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Cell phone science

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | November 5, 2013

My attention was recently drawn to the topic of cell phones and not just because … hold on a sec … um, no messages … of the phone sitting next to my keyboard, but because I was reading two books … wait, what’s the ball score? … No change … where was I? …. oh, yeah, two books – Rainie and Wellman’s Networked and Doron and Jeffrey’s The Great Indian Phone Book – and a few other items on the topic. Cell phones have spread across the globe faster and deeper than any other technology. Understanding why and with what consequence is a new frontier in social science research.

The mobile or cell phone emerged around 1980; almost no one had one. As late as 2000, there was about one cell phone subscription for every 12 human beings in the world; this year, there is about one subscription for every single human being. This must mean something.

The latest Sunday New York Times Book Review presented the intriguing thoughts of many novelists on the question of what the advent of internet devices did to story-telling. The new technologies have blown up a number of plot lines – hero stranded, boy and girl unable to re-find one another, mysterious stranger comes to town, and so on. Get on your phone! Send a text! Google him! What’s the problem?

Some interesting and perhaps unexpected findings are coming out of research into the sociology of cell phones. One finding is that, however cell phone obsessed we think we are … um, did I just hear a buzz? Is that for me? … Americans are mobile laggards.

 Slow talkers

Given Americans’ affluence, given the nation’s lead in technology – Defense Department ARPA, Google, NSA, Apple, and all that – and given our boasting about a competitive entrepreneurial environment, you’d think that Americans would be the most mobile-phoned-up people in the world. Not by a long shot. The latest numbers show that there are about 98 cell phone subscriptions for every 100 Americans. We are down in the middle of the pack and way behind, say, the Finns (173), Italians (159), and Malaysians (141), albeit ahead of the Canadians (76).

More striking, comparing subscription rates to national wealth has us at the bottom: Americans have about 20 subscriptions per million dollars of national GDP; Indians have 470 subscriptions per million dollars. Perhaps something about the North American cell phone industry – the sunk costs in sunken wires, corporate oligopoly, I don’t know – has slowed the spread of mobiles here, or perhaps North Americans don’t want cell phones as much as other people do. The central want for cellphones, separate from any practicalneed, seems to be social chit-chat.

What do cell phoners do when they phone?

The first wireless phones were, as were the first wired phones, expensive, clumsy devices for doing business and business is still a big use for cell phones around the world. Researchers have tried to estimate what the introduction of cell phone service has meant for economic growth in poorer nations and indications are that it contributes at least modestly to growth, notably for otherwise poorly-connected rural populations (e.g., here and here).

But the real enthusiasm for cell phones, which exploded once the devices became easier to use and especially once the prices plummeted, was (as it was for land lines) for personal conversation, be it voice or text: checking in, asking for updates, discussing family and friends (i.e., gossip), asking for advice or just for validation, spreading personal news, more gossip, etc. Rainie and Wellman document the enthusiasm among North Americans, particularly younger ones, and Doron and Jeffrey do the same among Indians, particularly poorer ones.

This rush to chat has raised some concerns about a hidden cost to all that connectivity: that deeper relations among people are weakened as cell phoners ignore the person in front of them to check whether they have messages on their äppäräts from people distant from them. (Ironically, the arrival decades ago of cheap television and personal radios led to worries that being disconnected from other people would weaken intimate bonds.)

The research suggests a much more mundane conclusion. So far – who knows what will happen when today’s teen texters turn thirty? – the best guess is that adoption of the device has not much affected face-to-face intimacy but has led to more frequent communication with intimates. The evidence for this comes mainly from studies of what happened to social relations during the roughly twenty years of the cell phone’s diffusion. For example, a recent study of five western nations, including the U.S., found that adults reported seeing their mothers in person just as often in 2001 as adults did in 1986, while communicating with their moms more often. Other research discussed by Rainie and Wellman and elsewhere (e.g., here) is consistent.

Then there are studies, also reported by Rainie and Wellman and by others (e.g., here), showing that more active cell phone users tend to be generally involved socially more than less active users are. (The worries about e-communications undermining community are also addressed in these earlier blog posts: here and here.)

However mad for cell phones Indians — or Kenyans or Chinese or whoever — are, Americans seem a bit less mad for them. Television sets appear to have spread much more quickly in 1950s America than cell phones did in the last 20 years. Maybe Americans are just less into all that chit-chat.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.