The Auto and The Mobile
By Howard Rheingold, Fri Feb 20 13:45:00 GMT 2004

People whose lives and whose children's lives were changed by the coming of the automobile failed to foresee the social side-effects of this wonderful new invention that brought freedom and power to so many people, so quickly. Can we foresee the mobilecom-dominated society any better than we planned for the automobile dominated society?

We do have at our disposal, should we choose to use it, something very valuable that our grandparents did not have we have early data and analysis about the way lives are changing right now, as billions of people routinely carry global data and communication access in their pockets.

At the beginning of the automobile age, a global cadre of social scientists were not observing the way people actually used and were changed by their use of the automobile. The mobile telephone, however, attracted the attention of smart ethnographers, sociologists, social psychologists around the world: Anne Galloway, Leslie Haddon, Mizuko Ito, Richard Seyler-Ling, Sadie Plant, and dozens of other keen-eyed observers have been on the case of the mobile revolution from the beginning.


We're about half a decade into the short-term effects of mobile telephony, and the rapid diffusion of mobile telephony around the world has already triggered profound social effects. Courtship rituals and marital fidelity, intergenerational communications, political campaigns, business practices, visual privacy, urban usage patterns, even the way information about epidemics spreads, have all been radically impacted, and we're still at the beginning of the mobile age. How can we think about long-term impacts? We had some fun a couple months ago, applying McLuhan's rules to thinking about where mobilecom culture is headed. I invite readers to join me in using what we now know about the long-term impact of the automobile as a lens for getting a long view of the mobile telephone's future social impacts.

I do not claim to have invented the idea of using the automobile as a lens for looking at the telephone. In 1994, Claude Fischer's book The Social History of the Telephone compared the adoption of the telephone with the coming of the automobile, which was introduced around the same time but actually spread more quickly than the wireline telephone. Fischer asserted that the telephone, rather than being a sudden and radical element of social change, initially was used to reinforce existing social institutions. However, Fischer pointed out that women played an important role in the growth of the use of the telephone for a purpose it had not been designed to serve social communication.

I recently had an early look at Rich Seyler-Ling's forthcoming book, The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society, in which the Norway-based researcher provocatively proposes that the mobile telephone completes the automobile revolution. I'll cover Ling's book in greater depth when it is published. I won't attempt a deep analysis here of the parallels and differences between automobile-induced and mobile telephone-triggered change; rather, I hope to provoke your own analyses, brainstorms, and scenarios by means of a few examples. Then, when Seyler-Ling's book is out, perhaps we can invite him to join our conversation here, and we can revisit our scenarios.

Since I get first shot at it, I'll go for a few easy ones: It's no secret that the automobile changed courtship patterns. Not only did physical mobility make hooking up possible for people who lived beyond walking distance of one another or lacked easy access to public transportation, the automobile itself furnished a somewhat cramped but conveniently mobile place for two people to be alone together. And adultery became more easily accomplished. The automobile certainly changed the shape of cities, the way people used cities, and the size of cities. Steven Johnson pointed out in his book Emergence that telephones made skyscrapers possible, since there was a limit to the height pneumatic tubes could convey messages in a building. The wireline phone even gave rise to a new form of settlement, the suburb.

Enablers and "Shag Phones"

How can I use those examples to examine mobile telephony? We know from the work of Ito, Seyler-Ling, and others that adolescent mating patterns changed rapidly with the introduction of the mobile phone, particularly via texting. In regard to adultery, the mobile phone has proved to be an enabler, and also as a way for suspicious spouses to catch the adulterers. In the former case as an enabler, we've heard of married men who use a "shag phone" exclusively for communications with their lovers, and in the latter case as a detector, suspicious spouses have used the call records built into their husband's or wive's mobile phone to catch them.

The first person to use a GPS-equipped telephone was a wife in Japan, who put it under the seat of her husband's car before he headed off for a tryst, then showed up with her lawyer. The mobile phone is moving some workers out of skyscrapers, now that they aren't tethered to their desks for either communication or computation access. And as I've written here before, the way people use mobile telephones to coordinate activity and catch up on their email is changing the way people use cities. What new form of settlement will the mobile telephone make possible? Some unexpected hybrid of Starbucks and Hilton?

Your turn. What social changes did the automobile make possible, accelerate, amplify? How does the mobile device -- telephone or PDA parallel those changes, or not?