Fwd: More than a trend, cellphones are a way of life

From: Wade T. Smith (wade.t.smith@verizon.net)
Date: Sun 26 Jan 2003 - 19:15:33 GMT

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    More than a trend, cellphones are a way of life

    By D.C. Denison, 1/26/2003

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/026/business/ More_than_a_trend_cellphones_are_a_way_of_lifeP.shtml

    What happens when an electronic device, the cellphone, becomes so popular it's ubiquitous? It becomes a lifestyle.

    That was the premise of a recent study by a group of anthropologists who observed cellphone users in seven cities around the world. Context Research, based in Baltimore, uses a network of 3,500 anthropologists to study consumer behavior for major clients like Microsoft and Kodak. Last summer, it focused its anthropologically based analytic tools on cellphone users. The resulting report, just published, appears to support the group's initial assumption.

    ''It's obvious that changes are coming that are much bigger than most businesses expect,'' said Sean Carton, the ''chief experience officer'' at Carton Donofrio Partners Inc., the parent company of Context.
    ''Cellphones and mobile communications in general are much more than just a technological trend.''

    The 36-page report, illustrated with stark documentary photographs of the study's subjects using their cellphones in a wide variety of locations, details a surprising number of lifestyle changes that are emerging from the increasing use and integration of mobile technology.

    For example, the study found that physical proximity is rapidly decreasing as a barrier to forming communities among individuals. Since wireless technology makes it easier to stay in touch, regardless of location, cellphone users are able to maintain a network of friends and colleagues that doesn't depend on face-to-face communication.

    Also because wireless technology allows people to contact a person, not a location (like traditional phones), the separation between private and public space is starting to blur. Think about all the private phone conversations that you've heard in the middle of public spaces: annoying, but new. On the other end of the spectrum, ''alone'' no longer means just physically alone; it means ''not connected.''

    And who's organizing all this mobile networking? No one is ever formally trained in the use of mobile technology, so it's the people who are able to develop the ability to master these devices who become key nodes in a communication network. Saturday night plans tend to flow through the mobile users who are best able to orchestrate the group's multiple mobile connections.

    Ultimately, the study, loftily titled ''The Mobiles: Social Evolution in a Wireless Society,'' makes the case that wireless technology is enabling humans to return to their nomadic roots, freed from home- and office-based technologies that forced us to into more sedentary patterns.

    Some of these observations may not strike you as particularly novel, but they add up to much more than just a fascination with a new technical toy. In fact, much of the report parallels the observations made by Howard Rheingold in his recent book ''Smart Mobs,'' which details some of the social and political changes brought about by the increasing use of cellular phones, pagers, PDAs, and hand-held computers.

    Carton, who wrote some of the Context report, told me he was heartened to see Rheingold came to some of the same conclusions after touring the world's most advanced wireless communities in Tokyo, Helsinki, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

    ''It's still changing very rapidly,'' Carton said. ''Just two years ago, we conducted a similar study, and we got different results: People were fascinated by wireless, but it was more of a fetish, an electronic object. It's become much more integrated into people's lives since then.''

    And Carton expects that the integration will continue to develop, rapidly, now that open wireless technologies like WiFi have been added to the mix.

    ''All these lines are going to blur,'' he said. ''Wireless used to mean cellphones. Now it's much more than that ... eventually people are going to expect to be able to access information everywhere.''

    However it develops, the Context report makes a good case for consciously tracking the coevolution of wireless technology and contemporary culture, particularly youth culture.

    ''It's not surprising that teens are driving the integration of this technology,'' said Robbie Blinkoff, the principal anthropologist at Context. ''Teens have a lot of time, and friends, and they are very good at sharing information.''

    ''Many of the people in positions of power in business are a little too old to appreciate the impact of mobile technology,'' Carton added.
    ''Because most of the people who are driving this are between 12 and 25.

    ''For them, a cellphone is not a wacky, extra electronic thing,'' Carton said, ''it's how they live.''

    D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

    This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 1/26/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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