In a nation as divided as ours, it is difficult to find a
topic that most people agree on -- but concern regarding our (over)use of
cellphones is one of them.
It's important to remember that though new technologies have
often inspired moral panic, they bend to social and economic will. Cultural
critics of the 1700s thought that books were uncontrollable escapist
temptations that would cause people to retreat from public life. And, in the
1800s, the telegraph inspired fears that the use of abbreviations to reduce the
costs of messages would ruin the nuance of language.
Similarly, contemporary critics have called smartphones,
"toxic," "addicting," "sleep depriving," and
"empathy killing." This concern is hardly surprising, given just how
much we engage with our phones -- approximately 80 times a day. But while we
reach for our phones quite frequently, most of those interactions are brief exchanges.
Indeed, we are most likely to reach for our mobile devices
in our in-between moments -- while waiting, commuting or taking a break.
Remove the technology from the equation and ask yourself how
often you have clicked a pen, fidgeted with scrapes of paper, doodled, read a
newspaper or magazine, or daydreamed before the arrival of cellphones, and
suddenly those numbers are not quite as ominous.
Our phones provide a greater range of on-demand
entertainment and communication opportunities than previous public diversions.
Research shows that instead of making us more isolated in public space, mobile
devices actually make us more likely to linger and socialize.
Our phones are a valuable resource for facilitating
conversation and are more likely to function as a social stimulator than as an
escape from those around you.
Let's take commuting, as an example. Posted "codes of
conduct" and respect for privacy have long made plane, train and bus trips
solitary and isolating experiences. But, recently, I conducted a study of mass
transit riders and discovered that their commute had become a key moment for
socializing via their mobile devices. Over 70% of the commuters surveyed
reported using their smartphones to check in with friends and family via text
message and social media platforms.
In other words, mobile devices transform the commute into a
much-needed opportunity for social connection and creativity, thanks to digital
tool kits like GIF databases, emoji keyboards, Snapchat filters, sharable
content and even discreet flirtation apps designed to digitally catch the eye
of a fellow rider.
In addition to the commute, I studied mobile device use at
the workplace and found that co-workers enjoyed on-demand streaming platforms
and YouTube "media snacks" in ways that were more meaningful and
customizable than the breakroom television. Employees took their breaks
together without concern for the broadcast schedule.
Instead, they gathered together around a mobile phone and
accessed on-demand content that they all enjoyed as a reward for completing a
And employees also used their mobile devices as a quick
reference tool when they were discussing popular culture around the
watercooler. Out-of-the-loop colleagues were able to join the conversation
thanks to a text-messaged link that provided an example of the topic under
Like the commute and the break room, waiting rooms are
public spaces that mobile phones have transformed. Waiting rooms have long been
a reminder of social hierarchies, as those with money and power rarely wait.
The rest of us can assert the value of our time through the use of mobile
games. Mobile games (or casual games) are simplistic, consisting of repetitive
actions performed over time in small increments without end. People can earn
incredible scores, achievements, and even virtual cities in their downtime
Communities have developed that celebrate the achievements
within mobile games, and special rewards are given for the creativity they
display. In these communities, the games become the shared culture that bring
people together and keep them socializing online for years.
But the benefits of mobile devices extend far beyond
commutes, offices and waiting areas -- they apply to living rooms, too.
Typically, the person who controlled the remote dictated the
evening's entertainment. Mobile screens provide options for those who are
forbidden from touching the remote and may just keep the family all in the same
room. Mobile devices also multiply the entertainment options and even offer
mobile apps that act as competing remotes to stealthily change the channel at
Mobile phone users are not the only ones capitalizing on
these in-between moments, though.
Technology companies and entertainment studios have created
a "procrastination economy" designed to monetize this downtime. I
developed this term to describe the mobile apps, streaming video content and
software designs that target consumer's in-between moments spent on mobile
We need to pay attention to the design of algorithms,
subscriptions services and micropayment structures that attempt to channel our
mobile device use into transactions, because mobile devices have made our
in-between moments as valuable to brands and advertisers as they have to
For our children, mobile phone etiquette and awareness of
the procrastination economy should be taught by parents, educators and mentors
in the same ways we teach social graces, civics and professionalism. I'm
inspired by research that calls for us to emphasize the opportunities these
technologies offer instead of reverting to the same tired finger-wagging.
And there is already positive momentum in this direction.
Technology companies and regulators are beginning to think about the design of
software ethically and to develop guidelines that make networked communication
productive instead of predatory. These conversations and adjustments are
familiar as they accompany all new technologies.
Discussion and debate about the "proper" way to
use mobile phones is important, but reasonable conversation about the
technology must account for context. Doing so will alert us to the fact that
mobile devices have made our downtime the new prime time.