Eric Kambach | Ethnography

The film, Surrogates, first opened in theaters on September 25, 2009 and was based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti. The story takes place in a future where people are able to live their lives within the safety and comfort of their own homes, living through robotic surrogates that perform their tasks in the outside world. These surrogates play vital roles in resolving human issues like racism, safety and crime. As the story goes, two surrogates and their controllers are destroyed, and FBI agent Tom Greer, played by Bruce Willis, is sent to investigate. He discovers a vast conspiracy involving the company that manufactures the surrogates and the scientist behind the development of the first surrogate robot, and is forced to unplug himself from his surrogate in order to escape from these antagonists and solve the mystery, reconsidering the necessity of robotic substitutes for everyday functions.

The idea of living through technology portrayed in this story, as well as other stories, has been a topic of discussion in the science and technology world. Not long ago, scientists believed that the technology for robots in general was too advanced for modern technology, and that such creations specifically aimed towards the substitution of human interaction with the world, controlled by simply by thought, is years from development at the present time. Unfortunately, those scientists were wrong. There has been a thunderous wave of progress in the development of robotics and technology. But the idea of living through technology has been a reality for years and, sadly, it is commonly seen among out youth through one of the most common of accepted technological necessities: cell phones and smartphones.

Cell phones, or mobile phones, have been around since 1973, where Motorola researcher and executive Martin Cooper made the first call on a handheld phone. Since then, the mobile phone has developed in technological complexity and decreased in size, and have progressed to whole automated cellular networks, stage known as “Generations,” or “G” for short. Developers have recently introduced 4G, which is an advancement in web access.

The most common device that can be connected anywhere at any time is the smartphone, with companies Apple, Nokia and Google being the top producers of these super phones, which are commonly accepted as the models for the basic requirements, including touch-screen, quick internet access, music and video playback, a camera and even video gaming. The most popular characteristic of these phones, though, is the downloading of application software, or “apps” for short. These apps spread throughout every topic known, from cooking to mixing drinks, social networking to YouTube, news to ebooks. The application choices are endless, and have been a great success. But the developments of cell phones, smartphones have virtually changed communication in the world.

Different businesses have had to go through periods of adapting to small devices in the work place. In some offices, they were viewed as recreational or personal devices that should not get in the way or even be involved with the business. In some cases, they are seen as a security risk with their cameras, recording functions and file-downloading capabilities. Government offices have had to adapt by either providing specific cell phone models to employees or not allowing such devices into the buildings. But most businesses have embraced the growing capabilities and potential for these now common gadgets. Communication is now based on the speed it takes to connect, either by calling or texting, which has been embraced by such professionals as lawyers and stock brokers who require as much information as possible in sort periods of limited time (Dornan). Sadly, businesses are not the targeted audience that developers are trying to attract.
The audience that developers are attracting the most is the youth.

With the increase in reliance on these complex devices over the past twenty years, young adults and teenagers have become the top customers of mobile phone, and even children are coming into possession of them as gifts. For the youth, mobile phones can serve a constructive purpose for parents to keep in touch with their children. But they have also become a serious distraction in school, as students tend to pass notes through texting—an apparent upgrade from traditional note passing in class. When students began using cell phones during class time, instructors would confiscate the phone until a certain time.

But Elizabeth Hartnell-Young, a researcher from the University of Nottingham, does not believe that mobile phones in school should not be discouraged but promoted for the purpose of education. Along with her colleagues at the university, Hartnell-Young tracked and monitored 331 teenagers between ages fourteen and sixteen at five different schools that incorporated the use of smartphones for class. She noticed that the students used the phones to set dates, record both reminders and lectures, access relevant websites and download files between class and home, and saw that the students were more motivated while working on a project. She felt that these findings gave the mobile phone high remarks as a portable, interactive study guide and lesson plan. “We hope that in the future,” she said, “mobile phone use will be as natural as using any other technology in school.”

Keeping this hope in mind, what will happen to the pen, pencil and paper? What about the chalk board and dry erase board? What will happen to conventional methods of teaching if the learning material is converted to electronic documentation and everything can be easily accessed and completed through a single, hand-held gadget? More importantly, what will be the effect if young people are trained to rely on unlimited, total access to information by developing a “natural” bond to these phones? These are serious questions that need to be considered before education boards across the world begin handing the youth off to the care of technology, because the mobile phone in the palm of the younger generation’s hand is already having a significant effect on the young peoples’ sociability with each other.

With the texting function and complete access to social networks on the web, mobile devices have made sociability both easy and difficult among young users. With texting, users can communicate with others over greater distances through short, quick messages without creating the disturbance at a public place. Smartphones are no different, and they possess quick internet access on the go. But often would students view educational information as opposed to their social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, where they can post their thoughts and what they are currently up to, or even talk with a friend via Facebook chat? This constant connection with the web or texting is believed to promote connectivity and sociability as opposed to making users more sedentary (Casey). This may be true under certain circumstances, such as long distance relationships, but is it the same within walking or driving distance? Here in Blacksburg, I decided to observe the different ways Virginia Tech students use their phones.

During the fall and spring semesters, the Blacksburg Transit rarely has a slow day; there are slow periods of the day—such as early in the morning or afternoon, or late in the evening—but throughout, the buses always transport either at the maximum capacity of eighty or very close to it. Whether on a full bus or not, most passengers are either plugged in listening to music, or playing with their phones. As a passenger of a few of these bus routes, I am no stranger to this, and have myself either texted or listened to music while riding. But for three weeks, I took my usual position at the back of the bus in the morning along Patrick Henry Drive and not only kept my phone in my pocket, but watched as others stepped aboard, phone already in hand, fingers texting away. At 10:30 and 8:30 Monday and Tuesday mornings, the bus seldom reaches its max, but I counted that no less than half the passengers were connected to their phones. For instance, beginning at 10:30 on September 20th, I counted fifteen students, with eight of them either texting or performing other, nonverbal tasks on their phone. Others either sat quietly or had a book or paper out to read. The numbers increased with each stop, and the final number of passengers for that round came to forty, with twenty-three using their phones. Later the same day, I boarded the 4:00 PM bus of the same route, which is possibly the busiest bus of the day for that route. It reached maximum, and it was difficult to see how many phones were in use, but I was able to count at least forty-nine, and was even able steal glances of the screens. Of course, most texted while others played games or went straight to Facebook. Very few throughout my whole observation actually spoke into their phones.

In order to get a better grasp as to why we go straight to the phones in these instances, I chatted with a few people, both on the bus and off, and was rather surprised with what I learned. Most texters text their friends to either make plans or just to say hello and start a conversation without making any noise, but some have admitted that an extra benefit to doing this on the bus is so that others will believe that they are busy and won’t try to make small talk. One girl admitted that she goes as far as to pretend that she’s texting someone so that she can avoid eye contact with passersby or bus users. As for those with smartphones, most of those I spoke with said that they actually try avoiding internet browsing until after all their classes, usually do not get a chance to check email or networks until they jump on the bus.

Despite these confessions, there was one question I particularly wanted to ask: how much difference is there between communicating with friends face-to-face or verbally and through texting or social networking? The answers were mixed. Some thought there was no difference, or that texting did not hinder their social abilities. But others based their answers on the circumstances, such as who they are communicating with and how much interaction with that individual they prefer. In other words, there are those acquaintances that one would consider friends and others who are simply acquaintances but believe they are friends; basically, interaction with those latter acquaintances are limited to electronic communication as much as possible.

For others, though, it’s almost the complete opposite in that electronic communication is their preferred method of social interaction. For individuals I spoke with who are more shy, they feel that they are more able to express themselves through indirect conversation than face-to-face interaction, in which they feel extremely anxious, especially when being introduced to new people; some have even admitted that it has become reflex to go straight to the phone when surrounded by strangers. These confessions are worrying in that they show a slow digression from physical sociability and a surrender to indirect communication.

This digression has been thought about by many minds, both brilliant and criticized, and they have both endorsed and warned against these developments. We have seen the predictive ideas of how mobile devices will slowly become a necessity, like Venditti’s Surrogates and E.M Forster’s short piece, The Machine Stops, where humanity lives underground, with each person isolated from each other in their own apartment-like structure, and is completely reliant on a global machine that provides everything a single person needs. Today, everybody needs a cell phone with multiple means of communication. Now, interacting through such means as texting and social networking through the phone is slowly replacing conventional social skills in the youth of the world.

Works Cited