The Ways in Which Mobile Connectivity Transforms and Extends our Relationship with Media

This essay looks at the ways in which the phenomenal growth of mobile technology, particularly mobile phones, has transformed the way we consume and produce media.

A lot of my time at university is spent researching, contemplating and writing essays. These pieces of writing are usually a couple thousand words long and involve a lot of work. This got me thinking that it would be a shame for them to only be seen by lecturers and myself. Why not put them on the blog, say what mark I got, the feedback I received from my lecturers, and let the public give their own feedback? I hope this will become a series of entries on here, either stemming from or consisting of my essays and research partaken at Bournemouth University.

This essay in particular looks at the ways in which the phenomenal growth of mobile technology, particularly mobile phones, has transformed the way we consume and produce media. I received a First (71%) with generally good feedback. The only suggestion being that I could extend the piece by talking about user generated content and what Marshall McLuhan proclaims as the user being the content.

In what ways does the growth of mobile connectivity transform or extend our relationship with media?

In 2009 there were over 1.73 billion users of the Internet (Pingdom 2010), nearly 5 times the amount of users back in 2000 (MMG 2009). 2009 also saw 3.4 billion unique mobile phone users (TomiAhonen 2010), over 3 times the amount of users in 2000 (ITU 2008). There are now double the amount of people using mobile phones as there are using the Internet. Improvements in cellular technology allow mobile phones to connect to the Internet in the same way as computers. The introduction of other mobile technologies are offering even more ways to access the Internet without the physical constraint of wires. To what end does the incredible growth of mobile connectivity change the way we use, consume and produce media?

To understand the growth of mobile connectivity we must first highlight the key points in its history.

The predecessors of today's mobile phones were introduced in the 1980s (Kohonen 2003, p.1). These analog services, known as first generation (1G), allow only voice communication (Gandal et al. 2003, p.326). Improvements in cellular technology culminated in second generation (2G) digital services which, coupled with division of the radio spectrum, allow more people to use the network (Korhonen 2003, pg.2). These digital signals enabled data to be transferred through the network, albeit at extremely slow speeds (Korhonen 2003, p.5), starting with the short message service (SMS) in 1995 (GSM Association 2010). By 2003, incremental upgrades, like GPRS and EDGE (GSM Association) meant data speeds were 26 times faster (SSC 2006), but still still much lower than wired broadband. Korhonen (2003, p.6) highlights that packet switching, the breaking down of data into small chunks, meant Internet use on mobile phones was now charged by the amount of data used. This was an important step in cellular access to the Internet, although the relatively low speeds restricted the type of services that were accessible.

Today's cellular networks are third generation (3G) and offer dramatic increases in speed, comparable to that of low-end wired broadband (SSC 2006). Over 92% of the UK population are within range of 3G services, a figure that jumps to 100% of the population in Japan (Ofcom 2009).

Mobile phone hardware gets smaller and more powerful as improvements are made to cellular networks. Both the hardware and software improvements change the way in which mobile phones are used to consume and produce media. TomiAhonen (2010) estimate that 29% of phones are 3G capable, 95% having some sort of Web browser, and 75% offering a camera. All of these features, now common-place, are encouraging user generated content (UGC) and the consumption of high quality media. Over 2009 alone, mobile data traffic increased 160% because of this to the equivalent of 23 million DVDs (RRW 2010).

Brown (2002, p.5) identifies that the interest in mobile phones comes from its core features; that it is “small, portable, constantly on, and potentially constantly connected”. These features of mobile technology are allowing us to interact in more meaningful ways. As Baron states, “[…] it's far simpler […] to communicate with people not physically present than at any time in human history” (2008, p.4). What is interesting about this view is that it highlights the ability of mobile technology to break down the concept of physicality. Baron has highlighted what Negroponte calls the “post-information age”, one that will “remove the limitations of geography” (1995, p.165).

The post-information age corresponds to McLuhan's theory that through digital technology “[…] we have extended our central nervous system itself […], abolishing both space and time […]” (2001, p.3). The general idea is that through the extension of our senses, telephones for hearing and cameras for sight, digital culture has contracted the world into nothing more than a village. Because we can instantly hear and see things from the other side of the planet, the world in itself has become a smaller place to inhabit.

This smaller world is enhanced by the increasing popularity and domestication of mobile technology. As Ling (2004, p.177) puts it:

[…] mobile communication provides us with ubiquitous contact […]. Rather than requiring us to be at a specific geographical location, mobile communication means that we can communicate and have access to information wherever we are.

What Ling describes is a world where both digital information and the physical medium of accessing the information are free from geographic constraints. Not only can you access information from across the world, you can do so while walking down the street in practically any urban location.

Brum (2009) refers to the ubiquitous access to data as an increase of urban bandwidth:

The bandwidth of urban experience has increased. The ancient ways are still there: the way a place looks, the neighbours we wave at and the hands we shake. But now, there is an electronic conversation overlaid on top of all that: tweets […], neighbourhood online message boards, detailed mobile electronic maps, and nascent applications that broadcast your location to your friends

In modern society the physicality of the world around us has not changed. What has changed is the stream of digital information flying over our heads. Some of this information is tagged with a location, a technique called geo-tagging. The beauty of geo-tagging is that information can be targeted depending on where you are. Through GPS, mobile devices are smart enough to know where they are in the physical world. Knowing where you are means a mobile device can pull information from the local area, wether that is the nearest coffee shop, tweets, photos, news stories, or otherwise. All these location-based services prevent us from feeling lost, even in a new city.

[…] To actually arrive somewhere is no longer surprising in the way it once was” (Cooper 2002, p.26)

Sharing geographic information is good in theory, but the reality is that potentially anyone can get access to that data. This has been the case with location-based service Foursquare. The purpose of the service is to check in at landmarks and specific locations, allowing you to see who else is around you. Inherently, the service highlights the locations you are not currently at. A website called “Please Rob Me”, created to highlight this relaxed attitude to location data, identified users of Foursquare who were announcing that they weren't at home. None of this information was private, and most people are out of the house from 9 to 5 anyway. However, it raises an important issue about the kind of information that is being given without question. Information that can identify people and and the places they have been. Tufekci ([no date] cited Blum 2009) comments on the fact that anyone could be listening in and watching your every move; “as we leave behind the 20th century, it is almost as if we have come full circle back to the village where everyone potentially knows your business”.

Communication is a situation where the sharing of location data is important. For example, Cooper (2002, p.26) illustrates the common utterance, “I'm on the train”. It is not the phrase that is important, it is the meaning behind it. As Cooper continues:

[…] Information on whereabouts often serves to establish the grounds for the conversation in terms of constraints on and sensitivities with regard to possible topic, privacy, duration and so forth

What this means is that although you can contact anyone, anytime, anyplace, the physical location of the conversation will determine what can and cannot be said, and for how long. An extreme example would be a conversation about the intimate goings on of someone's love life, a conversation that wouldn't seem out of place in the car or walking down the street. However, the same conversation would be deemed inappropriate if acted out in a train carriage. The physical size and proximity to other people dictates this, along with basic social and cultural norms.

The global nature of our actions mean we must deal with the consequences, we can no longer be disassociated from them. Whether broadcasting our location or talking on the train, our actions and their respective reactions occur almost simultaneously (McLuhan 2001, p.4). No more is this the case than with UGC and citizen journalism, where media can be both produced by one member of the public, and consumed by another within seconds of each other.

Mobile connectivity gives rise to citizen journalism because of "the spatial and temporal ubiquity of basic tools for observing and commenting on the world we inhabit" (Benkler 2006, p.219). The basic tools needed are built in to the majority of mobile phones, that is SMS, camera functionality and Internet access (TomiAhonen 2010). Gould (2006 cited Mobile Life 2006) states, “give someone a mobile phone and you give them a voice. Give them a voice and you offer the opportunity of empowerment”. It is incredibly difficult to censor and prevent citizen journalism when done via mobile phones. It is simply too easy to produce and distribute content to a large number of people.

In 2001 the president of the Philippines lost power after 4 days of intense protests (Leadbeater 2009, p.186). The interesting part about this was the integral part mobile communication played in organisation the protests. "Tens of thousands of Philippinos converged on Epifanio de los Santas Avenues […] within an hour of the first text message volleys" (Rheingold 2002, p.157-8), within days that number reached over a million. Mobile had well and truly been proven as a medium for organisation large quantities of people.

As Gould (2006 cited Mobile Life) states:

There is now virtually no event that can happen on the planet that cannot and will not be recorded by mobile phones and then transmitted to the world.

One defining example of this was when a plane ditched into the Hudson River in 2009. Janis Krums, a passenger on a ferry crossing the Hudson, sent a pictures of the downed plane on Twitter before media outlets had even caught wind of the original event. His simple words, “There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people.” (Krums 2009), spread across the Internet in an instant. This is still well before any mass-media organisation had published anything. None of this would have been possible without a mobile phone.

Not all citizen journalism is so fresh and believable. Countless photos and videos were captured by passers-by and passengers during the London bombings in 2005. What is interesting about the event is how traditional mass-media utilised the coverage taken from mobile phones. Gordon (2007) outlines the situation:

The media and press asked for eyewitnesses to come forward and used images taken on mobile phones to supplement - and in their terms ‘enhance' - their coverage of the event. […] However, these images and videos sent to media organisations were then subject to the editorial process.

Whilst content from citizens was used in mass-media broadcasts, undoubtably a good thing, the media companies subjected the content to a traditional editorial process. What this meant is that although the content was from real-life members of the public, it destroyed the extra credibility such content enjoys for being outside the realm of traditional media.

This is not the only negative side to citizen journalism. One of the most debilitating factors is that citizen journalism is only available to those that have the means to do so. A digital divide has arisen between the haves and have-nots of society. Those who have mobile devices are able to easily report events. Whilst those who have not, either because of their countries infrastructure, or for economic reasons, cannot. This places an inherent level of censorship on what content makes it into the global village.

One solution to the digital divide amongst comes from wireless technologies. Benkler (2006, p.402) identifies the problem, particularly in developed countries, as the cable connecting homes directly to the network providing the Internet. This last mile often inhibits people from getting any connection to the Internet, simply because the geography makes laying cables economically unwise. The speed and range increases of WiFi place it as a legitimate replacement for traditional wired connections, a viewpoint Rheingold is quite clear about. “Wireless is undoubtedly the best way to bring online the majority of the world's population” (2002, p.135).

It is obvious that mobile connectivity has experienced extraordinary growth in the past decade, in close proximity to that of the Internet. Through this growth, digital culture has removed the traditional restraints of geographic location. Mobile connectivity has added an extra layer of interaction that allows media to be consumed from anywhere in the world, at any location we desire. Coupled with the rise in urban living, mobile devices are improving the way we interact with the environment and people around us. Mobile phones have lowered the barrier for producing and sharing content across the globe. This mobile content has proven to be successful in organising political movements and large quantities of people. We are undoubtably in the age of mobile, albeit at an early stage. The maturity of this age will be integral in defining our modern relationship with media.


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