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Chatter of cellphones

According to a September 18, 2013 report from The Pew Internet and American Life Project, Joanna Brenner wrote that as of May 2013 “91% of American adults have a cell phone”. According to their historical data tracking adult cell phone ownership, in 2006 that number was only 73% (Brenner, 2013).

That means that in seven years, cell phone ownership grew almost 18% in 7 years and now more than 90% of American adults own a cell phone. Up until this point in time, IIRC, television was the technology that was adopted in most quickly by Americans households. According to Karl Hartig’s 1998 chart in the Wall Street Journal, Classroom Edition,  television ownership reached approximately 75% around 1957 it did not reach approximately 95% penetration until about 1970, a period of about 13 years. Not even electricity or personal computers match that rapid rate of adoption (Hartig, Tuning in: Communications technologies historically have had broad appeal for consumers). It seems though, that cell phones have.

I’m sure that some of these figures are driven by the fact that the purchase of a television took a much bigger immediate bite out of a household budget in the 1950s through the 1970s than a cell phone does today. Another factor that I think comes into play, especially early on, is that television, despite the dystopian view of it killing intra- and inter-family communication, could be a highly social media. A family that owned a television could invite family, friends, and neighbors to watch TV with them. You didn’t have to own a television in order to share in a special event such as the final game of the World Series or popular TV shows such as “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke”.

However telephones are, generally speaking, not a technology that can be enjoyed communally.

For example, think about a social network of six households each with two adults and three children. It was possible in the mid-50s that only two of those six households would own a television and the other households might visit to socialize and watch TV. If we fast-forward to the turn of the 21st century and look at a network of six households, again each with two adults and three children, you would likely see the adults and possibly one or more of the children, each having their own cell phone. It would stand to reason that a physically large (remember the first TV sets were essentially the size of a piece of furniture), expensive, and mom essential item would be adopted at a slower pace than something smaller and cheaper that offered more immediately obvious professional and personal affordances. The thing that amazes me is that TV was so rapidly adopted despite its relative cost.

(I feel that I should apologize at this point for not researching statistics on what percentage of a family’s budget a new television would cost versus the percent of a family’s budget a cell phone would cost. Despite not having numbers I am comfortable in stating that the purchase of a television in the mid-1950s through 1970s would’ve consumed a larger part of a household budget versus the cell phone purchased between the turn of the 21st century and 2013.)

So a chatter of cellphones populates our public spaces, replaces our home phones and, for the 50+% of us who use smartphones provides, information and entertainment almost any place at almost any time. Scholars such as Barry Wellman and Keith Hampton study the effects of our perpetual connectedness via mobile media technology. It looks like they will have a lot to study for some time to come.

References

Brenner, J. Pew Research Center, (2013). Pew internet: Mobile. Retrieved from Pew Internet & American Life Project website: http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2012/February/Pew-Internet-Mobile.aspx

Hartig, K. (Designer). (1998). Tuning in: Communications technologies historically have had broad appeal for consumers [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from http://www.karlhartig.com/chart/techhouse.pdf

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