Cell Phones, Mobility, and Human Interaction

When a modern thinker conceptualizes the phrase “mobile media,” the initial idea that most likely comes to mind is cell phones. They are thought of as the epitome of mobile devices. A relatively small machine can quickly perform a tremendous amount of varied tasks at the swipe of a finger, a feat that was unfathomable merely 20 years ago. As hard as it may be to grasp for a generation that has grown up in the era of mobile technologies, people did not always carry calculators around at all times (how did they know how much to tip at restaurants?!). Maps originally were drawn or printed on this stuff called paper (I’ve been told that they used to cut down trees to make this stuff. Trees!). Alarm clocks had to be plugged into a wall outlet to work, and the only sound they emitted was an annoying beep (people didn’t wake up to the sound of Beyoncé every morning? Barbarians!). These and most other utilities that now can be performed on smartphones were not always associated with one another, and they certainly were not always mobile.

The concept of being able to communicate with a person who was not in the immediate vicinity began with the creation of the telegraph by the Chappe brothers in the 1790s (Goggin, 2006, p. 19). The first message transmitted via telegraph was sent four years later, and by the middle of the 19th century, “the telegraph had approximately 5000 km of line with 354 stations across France” (Goggin, p. 19). Telegraphy became an essential communication tool, and as it was reaching the pinnacle of its popularity, a new invention emerged: the telephone. Popularized by Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone enabled people to speak with one another through a receiver. The sound of the speaker’s voice travelled along wires to reach the listener’s ear at the other end (Goggin, p. 20). An inherent trait of wired communication such as the telegraph and the telephone is immobility; wires must be connected to something in order to function. Thus, as groundbreaking as these contraptions were, they lacked portability.

Despite its fixed nature, the telephone rapidly grew in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. In the United States in 1900, there was one telephone subscription per 10,000 people, a ratio that increased to one subscription per 1,000 people by 1915 (Ling & Donner, 2009, p. 34). During this time, people were already beginning to explore the possibilities of advancing telephone technology by making it mobile. A phone was installed in an automobile as early as 1910 (Farman, 2012, p. 15), and Lee DeForest’s vacuum tube invention laid the groundwork for radiotelephony to become possible (Ling & Donner, p. 35). By 1950, telephone subscriptions worldwide had skyrocketed to 75 million (Goggin, 2006, p. 21), and the “idea of having a large number of smaller ‘cells,’ each with their own transmitter and with the ability to hand off calls as the individual moved from one cell to another” (Ling & Donner, p. 36) was born, paving the way for the cellular phone system that we are familiar with today.

Masao Kakihara and Carsten Sorensen explore the concept of mobility as it relates to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in “Expanding the ‘Mobility’ Concept.” They argue that the concept of mobility does not exclusively refer to moving in a geographical sense, but also to “the way in which [individuals] interact with each other in their social lives” (Kakihara & Sorensen, 2001, p. 33). They assert that ICTs such as cell phones have influenced this interaction and thus altered the bounds of what it means to be mobile. To demonstrate their argument, they discuss mobility in the dimensions of spatial, temporal, and contextual interaction.

Kakihara and Sorensen (2001) break the notion of spatial mobility into three categories, as cited by Urry: mobility of objects, mobility of symbols, and mobility of space (p. 34). Object mobility refers to the physical traveling of media devices. Cell phones started out as a voice-only communication tool, but as they have become more portable and converged with other technologies (email, calculators, etc.) they have enabled us to bring all of our information with us wherever we physically move. A disadvantage, though, of being dependent on only one device is that if it fails to function properly, as demonstrated in the following image, it can temporarily curb the standard of productivity to which society has become accustomed.


Symbol mobility encompasses globalization in media; because of the Internet’s proliferation, we are able to understand and consume content from other parts of the globe. Again, media convergence like that in smartphones has “facilitated our social and economic activities today requiring rapid exchange of symbols” (Kakihara & Sorensen, 2001, p. 34). Mobility of space is the dissolution of the boundaries of location. Cell phones have enabled users to converse with other individuals across the country, no longer requiring close geographical proximity.

Next, Kakihara and Sorensen divide temporal mobility into two facets based on ideas from Barley: structural/interpretive and monochronicity/polychronicity (Kakihara & Sorensen, 2001, p. 34). Structural temporality refers to time as it actually exists; we agree that one minute equals 60 seconds as an explicit measurement. Interpretive temporality is “how people […] interpret the change of those structural parameters” (Kakihara & Sorensen, p. 34). In other words, our experience of the passage of time changes with our usage of ICTs. Monochronicity occurs when one task is undertaken at a time. Polychronicity refers to the idea of multitasking, which has become the dominant mode in society because of mobile technologies. Though it is dominant, some argue that it may not be the best way for the brain to complete tasks.

Finally, contextual mobility encompasses the circumstances in which interaction takes place (Kakihara & Sorensen, 2001, p. 35). Interaction can be categorized as unobtrusive/obtrusive and ephemeral/persistent. The degree of obtrusion varies depending on “how strictly it imposes obligations to notice or react” (Kakihara & Sorensen, p. 35). Ephemeral interaction is fleeting and temporary (a phone call) while persistent interaction is permanent and recorded (a text message). Kakihara and Sorensen assert that, because of ICTs, we are “relatively freed from contextual constraints on interaction” (p. 35).

From the birth of the telegraph to the metamorphosis of the telephone, communication technologies have always challenged the bounds of what society believed possible in this field. These revolutionary devices have converged with other technologies over time and have condensed into gadgets as big as our palms. Mobile technology’s convenience and portability has disseminated cell phones and other devices, revolutionizing the way we function as a society. However, constraining the definition of “mobility” only to physical, human movement is limiting. Kakihara and Sorensen argue that “mobility” should instead incorporate various dimensions of human interaction. Their argument is broken down into the complex facets of spatial mobility, temporal mobility, and contextual mobility, and they support their ideas with evidence from scholars such as Barley and Urry. Relating “mobility” with emerging, alternative ways of socially interacting modernizes the concept and enables society to become more literate about the effects of smartphones and other related ICTs on our lives.

Works Cited

Farman, J. (2012). “Historicizing mobile media: locating transformations of embodied space,” in N. Arceneaux & A. Kavoori (Eds.), The Mobile Media Reader (pp. 9-22). New York: Peter Lang.

ForaTV (Producer). (2011). Why the human brain can’t multitask [Web]. Available from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpD3PxrgICU.

Goggin, G. (2006). “Making voice portable: the early history of the cell phone,” in Cell Phone Culture: Mobile technology in everyday life (pp. 19-40). London: Routledge.

Jarvis, C. (2013, April 26). A day in the life. [Comic Strip]. Infinite Nap. Retrieved from http://infinitenap.com/post/48914502596/a-day-in-the-life.

Kakihara, M. & Sorensen, C. (2001). Expanding the ‘Mobility’ Concept. SIGGROUP Bulletin, 22(3), 33-37.

Ling, R. and Donner, J. (2009). “Short history of mobile communication,” in Mobile Communication (pp. 30-48). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

LMGTFY. Let me google that for you: mobile media. Retrieved February 8, 2014, from http://images.lmgtfy.com/?q=mobile+media.


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