Communication Breakdown

Mobile technology changes the way we interact. Scott McLemee looks into the sociology of the cell phone.

May 13, 2009

Not long ago, a woman I know got a phone call from a sibling who reported that one of their sisters had died a few hours earlier. It was painful news, if not unexpected given the sister’s long illness; the call was part of a narrative of grief that had been taking shape for a while. But in telling me about it, she also noted an odd and slightly awkward detail. She’d actually learned the news a bit earlier, on Facebook and via Blackberry, where it had been announced in a “status report” from her sister’s daughter.

My friend kept that part of the story to herself when dealing with relatives. As someone with a professional interest in information and communication technology, she’s very open-minded and curious about the way people use the tools now available, and this was no exception. But it was impossible to get around the sense that some breach of tradition was involved. It hadn’t bothered her, but she felt sure that any other member of her family much older than her niece would feel at least somewhat appalled.

An individual’s death is a rip in the social fabric. And communication among those closest to the deceased involves more than transmission of the news. It is process of patching up what remains of that fabric, a reinforcement of bonds. By some implicit rule, we take it as a given that family will get the news before it is available to a world of strangers. Not that things always happen that way, of course, but the exceptions are felt as such. (A man opens a newspaper and learns that his son was killed a few days earlier.... This is the stuff of melodrama – a situation implying circumstances so complex it would take a whole movie to explain.)

But now the grammar of social relationships is changing in ways it remains difficult to understand. Exactly what is happening when you share the pain of the death of a loved one with the world of your “Facebook friends,” that cloudiest known category of human connection? Anyone who wants to get all curmudgeonly about this should feel free to wail away. Yet doing so does not answer the question.Telling the world that my “status” is grief is not something I would be inclined to do. But it would be morally stupid to question the pain of anyone who finds this appropriate -- or to doubt whether they, too, are trying to reweave some part of the web of everyday life. The boundaries between private and public, between intimate and overt communication, are never absolute or fixed in any case.

Today those boundaries are blurrier. Maybe poets (the “antennas of the race,” as Ezra Pound put it) will be able to make sense of what it means for the human condition. I made the mistake recently of hoping that the social sciences would help. Some of my best friends are social scientists, so no offense intended, but reading a new book from the MIT Press called New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion was really not all that encouraging.

The author, Rich Ling, is identified on the cover as a senior researcher at the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor and an adjunct research scientist at the University of Michigan. His methodology primarily involved following people around in public as they talked on their cell phones. I believe this brings the difference between ethnography and eavesdropping to an all-time minimum. Not quite half of the book is devoted to rehearsing the conceptions of social ritual worked out by Emil Durkheim, Erving Goffman, and Randall Collins. The rest is based on field notes, often supplemented by guesses about what the person on the other end of the phone call might have been saying.

Ling’s thesis, in short, is that mobile communication devices strengthen social connections through something akin to an interaction ritual. The argument hovers between insight and truism for quite a while before coming to rest on the obvious. Cell phones and text messaging create “a tightening in the individual’s social network that augurs against those who are marginally known to us and in favor of those who are familiar.” This is inarguable. Most of us do tend to speed-dial people we already know. (Plugging in the numbers of complete strangers might seem like a good idea after several bottles of whiskey, but not otherwise, and especially not the next morning.)

Unfortunately for the elegance of the whole enterprise, the main thrust of Durkheimian notions of social ritual is that they create or consolidate a sense of shared identity among people who do not necessarily have any close connection. This is even true of the sort of small-scale, face-to-face encounters described by Goffman and Collins. Their point is that even seemingly casual exchanges tend to follow established patterns that bind participants together by virtue of the fact that the routines are commonly accepted.

A contrarian (or really, just about anyone not employed as a researcher at a large telecommunications company) might well point out that mobile devices actually tend to dissolve social ritual. Any degree of formality -- let alone any expectation of shared attention by people sharing a common space -- is now precarious. The solemnity of a funeral has no guarantee against the vivacious force of a calypso ringtone.

The author discovers from his extensive observations that some people do try to mitigate the disruption that cell phones bring to “copresent” interactions. They may lower their voices, or practice certain gestures to indicate that they are sorry to be interrupting things. But evidence from my own corner of the global village would suggest this is not quite universal. It may be that Norwegians are more reserved than Americans.

So does it follow that codes of interaction are simply disappearing as reticence itself vanishes? Such is a common enough complaint, but things are not necessarily so straightforward as that.

The ubiquity of mobile communication devices means that the behaviors associated with them are more or less inescapable. As irritating or incomprehensible as those behaviors may be, our options for responding are limited. There is no sanctioned code for interacting with someone bellowing endearments into a Bluetooth at a coffee shop, or typing messages into a Blackberry in the front row while you are reading a paper at a conference. A few years ago, I proposed shooting people who talk on cell phones in libraries, if only with a taser; but in spite of generating considerable enthusiasm, this idea never really caught on.

In the absence of rules for confrontation, then, the rule is that confrontation must be avoided. Durkheim wrote that any given social order obliges us to “submit to rules of action and thought that we have neither made nor wanted and that sometimes are contrary to our inclinations and our most basic instincts.” To put this another way: Might as well get used to it.....


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