires scheduling - work or home? It's too much trouble. They're not people who live in mobile device-land, like those of us who are available just about everywhere, all the time.

Since we are enmeshed in this accessible social scene, those places that don't allow access with mobile devices are remarkable. Now, suddenly, you are on vacation only because your Uncle's house outside of town doesn't get a signal. Maybe it's a vacation - maybe it's amputation.

War for Attention:


Theatres, speeches, churches, and plays remind us to unplug; old-world institutions demanding our undivided attention. While a symphony might demand that you turn down your mobile device, no hip-hop concert will request you turn off your 2-way. This is a cultural shift perhaps; places that cater to the young or the mobile don't expect them to leave their electronic social network. Perhaps some of those events even see the value in having the social networks extending out of their events.

These are rare unruly times, when appropriate mobile manners are still being established. Social censure prevails; some mobile phone volume abuse victims stare long and hard at their tormentors as they talk too loud. Most subway cars have signs dictating proper mobile phone conduct: No talking allowed, or maybe only short conversations at one end of the train. These attempts to police communications appear in an ever-wider variety of venues: through the air thick with grease, as you approach the busy counter at the "Cheesesteak Shop" in central Oakland, California; a home-made sign adjacent to the fry slinging cashier reads: "Distracted Ordering Prohibited: please get off your cel [sic] phone when ordering."

In spite of attempts at social control it seems there are some folks who slip up: shouted mobile phone conversations pose a frequent subject for ridicule (along with the clipped written language of SMS and mobile phone messages). These jokes are a sign of some dis-ease with behavior accompanying these advancements in communications technology, but these jokes are also something that most audiences can relate to. Cellmanners.com has forty-eight entries in its list of "Cell Slang," most of which were submitted by its users (two of the best: "Schitzophonia - the appearance given when one is walking down the street talking loudly on a cell phone using a not easily visible headset," and "Cellmate - a phoner with whom you are forced to share a confined space")

The solution to most mobile manners problems might be a continuing shift to text messaging. A Nokia "Mobile Courtesy" campaign in San Diego California urged people to rely more on mobile messaging so as to avoid unseemly voice interruptions in inappropriate situations. Still mobile messaging poses a different sort of threat to decorousness - silent communications might liberate teenagers from the watchful eye of parents and enable citizens under repressive governments to speak silently of rebellion. So far, mobile devices care little for any regulations - social or otherwise, save for signal strength and remaining battery life.

Life


Mobile devices make every situation a mobile communications situation. While occasionally unsettling, the mobile Internet has become indispensable. No longer just a means of connecting us to our friends, these devices represent our friends. If you lose your mobile phone you've lost the phone number of that guy you used to work with who always had the great barbeques at his house. Your relationship with him is enshrined within a particular device. Emerging from a long stint in a mobile blackout zone, seeing the signal strength bars on your phone stacking up fills one with a thorough feeling of exhilaration - "Yes! I am once again in touch!" as though friends disappear when a mobile phone is no longer in service, and then somehow to emerge from an underground subway stop is to return to the mobile Internet party always in full-swing where messages and greetings might await you.

A recent ad campaign in the United States played on this growing attachment and familiarity we have for our mobile devices. A picture of a white man in casual Friday-type clothes sits reading a newspaper, his mobile phone lies on a seat next to him. The phone sits on a better cushion than what's under his posterior, a small privileged electronic buddy at his side. Cloying white text is printed over this scene:

Why is the weight of a cell phone in your pocket so reassuring? Why is it soothing to know someone's thought of you, just now? Why can you sometimes hear your daughter's voice in a ring tone? Why does a phone make you feel comfortable saying things you'd never say? Why are you compelled to stare at it when it's sitting there quietly?

Why?

Because a wireless phone is not just a phone anymore.


(source: August 2002, AT&T "MLife" advertising poster, from a San Francisco area "BART" train.)

In this ad, AT&T describes a device that's a combination vibrator, massager, family member, matchmaker, therapist and fixation. It's both familiar and striking - that a gadget might mean that much to us. But most mobile Internet devices are essentially buddy lists: a phone book, a list of short mail addresses - access to our friends, mostly other folks who have these devices. Can my device reach their device? The machine is alive, the machine is our friend.

Mobile Soul


Some are asking deeper questions about these mobile communications. Doctor Sadie Plant led broad research into the various worldwide cultures of mobile Internet usage for her report "On the Mobile" proposing that mobile devices have become "a potent symbol of the cultural shifts at work across the 21st-century world." Technology ethicist Howard Rheingold has written an upcoming book examining the social impact of mobile computing entitled Smart Mobs, asking if mobile Internet devices like our mobile phones are "Technologies of cooperation, or the ultimate disinfotainment apparatus?"

Last year, a poster hung at bus stops in Stockholm Sweden showed a picture of a mobile phone with the word "Acknowledgement" written on it, asking "Are you looking in the right place?" The Church of Sweden, obviously taking a dim view of the idea that our phones could represent so much meaning as AT&T proposes, sponsored the poster. All the exciting engagement and personal confirmation we enjoy being connected to the wireless Internet might ultimately turn out to be a dissatisfying substitute for calmer contemplation of meaning.

Mobile phones would seem to be at odds with the religious mission, as a lively ringtone or sudden vibration is the perfect interruption for a meditation session or bout of prayer. Perhaps we are shifting away from the face-to-face relationships that have connected so much of humanity for thousands of years, in favor of something untried and essentially disconnected.

The narrow screens and pinched buttons can seem too small to express all our feeling. And sometimes we realize how awkward and inappropriate we act when we're on the mobile Internet. Maybe we are embarrassed when our device bleeps at the wrong time. Someone walks by yelling about his or her upcoming medical treatment into the phone, and you wonder, "Do I talk like that?" A steady stream of instant messages makes it difficult to concentrate on any one thing, and yet to focus on your work is to abandon your chatting friends. Your best buddy pauses you to take a mobile phone call as you're in the midst of describing relationship troubles. You sit dejected, staring into a cold plate of pasta as they make their weekend plans, smiling and laughing with someone else. They hang up, look around briefly, and finally ask, "Where were we?" and you think to yourself, "obviously not with me."

It's an exciting, if unsettling time to be alive. The pace of this technology is already relentless and seems to be picking up. How are we adapting to these constant connections? Geeks, executives and fashionistas also have incoming messages we'll read during this Mobile Lifestyle week. And then we'd like to hear about your mobile lifestyle!

It's MobileLifestyle Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site Links.net. He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.