On the Mobile

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Motorola commissioned Dr Sadie Plant, one of the world’s most advanced thinkers in the field of human relationships with technology, to investigate how the world’s citizens are exploiting the mobile telephone revolution, and produce a report which would inspire Motorola staff as we thought about the next generation of communication technology. We felt that on the mobile provided such fascinating new insights into modern culture that it was worth sharing with others. As well as helping us to understand what more we can do for our customers, on the mobile will help everyone understand a little more about the revolution we are living through and provide inspiration as we move into the future.

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This report is the result of a global enquiry into the social impact of the mobile phone. In French it is called le portable, or le G, which stands for GSM. The Finns have adopted the term kanny, which sprang from a brand name but also refers to an extension of the hand. In German it is the handy; in Spanish it is el movil; Americans still call it a cell phone. In Arabic it is sometimes called el mobile, but often a telephone sayaar or makhmul (both of which refer to carrying) or a telephone gowal (air telephone). In Thailand it is a moto. In Japan it is keitai denwa, a carried telephone, or simply keitai, or even just ke-tai. In China it is sho ji, or ‘hand machine’, although the early mobile was a dageda, which literally means ‘big brother big’ and is often translated as ‘big brother’ – not a homage to George Orwell, but a simple nickname for what were then large, bulky devices; as well, it is said, as a reference to the cool triad bosses of Hong Kong cinema who were seen to carry mobiles for years before their use became widespread.

Whatever it is called, and wherever it is used, this simple, accessible technology alters the way in which individuals conduct their everyday lives. It has extensive implications for the cultures and societies in which it is used; it changes the nature of communication, and affects identities and relationships. It affects the development of social structures and economic activities, and has considerable bearing on its users’ perceptions of themselves and their world.

This report is informed by the interests, themes, and methodologies of several areas of study, including psychology, social psychology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and philosophy. While such interdisciplinary approaches are common to many studies of the cultural effects of technological change, few of the models and hypotheses developed in relation to other new communications technologies can be applied to the mobile without the risk of obscuring what is truly novel in the wireless world. The mobile needs a fresh start and an open mind.

The primary research was conducted in eight major locations: Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Peshawar, Dubai, London, Birmingham and Chicago. While these cities are by no means representative of their regions, or of the wider world, the international scope of this research has made it possible to identify significant ways in which local economic, technological, political and cultural conditions shape the use and perception of the mobile. A wide range of individuals were interviewed about their use and perception of the mobile phone, their attitudes to other mobile users, and their sense of the mobile’s social and cultural effects. Interviews – some structured, some more open-ended – were also conducted with small groups of schoolchildren, teenagers, blue-collar workers and professionals. Email interviews were also conducted with contributors in parts of Europe, Africa, and South America in order to broaden the geographical reach.

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Most, but not all of these contributors were mobile users. The opinions and analyses they expressed were often well- informed and articulate, and many of them had already given considerable thought to the effects of the mobile on their lives, and its implications for their societies. As the research progressed, some of the most interesting emergent themes, anecdotal evidence and tentative conclusions were discussed with several of the groups, and many of the later interviews became opportunities for the mutual exchange of information and ideas. Together with the sophisticated nature of their contributions, these approaches made it possible to go some way towards breaking down the distinctions between interviewees and interviewers which can often compromise such ethnographic work. In addition to these interviews, the research draws on extensive field studies involving the observation of people’s behaviour and actions in relation to mobile phones, and attention to the form and content of their conversations and messages. Photographic evidence and detailed notes were taken in a variety of locations, including open public spaces such as streets, parks, markets and malls; and enclosed spaces such as restaurants and bars, airport concourses and hotel lobbies, and trains, buses, ferries and trams. All this has resulted in the following report: an account of how different people around the world are using this fascinating technology, together with some informed speculation as to what its use might tell us about ourselves at this point in our history.

Full PDF of On The Mobile from Motorola