Within a decade of its commercialization, mobile communication is now often used more than landline telephony. In the early 1990s, only the privileged few used mobile communication, but by the mid-2000s, approximately one-third of the world’s population had a mobile telephone. This period of seemingly effortless adoption has been accompanied by changes in our sense of safety and security, the way we coordinate everyday life, the way teenagers experience their coming of age, and the way we use and experience the public sphere. The use of voice communication and the growth of texting have revised the way we think about interpersonal communication.
Mobile, radio-based communication, including what is known as mobile telephony, has its origin in the work of Marconi and radio telegraphy. The ability to modulate voice signals allowed for the development of services such as police radio, which first appeared in the 1920s in Detroit. This use of radio to “dispatch” various services expanded to include police and fire departments, taxis, and even rural veterinary services.
Radio-based communication in the switched telephony era had to wait until after World War II. Some of the first experiments with radio-based telephony – the so-called wireless local loop – were carried out in the eastern Colorado town of Cheyenne Wells in the United States. Local farmers, living as far as 30 kilometers outside town, were tied into the traditional telephony system via a radio link to their homes. The calls were manually routed via an operator in town, but the essentials were there, i.e., a radio link that was “switched” into the traditional telephone system. At this time, the so-called radio cell was many kilometers in diameter.
The next advance was the development of cellular technology whereby a conversation was “handed” from one relatively small radio cell to another; hence the name cellular telephony. The ability to support this type of routing of signals led to the current form of mobile communication. The first true cellular telephone system that used multiple radio cells and a handoff was the Amtrak Metroliner between New York and Philadelphia in 1969. Miniaturization of handsets and the digitalization of communication resulted in today’s mobile telephony systems.
The future development of mobile communication is likely to see movement away from circuit-switched to packet-switched communication. Traditional telephony (both landline and mobile) relies on a specific circuit that is established for the duration of the conversation. With the development of the Internet, a different approach is used. Instead of monopolizing a fixed circuit, the conversation is broken into smaller packets that are routed through the communication network and reassembled at the end address. This is the essence of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) communication, and it has the advantage of making more efficient use of radio spectrum bandwidth.
Social Consequences Of Mobile Communication
Several consequences of mobile communication are discussed in the literature, including its role with respect to safety and security, the micro-coordination of everyday life, teenager emancipation, its disturbance of the public sphere, the growth of texting, and mobile communication in the developing countries.
Safety And Security
Many people adopt mobile communication to enhance their personal safety or their sense of security. The mobile telephone gives people the chance to call for assistance when they find themselves in difficult settings. A crisis need not be major or life-threatening. A crisis may simply be that a car breaks down or that someone is marooned with no possibility of finding a taxi, or becomes lost, or forgets a PIN code to a bank card, or – in the case of parents – a concern for the well-being of children. A mobile phone may also simply be a latent type of insurance should a problem arise, as in the case of people with chronic medical conditions. Mobile communication allows contact with others when there is a need for assistance or information.
While mobile communication provides security and safety, it can also be used in ways that threaten public safety. The mobile telephone has been used to organize criminal activities and by terrorists and insurgents to manage their affairs. On a mundane level, the use of the mobile telephone while driving has been shown to be dangerous. Thus, while mobile communication helps to avoid crises of various types, there are other aspects of its use that have negative consequences.
Perhaps the most profound impact of mobile communication is the ability to call individuals regardless of where they are. Rather than having to call specific geographic locations on the chance that an individual is there, an individual can be called, no matter his or her location. This allows for fleeting and subtle forms of coordination. In the case of landline telephony, there is no guarantee that the caller will reach an intended interlocutor. Agreements regarding meetings or the execution of errands are agreed upon and are relatively inviolable. Should something come up that makes a commitment difficult to keep, there are few means of rearranging encounters. Mobile communication changes this in that there is less need to make specific agreements, which instead can be made in an ad hoc way. If there is a traffic jam that causes a delay, we simply call ahead and let others know the situation.
It is sometimes asked whether this flexibility comes at the expense of treating such agreements responsibly. There is a difference between a firm attitude toward commitments and toward punctuality and loose understandings that are firmed up as a situation coalesces. A variety of power issues, courtesies, and potentially awkward situations may arise. Regardless of how these work themselves out, the ability to contact individuals and the resulting changes in the way we organize and coordinate everyday life are the most profound changes introduced by mobile communication.
One of the unexpected social consequences of inexpensive mobile communication has been its impact on the teenager emancipation process. During the emancipation process, teens move from being securely within the sphere of the family to being, in many ways, independent of their parents. In this process, the peer group serves as a sort of midwife, and the role of the mobile phone is important in this process. The ability to contact peers via a communication channel that the teen himself or herself controls allows for immediacy in interactions. This immediacy helps to integrate the peer group and it contributes to the emancipation process.
There is also a fashion dimension. The ownership and use of a particular type of mobile telephone have become a fashion statement. As with other artifacts (shoes, baseball caps, purses, the cut of clothes, etc.), the model and style of the mobile telephone tell the observer something about the user’s taste and style. The establishment of a personal style, one that also resonates with that of the peer group, is part of the emancipation process. Given that mobile communication provides for inter-peer communication and is an expression of style, it is not surprising that teens have established themselves as the quintessential mobile communicators.
Disturbance Of The Public Sphere
Telephone calls are being made and received in places that, only a short time ago, were not sites for this type of interaction, and this is a change in a social norm. It has given rise to new rules of social interaction and new ideas as to where and when it is appropriate to use the telephone. There is even a new urban legend that plays on public unease about the public use of mobile telephones. Examples of this include the inappropriate use of a mobile phone at a gas station causing a fire, or a case where a diner at a restaurant becomes so enraged by a fellow diner’s use of the mobile telephone that he or she grabs it and throws it on the floor. In each case, the use of mobile communication results in a spectacle.
The growth of texting has reduced the disruptions created by mobile communication to some degree. We can silently send and receive messages without causing offense to others in the social setting. In addition, users may be becoming more adroit at managing their calls and those in the immediate area are learning to “turn a deaf ear” to the use of mobile communication in public places.
Mobile communication has occasioned the growth of texting. The popularity of this feature cannot be overstated. Many hundreds of millions of text messages are sent every day. They include the exchange of information, coordination requests, endearments and other pleasantries, and a wide variety of other content. Their popularity also has encouraged the emergence of a variety of new linguistic forms. It is likely that the technology for sending and receiving text messages will change, but mobile, text-based messaging has found a niche in society, making this one of the great contributions of mobile communication.
Mobile Communication In The Developing World
Mobile communication has grown surprisingly quickly in many areas of the developing world. In the mid-1990s the International Telecommunication Union statistics indicated that about half the world’s population had never used a telephone. The introduction of mobile communication has helped to address this problem. A mobile communication system is often easier to install and maintain than a landline system. There is no need for an extensive network of telephone lines to originate or terminate calls. In addition, batteries and solar recharge equipment can be used where other sources of electrical power are unreliable or absent. While it can still be expensive to purchase a mobile telephone, mobile communication is increasingly seen as a way to ensure access to communication networks. In many developing countries there are now more mobile subscribers than landline telephone customers.
In addition to access, mobile communication supports new forms of entrepreneurship. As with its use in the industrialized countries, the ability to be available to customers regardless of location, the ability to gather information on market prices, and the ability to arrange financial transactions mean that mobile communication is a useful tool that supports entrepreneurial activity in developing countries.
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