Friday, 1 January 2016


How old were you when you got your first mobile phone?

When was the last time you used your phone?

Do you think about phone use? What do you actually use yours for?

Dependency on mobile phones (which also includes smart phones) is an actual issue in society today and it'll probably only get worse. I think, and this article helps me think this, that one's age when one first obtains a mobile is a crucial part of this. Hopefully my answers to these questions will explain where my views are coming from. Note, the assumption that anyone reading this will have a phone. That's important.

My first phone is the same phone I have now. This is scarcely odd because it's probably barely a year old. It mostly gets used in the morning when I go through my morning routine of checking my websites (this takes a while, but if there's no interesting news it's quicker). In fact, it pretty much gets used exclusively for this purpose with the odd call on days when my schedule can reasonably be expected to vary/be unpredictable. As a consequence, most days, it stays at home, often turned off. In fact, when it is out and about with me it's turned off too (although I will listen to music I've put on it on the train home, and Youtube videos in the morning/at night). Wait, aren't I at university? Yes, I was nearly twenty by the time I obtained a phone. Yes, my friends know I have a phone. No, I keep them from obtaining its number (contact me in person or if absolutely necessary via Facebook, damn it).

Now, do I think about phone use? Yes, very often. A large part of this is that I am a people watcher and I also have an hour long commute (on often packed trains, frequently at school commute times). Some of these habits come from not having been a person with a phone for the vast majority of my life and they're largely sustained by not being a phone person. I think it's important to have established these things clearly. Now, before I attend to some observations I'd like to make, a few general remarks.

Addiction, to anything, is bad. Being addicted to "good" things like, say, exercise, work or socialisation is bad. Being addicted to useful things like the internet is bad. To be honest, reading the signs of smartphone addiction in that article make me think of the way I use my computer/the internet (ah, self-diagnosis; although it is an extremely rare night for me to not sleep soundly through the night). The point, though, is that denial of a problem is a large part of the problem. So, if you are defending mobile use a lot, think about why you are doing that.

The Train

You see a lot of different things on the train. From women putting on make-up (not common, if you ask me) to people doing push ups (again, not common, but I've seen a video of it). If you pay enough attention, you will see people staring into space and all sorts of other things (e.g. PDAs). However, the mobile phone or, rather, the smart phone is as close to ubiquitous as possible.

The case study I'd really like to look at is that of people who are clearly friends who spend most of their time looking at their phones and sitting in silence. That's a little bit weird. On the other hand, you have to remember that my friends and I are basically all at uni although there are quite a few who work full time (these are not, generally, as close). The point is that this means we are often in quite different places (even if, theoretically, being in the same space: uni). Consequentially, the train can be a centre of my social world. It follows, from that, that my general attitude to train socialisation could well be completely different to those of the people I see on the train. So, to get around that I will make my assumptions clear. Firstly, I tend to assume that these people won't have too much opportunity, apart from their train journey, to socialise in person whereas this is quite likely not the case... especially for school children (who, it must be said, will interact with their phones/other devices and their friends differently... sometimes communal uses). Secondly, better communication does, in fact, exist.

There are several different ways of communicating available to people in different places. For instance, this is a text based form of communication... as is texting or most other online forms of communication (letters are in this category too). Yet, as the popularity of things like Skype show, people are aware of and utilise extensively video calls... where the effectively real time facial reactions (or even more) of the people involved are visible. In fact, you can get something similar as well with avatars... but that is perhaps more accurately described as a combination of text and audio, or even a different version of audio (it depends on the exact nature of the avatars). Finally, you get audio-only forms of communication. These four models of communication are all available means of socialisation for people and, generally speaking, they are all available to people on trains (avatars less so).

When you think about these different ways of communicating you recognise, instinctively, that there are fundamental differences. For instance, while sarcasm is actually pretty easy to pick up through just reading words on a page/screen, it is often not picked up (maybe because the reader is stupid or the writer incompetent). When you think about someone who struggles with sarcasm IRL, though, you generally think such a person to be naive/gullible/something like that. One of the reasons for this is that the cues involved with speech are quite different... you get things like tone or pitch... which means that there is more information about the communication to pick up on. More information, in some sense, equals better information, as you have a more complete picture. The thing is, though, that a phone call may have pitch and tone but it doesn't have facial expression (these are all non-verbal cues, iirc verbal communication is pretty purely the words chosen and the order they're in). A video call has those, and it may well capture a lot of gestures too (basically depends on the location and quality of the camera and connection)... but it doesn't have, as examples, touch, smell or physical positioning.* So, in this sense, the most complete kind of communication can only happen in person and completeness dictates quality (of the communication process, not its content).

Now, when I am on the train with friends (in the same carriage) there are a few things that happen. One, minimal communication as some/all parties wish to study. Two, communication. Three, minimal communication for other reasons... which generally only happens if dealing with friends who are more acquaintances. Yet, as I pointed out above, the train is often a very good time to see them and I am a person who prefers personal socialisation. Indeed, I think it is better socialisation because you have that better communication. This is what I feel is natural and I think it a little bit off when those acquaintances choose to, say, read a book rather than communicate... without the conversation having first died off (it's different if they're studying, of course**).

What you often see, however, is people using technology to do whatever rather than actually talk to the people next to them (that they clearly know personally). Why? These are not people using technology as part of the socialisation, for instance communal game playing or showing someone images that they took when they went to the zoo the other day etc. etc., but rather replacing personal socialisation.

So, I think the final question is: do people let their phones/other portable technologies cause them to forego better socialisation options? Comments welcome.

*Some time ago now (semester two was winding down) I was at the computer rooms in OGGB. I saw a computer that was free and a chair near to it. I used that chair. The problem was that my assumption of which computer chair it belonged to was erroneous. The dude who was using it got, understandably, annoyed and we sort of stood there posturing while I tried to point out the mistake (informed, I must admit, by thinking that if it did belong to the other computer its owner had abandoned the computer**). We eventually resolved the disagreement... I got him (me?) another chair in the end... but the point is that you can't posture/square off etc. in a video call, can you? In acting we call this blocking... where the actors stand.

**Even with studying I think the train is neither the time nor the place if you can socialise. This is a purely rational point of view. After all, you can socialise at uni or on the train with basically no quality changes but the same doesn't hold true of studying. Does the train have tables? No. Does the train provide an entirely smooth journey? No. Does the train give you enough space? Maybe. These and other reasons all add up to the decision to study when it is worse rather than when it is better being odd. My paranoid brain does wonder if my presence affects the decision... unrequited love exists, so one-sided friendships can too.

***This problem is rife at uni because while you now get logged off after 15 minutes people have friends/randoms who say things like, "Oh, they've just gone to an office hour" or "Someone's sitting there"... and you also get people leaving their stuff and buggering off regardless. Someone should study the social norms at play here because they are bloody annoying. The people who abandon the computers are taking up a valuable communal resource but the incomplete abandonment causes problems.

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