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Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Mobile phones are changing us and the world we live in

Over the last decade, mobile phones have massively changed our culture, society and communication patterns and might even be affecting us physically


If you are one of the millions who received a new mobile phone handset for Christmas, you are undoubtedly happy with your new toy.

Perhaps you're hoping the new model will give you something to show off down the pub, or in the office. Perhaps the new camera facility, or 3G streaming video, will somehow alter your lifestyle for the better.

With mobile phones, you see, change is everything. A raft of research over the past few years has started to point towards mobile phones as things that are changing not only our culture and our language, but our very bodies as well.


The culture first. The difference between mobile phones and their landline elders is that a mobile number corresponds to a person, while a landline is a place. If you call my mobile, you get me. If you call my landline, you get whoever is closest to my desk at the time.

This has many implications, but the most common one, and perhaps the thing that has changed our culture for ever, is that of "approximeeting." People no longer need to make firm plans about when and where to meet. Twenty years ago, a Friday night would need to be arranged in enough time to allow everyone to get from their place of work to the first meeting place. Now, however, a night out can be rearranged on the fly. It is no longer "see you here at eight," but "text me around eight and we'll see where we all are."

Some people see it as a weakening of commitment in society, and a continuation of a form of teenage casualness. Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The same techniques the young use to arrange a quick drink are also being used to bring down governments. The most famous example is the removal from power in 2001 of Filipino president Joseph Estrada by a demonstration organized by text message chain letters.

Texting changed everything again. In their paper, "Insights into the Social and Psychological Effects of SMS Text Messaging," Donna Reid and Fraser Reid distinguished between two types of mobile phone users: the Talkers and the Texters -- those who prefer voice over text messaging and vice versa.

They found that the mobile phone's individuality and privacy gives Texters the ability to express a whole new persona: "Texters were also more likely to report that their family would be surprised if they were to read their texts, suggesting that texting allowed Texters to present a self-image that differs from the one familiar to family members and others who know them well," they said.

"Texters may feel at greater ease being their `real-self' through a text message reducing the potential repercussions that may otherwise take place in a traditional face-to-face or telephone encounter. Texting may offer Texters more control over their interactions with others by affording them visual anonymity and asynchronous communication. As such the mobile may become more a matter of identity than a simple communication tool."

Self-discovery is one thing, but clear communication quite another. The London School of Business's Business Strategy Review claims that quick e-mails and casual text messaging is ruining our ability to express ourselves clearly.

Not always welcome

Mobiles aren't always welcome, no matter how important they have become in society. When the US Federal Communications Commission proposed lifting the ban on in-flight phone calls last month, it was inundated with thousands of e-mails begging it to reconsider. The one haven from other people's conversations, the e-mails said, must be preserved. In one survey, 45 percent of British mobile phone users supported a ban on their use in public places.

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