My piece on “the culture of mobile phones”

In today’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an article I wrote about how the new tricks of mobile phones — messaging, picture-taking, and location-awareness — are changing society. The story’s online at their site here, but a permanent copy is archived below:

Remote Possibilities
The more our mobile phones change, the more they change us

WHEN CAT LOVERS GO ON VACATION and leave their animals behind, they usually worry neurotically: did they leave enough food in the bowl for Fluffy? But there isn’t much they can do about it. That is, unless they’ve got what Karen Lurker’s got — a pet feeder you can control from anywhere in the world using your mobile phone.

Lurker, a spokeswoman for NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese mobile-phone company, is in her gleaming showroom in Manhattan, introducing the gunmetal-gray ”I See Pet” feeder. It’s about the size and shape of a squat coffee-maker, and it stares at you like a cyclops with one robotized eye. ”That’s actually a Webcam,” she notes. ”It’ll broadcast whatever’s happening in your house and send the picture to your phone. So when you’re at work, you can pull out your mobile and see how the cats are doing.” If they’re looking hungry? Lurker hits a button on the keypad, and the robot feeder clicks once — then disgorges a pile of M&M’s into the food tray. (”That candy’s just for our guests,” she adds hastily. ”Obviously you’d be feeding them real pet food.”) Customers asked the manufacturer, AlphaOmega Soft, to install a speaker too, so that they could talk to their pets while away on a business trip. But the company ”figured that would probably just freak the pet out too much,” Lurker says.

The device goes on sale in the United States early next year, and when it does, it’ll give us yet another weird way to use today’s mobile phones: as teleportation devices. DoCoMo is hardly alone in this endeavor. A consortium of high-tech heavyweights called the Internet Home Alliance is wiring entire houses in Boston so that they can be remotely manipulated by mobile phone — turning kitchen appliances on and off from the supermarket, for example.

These days, merely talking on a phone seems almost quaint, kind of like using a party line. No, today’s phones are about having a cyborglike connection to every aspect of your network. It’s like having an extra limb. Your phone collects your e-mail from work; it zaps tiny text messages to friends far or near. It captures exquisitely embarrassing pictures from drunken office parties. It feeds your cat. The mobile phone has become, in essence, a remote control for life. ”We call it ‘the device formerly known as the cellphone,”’ says Geoffrey Frost, the chief brand officer for Motorola, which makes cellphones. ”Now it’s like having E.S.P.” And along the way, the phone is changing the way we relate to one another — in often surprising and subtle ways.

Cameraphones are probably the most obvious change so far, because for the first time great numbers of Americans are carrying around cameras all day long. Life becomes a type of personal reality TV. ”You’re continually looking at your own experiences and thinking, Hmm, is this interesting?” says Mizuko Ito, a researcher with the University of Southern California and Keio University in Japan who has been studying the way people use cameraphones. ”Is this worth taking a picture of? Should I share this?” Ito has met young women who snap pictures of haircuts and shoot them off to friends, to get an instant ”hot or not” judgment. For time-stressed parents, the cameraphone has turned into a virtual gateway to the kids. When Andrew Cohen, an associate editor at Newsweek.com, saw his 6-year-old son take his first ride on a two-wheeler this fall, he snapped a short video using his Nokia 3650 — and e-mailed it to his wife at work.

But cameraphones also mean we’re living in a world with a million prying eyes. This summer, the Sports Club/LA gym chain banned members from carrying cameraphones anywhere beyond the lobby to prevent illicit snapshots from leaking out onto the Web. When Britney Spears attended a party held by Rolling Stone this summer, she asked the magazine to confiscate all cameraphones from partygoers. Worried about corporate espionage, Samsung has actually banned cameraphones from its Asian factories — and Samsung makes cameraphones. The crackdown has even inspired a ”no picturephones” logo, a drawing of a phone with a camera and a slash through it. ”I’ve seen it in government facilities,” says Geoff Hollingworth, director of marketing for Ericsson. ”And if you try to get in there with a phone, they’re frisking you.”

It’s much like the Rodney King effect. Mobile-phone executives are already talking about the advent of ”citizen reporters” and a world where news breaks first via handsets. This summer, a Japanese trucker came upon a deadly 12-car collision, and video he shot from his phone was broadcast live. Later in the summer, in New Jersey, a man was arrested after a boy he tried to abduct snapped his picture and gave it to the police. ”We’re going to be living in the panopticon,” says Gordon Gould, founder of Upoc, a company that lets anyone set up a free mailing list to broadcast text messages or pictures from his phone. ”If you want to do something bad, you’ll have a million eyes on you. You’d better get used to it.”

Still, surveillance goes both ways — if you want to conduct some spying yourself, the technology has never been easier. This year, Panasonic released a Webcam that you can control and see through from a mobile phone. Set up one in your home, and you can check in remotely, panning around and zooming in. Mike Timar, the national product manager for Panasonic, lets me take control of his officecam with my mobile phone — and suddenly there I am, peeking out his window at people walking by, four miles away in Secaucus, N.J. ”You could use your phone to check in on an elderly relative, or your nanny with your kid,” Timar says. Over the next year or two, the company plans to add ever more controls. ”The cable guy always comes the wrong day, when you’re at work, right? So the next time, your doorbell will ring through to your phone. You’ll check your camera to see who’s there. You can even unlock the door and let him in.”

Cameraphones are turning pictures into something as plastic and mobile as e-mail. This development is already leading to new battles over property rights. In Japan this summer, bookstores began complaining of ”digital shoplifting”; instead of buying magazines, readers would simply snap pictures of interesting stories and bulk-forward them to friends. ”One kid will take shots from the porn magazine and share the pictures with his friends,” Ito says. ”It’s like a Napster thing — anything you see in the environment becomes something you could easily capture and share.”

PUNDITS HAVE FRETTED FOR YEARS that mobile phones are making us ruder. In June, Nokia released some evidence that may actually prove it. A survey found that 71 percent of mobile-phone users admit they are now consistently late for social events. Why? Because they can send a flurry of text-messages explaining where they are, how fast they’re moving and precisely when they’ll arrive, down to the minute. ”You sort of feel you’ve got more play, because you’re in this incredibly close contact,” says Robbie Blinkoff, the principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, which has found similar trends in its studies.

Indeed, this sort of ”micro coordination” is a form of behavior made uniquely possible by those tiny S.M.S. (”short messaging service”) bursts of text. Phoning someone six times an hour just to relay your location would seem outright insane. But text messages are far less obtrusive, so mobile users — particularly teenagers — think nothing of sending dozens of messages a day to a single friend, keeping them in almost telepathic contact with each other. Ito calls this ”persistent but lightweight co-presence”: in Japan, she has found that partners who do not live together may trade up to 100 text messages a day. ”They’re expected to be in constant contact. But it’s not as if they’re asking for a face-to-face intense conversation. It’s like you’re in the room, and you just sort of share a sigh or a facial expression,” she says. ”And they’ll flag moments of disconnection. They’ll say: ‘I’m going to take a bath now! I won’t be texting.”’ This isn’t the Borg-like hive-mind that digital prophets have long predicted humanity would evolve into; nobody’s doing any deep thinking in S.M.S. messages. It’s more like the behavior of ants, leaving chemical traces to figure out where their colleagues are. Studies have found that the single most commonly sent text message is ”Where are you?”

”Where are you?” can be a more complex question than you’d imagine, according to Genevieve Bell. Bell is a researcher at Intel who has traveled throughout Asia to study mobile-phone culture, particularly among religious groups. In Malaysia, mobile phones are so widespread that Muslim leaders send out S.M.S. reminders to call the faithful to prayer, five times a day. Muslims in other countries — like Britain — have begun using a service that tells them the prayer times in Mecca, which means they essentially live in two time zones at once: local time for their professional lives and Saudi time for their spiritual lives. ”They’re existing in two countries simultaneously,” Bell notes.

Of course, living in two places — even virtually — means being spread thin. Rich Ling, a sociologist working for Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company, has interviewed thousands of mobile-phone texters, and he has noticed that they actually feel more disconnected from the world around them. Consider it the mobile-age version of Bowling Alone: text-messagers are connected more tightly than ever to their core friends and family but are less likely to engage the civic life around them. ”When you’re waiting for the bus and it’s late, you could talk to the person next to you. But if you’re texting to someone, you won’t talk to that stranger,” he says. In Italy, it’s even a marital problem. Husbands have been caught incessantly texting their mistresses while hanging out with their wives; newspapers have recently begun printing how-to guides explaining ways to erase the trace evidence. Ling has found that 20 percent of Norwegian teenagers are up past midnight at least one night a week texting with friends, destroying their sleep habits. ”Phones are now the flashlight beneath the covers,” he says.

But even if we’d like to pull back from today’s mobile culture, it would not prove easy. Indeed, the next generation of phones is slated to become even more sophisticated. Phone companies have begun offering ”location based” services with handsets that let other people know where you’re walking, all day long. Next year, the French telecommunications equipment company Alcatel will offer Guardian Angel, which will let people track the movements of their children (or their Alzheimer’s-ridden elderly parents) via their phones. We won’t need to send out those ”where are you?” queries anymore; instead, we’ll have a nearly psychic level of knowledge about one another. New forms of play will arise: in Sweden and Finland, teenagers already play BotFighters war games — one phone attacks another if they get physically close enough, like two Game Boys sensing each other’s presence. Nokia’s N-Gage phone, designed specifically to run games, lets players go head to head in a racing or fighting game with anyone nearby. Beyond this ”whoa” potential, though, the privacy implications of location-based capabilities are hair-raising, says Roger Entener, a mobile-phone analyst at the Yankee Group. ”Your spouse will say she’s on a business trip in Kansas City, but you’ll notice that her phone is actually down in Chelsea. So you’ll go, Hmm, what’s happening there?”

Yet even then, observers say, people will probably never be willing to rein in their mobile lives. Bell tells a story that illustrates just how central phones now are. In Malaysia, she recently attended a ”feast of the hungry ghosts,” where Chinese Malays burn paper replicas of food. ”They do it to ensure that their ancestors are well fed,” Bell notes. But in recent years, they’ve also begun burning paper versions of mobile phones — and even paper versions of prepaid phone cards, to make sure the phones will work beyond the grave. ”They can’t imagine their dead relatives existing without the latest models,” Bell says. ”And they wouldn’t want their ancestors to be lonely.” Even in death, no one wants to be cut off.

Clive Thompson writes frequently about science and technology. His most recent article for the magazine was about neural marketing.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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