From stall calls to texting the boss - what does always-on connectivity mean for comms and etiquette?
More than a third of UK adults describe themselves as "highly addicted" to their handsetsPhoto: Shutterstock
In the second of a series of articles examining the impact of technology on our society and ourselves, silicon.com's Natasha Lomas explores the behavioural changes brought about by mobile phones.
The evolution of mobile phones from the expensive, aspirational bricks of the 1980s, owned by the few, to today's pocket-sized handsets owned by almost everyone is both technology success story and social phenomenon.
While smartphones have a way to go to achieve global penetration levels witnessed by the more common or garden mobile phone, adoption is growing.
Research conducted by UK telecoms watchdog Ofcom earlier this year flags the rising use of smartphones among adults and teenagers - with more than a quarter (27 per cent) of adults and almost half (47 per cent) of teens now the proud owner of a smartphone. The majority (59 per cent) had acquired their smartphone in the past 12 months.
These powerful pocket PCs put all the functionality of the internet in our hands and its data at our fingertips, keeping us connected to everyone else and everything else. This always-on connectivity seems likely to have profound implications for society - the question is, how exactly is it shaping us?
The answer will surely remain elusive in the short term. It took hundreds of years for historians and sociologists to deconstruct the impact of the printing press. The internet - and the mobile internet - simply hasn't been around long enough to quantify how it will affect us.
But signs of mobile-induced behavioural changes and shifting social norms can be traced. Certainly technology is elbowing its way into our lives, from the dining room to the smallest room, breaking down conventions and social compartmentalisation in the process.
Ofcom's Communications Market Report describes how smartphone users are interacting with their devices in situations where other technologies might not have been available or practical - in toilets, at the dinner table, in bed, while out socialising.
This ability to be always connected has had another side-effect on our behaviour too: the report notes the divide between work and home life is increasingly blurred, thanks to connected gadgets that keep us informed of office minutiae even when we're supposed to be relaxing elsewhere.
Smartphone users are more likely to take part in work calls on holiday, according to the research, with a whopping 70 per cent saying they have done so. Around a quarter of smartphone users say they do this regularly, compared to 16 per cent of common-or-garden mobile users.
Every CIO can tell you about consumer mobile devices ending up in the office - but hardware is the half of it: our mobile tools are mixing our communication conventions too.
According to business etiquette consultant Jacqueline Whitmore, digital technologies such as smartphones are putting pressure on business communications to be less formal - even if older execs are not as relaxed about getting a pitch via SMS or an emoticon-ridden email as Gen Y'ers are.
"The way in which we communicate is becoming less formal but that doesn't mean the rules [of etiquette] are changing," she says. "The rules have stayed the same; people are just not observing the rules. They're forgetting the rules or they're just not learning the rules.
"I see more people using text messaging to communicate with clients now, whereas five years ago you wouldn't think of texting a client because it just wasn't the way - that was something you did with friends but now it's becoming more acceptable with all the smartphones, like the iPhone, which have made it so easy for us. But that still doesn't...
...give you permission to relax your business manners just because you're communicating on a different device," adds Whitmore.
"That's why I get calls from these large corporations because they're hiring these bright, brilliant young people out of college that are communicating with senior level executives who are well into their 40s, 50s and even 60s and they're making a lot of mistakes in communicating with these executives because they're being too casual."
Sociologist Sherry Turkle believes the rise of smartphones is not only changing how we communicate, but why we communicate. Ubiquitous availability of connected gadgets gives us less time to stop and think, she argues, and instead it's pushing us to connect and perform - to communicate for communication's sake. What we're losing is time for quiet contemplation and better understanding.
Sherry Turkle argues that by speeding up our comms, mobiles are also dumbing them downPhoto: Peter Urban
"We've created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of communication, we start to expect fast answers and in order to get them we ask each other simpler questions, we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters," she said, speaking at a panel debate at the British Library this summer, discussing whether humanity has become too entangled with technology. "It's as though we've all put ourselves on cable news."
"The world of devices... always on and always on us means we're able to bail out of the physical real at any time we want to."
These gadgets are not just tools any more, Turkle contends, they have become central to our lives in a way that is significantly changing how we relate to each other - influencing what we say, how we say it and even why we say it.
"Today's young people grow up with the fantasy that in some sense they'll never have to be alone - with their mobile phone in hand they always have a parent on tap, and they have each other on constant call. Feeling a little bit alone and stranded in adolescence used to be considered a step towards being comfortable with autonomy. Connectivity makes it possible to bypass these kinds of feelings.
"What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone, to gather oneself. There is a great psychological truth if we don't teach our children to be alone they will only know how to be lonely. For adult and child having gotten into the habit of constant connection, we risk losing our capacity for the kind of solitude that energises and restores."
As an example of smartphone users' inability to hang up their devices, Turkle noted she is studying texting at funerals - and it seems impossible to imagine a bigger indicator of technology-engendered social change.
But while texting at funerals may sound plain wrong, there's a risk of rushing to a value judgement when any social change is involved without stopping to examine the facts, says Tanya Goldhaber, a PhD student at Cambridge University's Engineering Design Centre who has worked on a project researching the impact of communications technologies on society. She argues that texting at funerals may, in fact, be a really useful way for someone who is grief-stricken to receive condolences.
"Some people love texting and some people hate it. So you can't necessarily say, 'Oh this texting is happening and that is bad'," she notes. "There are certain tools that are appropriate for the job - and people are still figuring this out because the technology tools are so new and the social norms are still adjusting because it's so new."
Social norms will no doubt...
... adjust further in the future, as we grow ever more attached to our devices. More than a third of adults (37 per cent) and 60 per cent of teens described themselves as "highly addicted" to their handsets, according to Ofcom.
Technology is not simply a tool in our hands - literally in our hands, in the case of mobile phones - it's a feedback loop that ends up shaping the society that introduces it. "It's a synergy," says writer and academic Aleks Krotoski. "The way we interact with things does affect us."
"I cannot understand how I lived without some kind of internet access on my phone," she adds. "It does change the game when it comes to access to information - you are able to put your transitive memory elsewhere. You don't have to remember all different kinds of things any more - you can just simply use the web as an externalised memory device and that, I think, is amazing.
"I don't necessarily know if it itself contributes to [social] change but it itself is a really fascinating phenomenon. But we don't yet know what the implications of that's going to be - whether it's cognitively, whether it's biologically, or whether it's socially, we just have no idea yet."
So despite their impressive ability to elbow their way into our lives and lighten our wallets, mobiles are still just the new kid on the comms block. So perhaps they are not shaping our behaviour as much as we might think?
Cambridge University's Goldhaber was one of three editors of a BT-sponsored report exploring the impact of technology on society, entitled Culture, Communication and Change: Report on an investigation of the use and impact of modern media and technology in our lives.
The research discovered an overwhelming preference for face-to-face communications, among adults and children alike, despite the wealth of digital alternatives at their fingertips.
"We found still an overwhelming preference for in-person interaction among children and adults and it wasn't different between children and adults," she says. "The percentage of children who preferred to communicate face-to-face was the same for people who didn't grow up with technology and people who did so.
"That says to me that it can't be changing things that severely if that's what we're finding."