Jenny Cox - Study

Mobile Technology: Convenience and Closeness

Keywords
availability, closeness, convenience

The Plan

For ten days, I pretended my cell phone was a landline. The plan seemed easy enough: instead of taking it out with me as I usually do, I left it plugged into one of my bedroom’s outlets. Since my phone doesn’t allow users to disable texting, I planned on calling back anyone who texted me. Besides, the person I texted most frequently was my boyfriend in Charlottesville, and I could just tell him my plans ahead of time.

Always Available, Always Connected

Like most college students today, I don’t own a landline telephone—indeed, my only experience with a landline phone during my time in Blacksburg has been with the dusty relic my roommate and I decided to stash under the bunk. And universities are aware of this behavior: Roanoke College got rid of dormitory landlines in 2008; William and Mary did the same in 2009 (Fisher). In fact, when the University of Missouri in Kansas City opened new dorms in 2008, the school gave students the option of adding a landline in their rooms—of 850 students, only four chose to do so (Fisher).

Like the students at these universities (and millions of people across the globe), I’ve become accustomed to my mobile device—texting a friend whenever the mood strikes me, taking a call on my way to class, and never waiting for someone else to hang up so I can talk. Unless I’ve forgotten it, my mobile’s usually on me, in my pocket, purse, or backpack. It’s always available for me to use, but in turn, its presence makes me available to anyone who wants to talk.

In Alone Together, author Sherry Turkle discusses such availability’s effect on how we live our lives. She argues, for example, that using mobile technology in public “marks [the user] as absent” (155). She writes: “A ‘place’ used to comprise a physical space and the people within it. What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent?” (155).

With a nod to Turkle’s argument, I started my experiment with my own question in mind: How do mobile phones affect our feelings of closeness with others? By going in public without a mobile phone, I wanted to observe for myself Turkle’s claim about absence in a physical space. I also wanted to gauge my relative convenience or inconvenience from not having a phone. Furthermore, I wanted to know if I would feel a longing to connect with those I typically texted or called during the day—if walking the mile to campus and back everyday without being available made me feel independent or alone.

Absence in a Physical Space

On day five of my experiment, I went to a local coffee shop between classes. It was crowded, and I sat at the last remaining table. Once I had my drink, I looked around. With the exception of a pair of friends chatting near the window, the other patrons of the coffee shop were alone like I was, except that they had laptops with them. I tried to analyze the scene with Alone Together in mind. Sure, the coffee drinkers with eyes fixated on their laptops probably didn’t even notice how many people were in the shop. They were indeed “alone together”—doing different things, not regarding one another, but seated in the same location. While I found this amusing, I also found it appropriate. In 2011, most people don’t visit coffee shops to have conversations with strangers. Maybe they have work-from-home jobs and need to escape the walls of their apartments; maybe they need a space to get work done and enjoy free refills. I admit, however, this understanding is a product of the time I grew up in: I’ve always known coffee shops to be like this.

Convenience

During my ten days of a pretend-landline, I found that the biggest inconvenience I experienced was not knowing the time. I had kept a watch on my wrist all summer for my job as a camp counselor and ceremoniously threw it away the day I drove home—not because I hated knowing the time, but because a summer’s worth of swims in the lake and five-minute showers left water permanently trapped beneath the wristband that irritated my skin. Arranging plans during the weekend also proved more challenging than normal, but my friends quickly realized they could simply call my roommates or my boyfriend and get hold of me. When you’re inner circle’s connected, you are too—whether or not you have a phone on you.

In an article for gadget blog Gizmodo Australia titled "10 Seinfeld Episodes Not Possible With Today's Technology," author Brendan O’Hare discusses that much of the show’s situational comedy “revolved around the four main characters attempting to find each other.” He presents ten clips from the show and hardly needs to explain how mobile technology would make each of these premises a non-situation:

5. The Movie: Another classic “Oh-What-If-They-Had-Mobile-Phones!-This-Ruins-The-Episode-For-Me” episode. The episode centres around the four attempting to meet at one central location to see a movie. Jerry has a conflicting stand-up event, George gets in the wrong line, Kramer gets a Papaya King hot dog instead (I prefer Gray’s Papaya. Once had 15 hot dogs and 6 drinks for 17 bucks. What a bargain!). Jerry attempts to run ALL THE WAY BACK to the theatre to say he cannot make the movie, but the three others are gone. I think you know what technology would have done.

In his video montage, “No Signal: A Supercut,” blogger Rich Juzwiak notes Hollywood’s answer to the cell phone problem in contemporary horror films:

That horror films as a genre must resort to this newfound cliche in order to capture audiences speaks to the ubiquitous convenience of mobile technology: calling someone for help, directions, or clarity from anywhere other than your house is a solution 98% of the time (unless you’re in that blasted 3%).

Eleven years ago, emerging research warned the public that the risk from cell phone radiation might outweigh their conveniences: “Cell Phones - Convenience Or 21st Century Plague?” But in 2011, public discussion seems focused on managing risk rather than avoiding it altogether. Now that many Americans own more than one wireless device (myself included), the number of mobile devices with wireless subscriptions in the United States “outnumbers the people living here” (CNNMoney). Research doesn’t prove a direct link between cell phone use and cancer, but The World Health Organization recently issued a statement reading: “The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.” (WHO).

We don’t yet fully understand the physical or sociological effects these devices have on us. Turkle argues that, “these days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time” (xii). A mobile device’s convenience transcends being able to quickly receive directions when you’re lost on the road—we can now manage relationships through mediums more convenient than phone calls or face-to-face conversations.

But in the case of my study, I never felt inconvenienced by not texting somebody or not being able to call them from campus—that is to say, I didn’t experience any loss from being unable to make plans using my phone when I was without it. By the third day, however, I was longing to text for a different reason: I missed texting (and receiving messages from) my boyfriend, John.

Closeness

Yeah, okay. Roll your eyes if you must, but John and I are young, in love, and living 150 miles apart. Thus, our text correspondence consists of many usages of the word “love,” exclamation marks, and smiley face emoticons. Looking at my phone after a class lets out to find such a message has become a daily source of happiness for me. I knew I would miss it during the experiment, but I didn’t realize to what extent. I found myself logging into my email from lab computers around campus to send John emails of the same substance of the texts I was missing. I was cheating the experiment; I knew John’s iPhone would alert him to new emails as quickly as it did incoming text messages.

While Turkle might argue that such a need to connect throughout the day suggests insecurity and a strategy to protect myself from disappointments common to distance-relationships, I disagree. I understand my longing to connect via text message as a way to express and accept affection. Texting “I love you” expresses to the recipient you were thinking of them in that moment, and often those moments occur multiple times a day. These correspondences—usually no more than four text messages between us—can stand independently. Unlike some of Turkle’s subjects’ messages, the messages do not appear in a “stream” that “makes it impossible to find moments of solitude” (202), instead, in my experience with text messaging, I find that I often send text messages after such moments of solitude.

And such texts are not limited to the relationship I share with John. Last week, I found myself laughing about a personal joke from a five or six years ago with a friend I haven’t seen in two years. Texting “Y’all got a turlet?” to Kel provides a unique way to tell him I remember him and our once very close friendship. It can begin a conversation about visiting each other, or it can exist as simply an expression of affection. Its medium, a text message, doesn’t particularly “protect” me, however; I’d feel hurt if Kel didn’t respond, just as I’d feel hurt if I called him and he was quick to hang up.

Reflection

From my experiment and reflections on my use of mobile technology, I believe mobile devices can make us feel closer to the people we know in a real way. Turkle’s book suggests that this closeness is often superficial, but my experiences don’t fall into that category. I don’t have relationships where the majority of the communication takes place through text messaging, Facebook, or email. As I’ve experienced friendships that have dissolved due to distance or other reasons, I haven’t found myself artificially maintaining them through digital means. While I have used digital technology to tell someone I miss them, or to share an old inside joke, I do so from the heart; not boredom or some obligation to maintain the pretense of friendship.

However, I realize that Turkle’s conclusions are based on multiple interviews with different kinds of people. I do not speak for everyone. I also realize that I may be flawed in my self-assessment despite my conscious efforts not to be. Nonetheless, it’s important to stay aware and critical of how we use digital technology with regard to communication. As a person who strives (in my better moments) for compassion and empathy toward others, I don’t want to manage the people I care about from a platform that serves me above all others.

Bibiliography

Begich, Nick and James Roderick. “Cell Phones—Convenience or 21st Century Plague?” Rense.com. 26 July 2000. Web. 15 October 2011.

CNNMoney. “Cell phones, tablets outnumber Americans.” Chicago Tribune 12 October 2011. Web.

Fisher, Marc. “No More ‘Can I Use The Phone?’” Washington Post 11 February 2009. Web.

O’Hare, Brendan. “10 Seinfeld Episodes Not Possible With Today’s Technology.” Gizmodo Australia. 26 March 2011. Web. 15 October 2011.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2011. eBook.

World Health Organization. “Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones.” World Health Organization, June 2011. Web. 15 October 2011.

Multimedia Sources:

Juzwiak, Rich. “No Signal (and other cellular drama).” Fourfour. 23 September 2009. Youtube video and blog post.