Sarah Joseph - Ethnography

My parents like to tell the story of how when they were younger, they enjoyed watching the show “Get Smart,” in which the main character uses a shoe phone. While the idea of using a shoe to make phone calls was laughable, the most outrageous idea was that the phone was cordless. At the time, the idea of a person carrying a phone around all the time was unbelievable.

Technology has come a long way since “Get Smart” first aired. Today, cell phones are one of the most used and valuable pieces of technology that we use. Although they have been around for only a relatively short time, cell phones have wound their way into our society to a point where many people feel they are invaluable in every day life.

When I thought about how the cell phone has affected my life and the lives of the people around me, I theorized that one of the most important issues with cell phones is the feeling of connection to the world around us, and the results of feeling or not feeling this connection. In order to find out more about the importance of this issue of connectivity in our society, I looked through books and articles, conducted a survey, interviewed cell phone users, and conducted an experiment in cell phone use. By conducting all of this research, I hope to prove my assumptions that cell phones make us feel connected and safe.

Although various types of mobile communication have been around since the late 1890s (Goggin 24), the cell phone we know it today, was not developed until the 1980s (Goggin 30). These first models, however, were not used very widely, and were cumbersome. With the switch from analog to digital phones in the 1990s, cell phones gained many new features, such as address books, alarms, and games (Goggin 32). With all of these improvements, people started using cell phones more and more, leading to the cell phone dependent culture that we have today.

Although there has not been a lot of research into how cell phones make us feel, there have been a few informative studies. In “Emotional Attachment and Mobile Phones,” Jane Vincent asserts that we place a “growing reliance” on cell phones to socially connect us, and that this reliance “comes with a price when the device is absent” (39). In her study, she found that people use cell phones to “achieve emotional goals,” and many even use “emotional language” when talking about their cell phones” (40). Some of this “emotional language” people used include words such as “panic,” “strangeness,” “thrill,” and “anxiety” when talking about not having their cell phones (40). These emotions, Vincent believes, come not from the physical absence of the cell phone as an object, but from the absence of the people’s ability to connect with others. Because the cell phone enables this emotional connection, people talk about it in emotional terms.

This connection is so valuable for us because we are connecting to friends and family. A study by Kerry Devitt and Debi Roker called “The Role of the Mobile Phones in Family Communication,” found that generally both parents and young people use cell phones “for convenience, for safety, [and] for managing family life and social lives” (201). Because this device is used as a tool to manage both family and social interaction, users form emotional attachments to it. As one participant in the study said, “My phone is my life. I don’t go anywhere without it” (195).
This connection also brings up the issue of safety. In their study, Devitt and Roker found that parents allowed their children more freedom because the cell phone kept them connected. The cell phones gave young people more independence and “flexibility in their social lives.” It allowed them to travel “to places that parents might otherwise be concerned by” (193).

This feeling of safety, however, is just that: a feeling. In “‘Call if You Have Trouble’: Mobile Phones and Safety among College Students,” Jack Nasar, Peter Hecht, and Richard Wener found that cell phones increase our perceived safety, but not necessarily our actual safety. In the study, the researchers found that 77.3% of cell phone users surveyed felt “somewhat or a lot safer when walking alone at night”, and this feeling of safety led 40% of the cell phone users to walk somewhere after dark where they would not normally go” (869). Unfortunately, this perceived feeling of safety led to riskier behavior (864).

Another finding of this study was that “talking on a mobile phone may reduce a person’s situation awareness,” therefore, making him/her a more likely victim (864). These findings show that cell phones affect how we feel, and therefore impact our actions. Because we feel safer we use the phones. We base our decisions on feelings and not necessarily fact.

The articles generally seemed to agree with my overall assumptions about cell phones, but I wanted to ask my own questions and conduct my own experiment. To ask questions I created an online survey, and after reading the results, I interviewed 12 people of different ages and genders. The survey had 28 respondents who had a vast range of ideas about cell phones. When asked, “how does it [cell phone] make you feel, the most common response was “connected,” while the second most common response was “safe.” The other options given were “it’s just a phone,” “like it’s a part of me,” and “other.” Some of the comments used to explain these feelings ranged from feeling “stifled” by the presence demanded when carrying around a phone, to feeling weird without it, to considering a cell phone as an “auxiliary brain.”

In my interview questions, I focused on three main ideas: how interviewees use their phones, their emotional responses to their phones, and their opinions on cell phones. When asked if they prefer calling or texting, half of the interviewees said they prefer texting, especially if the topic is something short or something that does not need an immediate answer. However, many of them said that they prefer calling when the issue is “time sensitive” (Chong), or when they haven’t talked to the other person in a long time” (Puterbaugh). The other half of the interviewees prefer calling because, as one interviewee said, “you can hear the actual emotion” (Lindenbaum).

Because phone technology is always improving, I asked if the interviewees liked the direction where phones are headed. While most of the people interviewed liked the direction phones are going, they also voiced concerns. One interviewee said, “I dislike how it [cell phone] has much information, and it is a bit of a security risk if it is lost” (Chong). Although they liked the constant advancements, the rapid change also made users slightly uneasy.

When asked about whether cell phones make them feel safe and how that feeling affects phone use, most of the interviewees responded that they felt safer because it made them feel connected, but that this feeling did not generally affect how they use their phones. One interviewee, however, used it differently: “I feel lost without my phone … If I’m walking to my car at night I will pull my phone out and call my mom or [fiancé]. The cell phone generally makes people feel safer, even though using it actually increases the chance of being attacked (Nasar, Hecht, and Wener 864).

When asked if they have any emotional feelings toward their cell phones, only 2 interviewees claimed to feel an emotional attachment. Both people described their attachment by implying that their phones are an extension of their bodies: “My phone is like another limb. If I forget it or it is dead … its like a part of me is missing or dead” (Johnson)! The other interviewees did not claim to feel any emotional attachment to their phones.

In my personal experience, I have used cell phones as a method of staying connected with the world, and as a tool to make me feel safe. I always feel connected through my cell phone because of the ease with which I can call or text a friend or family member at any time and from almost any location. It makes me feel safe because the police are just one button away if I ever feel the need to call. Because of these feelings, I decided to change my cell phone habits for one week to find out how the changes would affect my perception of cell phones. Instead of using it as a cell phone, I decided to use it as a landline. Due to the fact that I had no access to a landline phone, I used my cell phone only at home, and only for calls. As I predicted when starting this experiment, it was difficult. Because I carry my cell phone around to make me feel safe, I did not feel comfortable leaving home without it. By leaving the phone at home, I felt more on edge. Although I can survive without using my phone, the fact that I did not have it to use lowered my sense of perceived security.

Because I couldn’t talk or text, I became socially disconnected. I missed important messages regarding where and when to meet with people, and had to force myself to plan ahead. Not only was this experiment an inconvenience for me, but my friends and family were also annoyed with my lack of connectivity. By taking myself out of the loop, I forced my friends and family to either plan ahead of time to meet, or give up communicating with me via phone.

During the same week as my experiment, I also asked my friend to conduct a similar experiment. This friend owns a smart phone, and is therefore always connected to the Internet whether to check email, browse websites, or play games. For her experiment I asked her to treat her phone as if it were not a smart phone. She went a week only using her phone for calls and texting, and as an alarm clock. Before starting the experiment, she predicted that it would not be hard to comply. She did not feel as though she was dependent on her phone, and therefore was not worried about going without the Internet. She did not feel any loss of connection with friends and family because she was still allowed to text, and she had other means of accessing the Internet. One observation she made was “I didn’t have to do any stuff [check email] but I felt I was obligated to because it was there” (Witt). Interestingly, this obligation she felt was not from any people pressuring her to stay connected, but instead from the phone itself. Every time she received a text message or an email, her phone had a notification light that blinked until the email was checked. She also found that although she did not feel the need to always check her email or browse the Internet, she would sometimes find herself doing just that without even consciously making the decision to do it. When asked whether she thought her reactions to the experiment were typical, she responded saying “I feel like some people can’t live without checking their email all the time. Once you have my phone, most people can’t go back to not having Internet” (Witt).

Even though we use cell phones to perform many functions, most of these functions are used to help us connect with the people and the world around us. Different people value this connection differently, but many people think this connection makes them feel safer. Although many people just consider this technology to be just a tool for communication, a growing number of cell phone users have come to rely on this tool to keep them connected and feeling safe. The idea that many users feel some sort of anxiety when separated from their phones shows our growing dependence on technology to help us fulfill our social and emotional needs. These results seem to indicate that this dependence on technology will only strengthen as the technology becomes more advanced.

Works Cited

Chong, William. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Cuadrado, Joseph. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Devitt, Kerry, and Debi Roker. "The Role of Mobile Phones in Family Communication." Children & Society 23.3 (2009): 189-202. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.

Goggin, Grerard. Cell Phone Culture: Mobile Technology in everyday life. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.

Johnson, Loryn. email interview. 9 March 2011.

Joseph, Edward. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Joseph, Sarah. “Cell Phone Survey.” https://survey.vt.edu/survey/viewResults.jsp?surveyId=1297457742130. 2011.

Kasik, Olivia. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Lindenbaum, Yona. email interview. 8 March 2011.

Mulligan, Barbara. email interview. 8 March 2011.

Mulligan, Mary Anne. email interview. 8 March 2011.

NASAR, JACK, PETER HECHT, and RICHARD WENER. "‘Call if You Have Trouble’: Mobile Phones and Safety among College Students." International Journal of Urban & Regional Research 31.4 (2007): 863-873. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.

Puterbaugh, Laura. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Simko, Andrew. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Tran, Phuong. email interview. 14 March 2011.

Vincent, Jane. "Emotional Attachment and Mobile Phones." Knowledge, Technology & Policy 19.1 (2006): 39-44. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 Mar. 2011.

Witt, Jennifer. personal interview. 15 March 2011.