18 October 2009

Cell Phones and Society

An interesting rant on the New York Times homepage brings to mind the fact that cell phones are still very much an emerging part of our society. Cellular phones have only been widely available for less than a decade and they're a constant reminder for how the world has changed in that decade.

Cellular phones are an amazingly intricate piece of technology -- essentially a miniaturized computer with an antenna, microphone and speaker. My first phone was heavy on the antenna, microphone and speaker components; I tend towards thinking that's about all it was. Nowadays, phones are much heavier on the computer part -- my current phone, the Google G1, is capable of emulating a Nintendo of all things, among much more practical matters.

As cell phones have evolved from the domain of the ultra-rich, society has been slow to adapt to them. Just as when email became more widely available in the mid '90s, it took well over a decade to achieve a sort of cultural consensus -- less formal than a hand written note, used primarily when an urgent response is not needed. The article above focuses on an emerging aspect of cell phone use -- people tend to stop walking when they get a call. Apparently this behavior is commonplace in New York, but I have yet to spot it in Washington.

The gradual cultural effects of cellular phones on our society is fascinating. Cellular phones are slowly but surely killing landline phones. This has progressed to the point where, during the last presidential election, many worried that polls were greatly underestimating the support for Obama because polls only surveyed landlines, which are not widely used by younger people. Newer data plan phones allow constant connection with information sources like Wikipedia. Future generations of cellphones will allow people to watch TV on them; my coworker demonstrated this to me the other day via Slingbox and his iPhone.

Interestingly, the ubiquity of mobile devices already makes some media look dated. My wife and I watched the movie Diehard a few weeks ago; the entire setup depended on the police and military being initially unaware of the terrorist's presence, but a single cell-phone call (or even a text message) could've changed that. Diehard is from 1988, only 21 years ago. Even more recent, the TV show 24 featured cell phones in the first season, but even those seemed dated when I saw a repeat of the series a few years back. Nowdays, cellular phones can relay location information, text messages, twitter, and, with only a little innovation, could be used as a widespread sensor network to detect and localize gunshots, fires, or other disruptions.

So my big question is: Where are cell phones taking our society? Some sort of uber-networked utopia? A big-brother-like dystopia where people's movement patterns are tracked via their mobile devices? Will the shortage of available radio spectrum change this or will we communications engineers figure out a way around this?

If you find this stuff as interesting as I do, the novel Halting State, by the inimitable Charles Stross, is a fascinating look at where cell phones could take us in another decade. Also note that my writing hasn't even touched on the effects of SMS or MMS on communication -- stay tuned for more rambling!

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