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America Untethered

Via Hal Bringman, "America Untethered", an excellent (and unfortunately pay-per-view) article from American Demographics on how mobile wireless is changing our society:

As cell phones reach deeper into our lives, they're beginning to create a deeper impression on the American psyche. To hear researchers and ethnographers tell it, wireless communication is beginning to have a notable impact on our social behavior -- one that could have a long-lasting effect on our society and the world around us. "We're at a transitional point where a lot of new rules are being set," says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner at Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore...

At least four ethnographic studies in the U.S. and Europe released in 2001 and 2002 have detected signs of changing habits due to wireless communication. Thanks to mobile phones, the researchers found, Americans and Europeans may be becoming more independent and spontaneous. But they may also be growing prone to planning at the last minute and arriving at meetings late. They're sharing more of their personal lives in public but are also forcing a redefinition of basic etiquette. This increasing accessibility is allowing work to impinge even more on family lives even as it enhances social lives.

One aspect of this phenomenon focused on in the article is how mobile wireless is changing how people relate to time:

If wireless is encouraging people to gab, it's also giving them newfound spontaneity. With cell phones in hand, both [assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Leysia] Palen and Blinkoff's research subjects could change their plans at the last minute more easily, deciding to meet at a different location, say, or inviting others to join their group...

In Brazil, Australia and the U.S., cell phone users repeatedly admitted that they now often call friends and colleagues to tell them they're running behind schedule. In turn, being late is becoming more acceptable than it used to be, Blinkoff and Palen conclude. "Mobile technology is starting to remove a strict adherence to a schedule. It's a loss in respect for calendar time," says Palen. "And that's happening across the board in all sorts of interactions."

Indeed, a 2001 study by Rich Ling, a researcher at Norwegian telecom firm Telenor, and by Leslie Haddon, a research associate in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics, found "micro-coordination" to be the backbone of mobile phones. Unlike the traditional telephone, the mobile phone has none of the strictures of location and therefore "softens" time, enabling people to merely suggest a time and place to meet, and to pin down a location as they approach the meeting time. Perhaps not surprisingly, as users of mobile phones leave more planning to the last minute, they also tend to overshoot the final arrival time as well.

A big change for me is in how I treat directions. If I'm going somewhere unfamiliar, and I have the time, I print out directions using Microsoft Streets & Trips (my favorite Microsoft product, by the way). But if I'm running late, I'll leave with only a vague idea of where I'm headed, on the presumption that I can track down someone on my cell phone who can tell me how to get there.


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