Saturday, November 15, 2003

Pundits have fretted for years that mobile phones are making us ruder. In June, Nokia released some evidence that may actually prove it. A survey found that 71 percent of mobile-phone users admit they are now consistently late for social events. Why? Because they can send a flurry of text-messages explaining where they are, how fast they're moving and precisely when they'll arrive, down to the minute. "You sort of feel you've got more play, because you're in this incredibly close contact," says Robbie Blinkoff, the principal anthropologist at Context-Based Research Group, which has found similar trends in its studies.

Indeed, this sort of "micro coordination" is a form of behavior made uniquely possible by those tiny S.M.S. ("short messaging service") bursts of text. Phoning someone six times an hour just to relay your location would seem outright insane. But text messages are far less obtrusive, so mobile users--particularly teenagers--think nothing of sending dozens of messages a day to a single friend, keeping them in almost telepathic contact with each other. Ito calls this "persistent but lightweight co-presence": in Japan, she has found that partners who do not live together may trade up to 100 text messages a day. "They're expected to be in constant contact. But it's not as if they're asking for a face-to-face intense conversation. It's like you're in the room, and you just sort of share a sigh or a facial expression," she says. "And they'll flag moments of disconnection. They'll say: 'I'm going to take a bath now! I won't be texting.'" This isn't the Borg-like hive-mind that digital prophets have long predicted humanity would evolve into; nobody's doing any deep thinking in S.M.S. messages. It's more like the behavior of ants, leaving chemical traces to figure out where their colleagues are. Studies have found that the single most commonly sent text message is "Where are you?"

-- From an article on the evolution of the mobile phone by Clive Thompson in tomorrow's NY Times. (I don't own a mobile & have no plans to acquire one.)

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