What is your mobile doing to you?

commentary How has the mobile phone changed your life?This week, Australia´s peak mobile phone association, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and social scientists announced release of a discussion paper for a research framework to determine what impact the mobile phone has had on society.

commentary How has the mobile phone changed your life?

This week, Australia´s peak mobile phone association, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and social scientists announced release of a discussion paper for a research framework to determine what impact the mobile phone has had on society.

The paper, prepared by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, states in its introduction: "The mobile phone is far too much of a newborn creature to have a storied history, or even much of a reputation in social science research.

"Its advent and rapid evolution have bypassed most researchers who are deeply engaged in their own pursuits, but few if any social scientists would fail to recognise the impact this technology has had on all of us and on aspects of our behaviour".

We´ve all heard countless stories about mobile phones. On the one hand there are tales of people who lose control of their vehicles when they look down to check a text message, or loudly answer their mobiles in movie theatres, or refusing to turn their mobile phone off in an aircraft. On the other there are the rescues of stranded people whose mobile becomes their lifeline or, on the more mundane front, the business appointments rescheduled and the social events coordinated or rearranged with a minimum of fuss.

I must admit I personally have mixed feelings about the mobile phone and etiquette in particular. While I couldn´t live without it nowadays, a couple of negative incidents continue to stick in my mind. Once, several years ago, I attended a media, analyst and industry briefing with a then state information technology minister and treasurer. He was interrupted shortly after starting his speech when a mobile owned by someone who obviously regarded themselves as extremely important rang. This individual, who sat in the front row, proceeded to conduct a loud conversation while the obviously unimpressed minister tried to continue talking.

Another time, I was at a cafe in Singapore when I saw two friends who had obviously met for coffee, proceed to virtually ignore each other for at least an hour, texting and phoning seemingly their entire list of contacts. Why bother catching up at all?

The discussion paper outlines a back-breaking research agenda that may take upwards of five years to fulfil. This is without even touching on critical issues such as health and safety and government regulation. The proposed agenda asks such weighty questions as "does the mobile phone validate identity in terms of life-stage, age, ethnicity, sex, social class, status of employment, moral standing, cultural and aesthetic affiliations?" and "how has the mobile phone affected the interface between work and home?"

Nevertheless, comprehensive academic analysis and understanding of how the mobile phone impacts on society is well overdue.

In Australia, we now have around 16 million mobile phone subscribers in more than 70 percent of households. Telecommunications carriers are investing billions in bringing third-generation mobile services with new content offerings to the market. Yet, unsurprisingly, such penetration, achieved over just a few years, has not come without its price: Extraordinarily high bills have shocked and stressed many unsuspecting young mobile users; the advent of camera phones has required owners of change-room facilities to implement bans and top-of-the-line handsets are a frequent target of theft.

Can you remember what life was like without a mobile phone? What are your thoughts on mobile phone etiquette in 2004?

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