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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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Since I originally posted this back on March 14, 2012, I have been periodically checking online to see if this has been rolled out to other locales yet; I know that New York was supposed to be one of the cities they were going to roll this out to .  I have yet to see anything. I’m not sure whether it’s being kept quite to avoid attracting the kind of criticism they got in Texas.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. While it could cause people to interact with people who might otherwise become invisible, we also run the risk of dehumanizing them and viewing the “Wi-Fi homeless” as infrastructure. The best technological intentions usually have an unintended  dystopian element.  If this project is still going to roll out across the US, I’ll be watching it carefully to see how it goes.

Originally published on March 14, 2012

We have talked a couple of weeks ago about the question of whether mobile communication technologies refocusing people in public and semi-public spaces from being aware of other people they are sharing the space with (and hence, being available if the opportunity for serendipity to occur), to people focusing on their existing social networks who they are connected to via wireless technology.

This article describes an experiment that is being done in at the South by Southwest Festival. A group of homeless men and women have allowed themselves to be made into Wi-Fi hotspots for hire. The company is paying them a daily rate for being a hotspot and they are encouraged to charge users an hourly fee as well. It is not surprising that this idea has its boosters and detractors. I heard some people on the news paint it as victimizing and commodifying the homeless, stripping them of their dignity by reducing them to a mechanical device used to connect (comparatively) affluent people to other (comparatively) affluent people. Others think it’s a great idea and a way for someone who is homeless to earn money without begging or otherwise causing a public nuisance.

The PR firm that is doing this is talking about testing it out in NYC next so it they follow through on this, the next battle will be fought right next door to here.

What do I think? I think the answer will fall somewhere in the middle. I do think that there may be a few highly motivated homeless people who will be able to parley this into something that lifts them out of poverty. However, for the majority of folks who volunteer for this, I don’t think it will have a long or significant impact on their life, especially since (a) a significant portion of the homeless are struggling with addition issues (b) they will likely become targets of other people who will want to victimize them somehow to gain access or procession of the Wi-Fi device (heck, people have been assaulted for a pair of shoes).

I think at first people may be mindful of the homeless people they have to interface with to buy time. I have to wonder though that if like that barista at Starbucks, after a while people treat them more like payphones than people.

Links to news reports on this:

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