The Social History of the Smartphone
Published: July 7, 2014
Ever since I figured out that the design work that I do is really rooted in psychology and physiology, I’ve been fascinated by human behavior. A key facet of human behavior is the influence the environment has on people. While the term context is a good shorthand way of referring to this, it’s too often confused with a user’s physical location and activities. And way too often, people assume that a user’s context is simply sitting at a desk, looking at a computer.
Naturally, I disagree with that perspective on context. You might expect that’s because my work focuses on design for mobile devices, but there’s more to it than that. It’s not just because mobile phones open the whole world to computing, but because context—or environment—is a much broader thing. So imagine my excitement on reading this:
“The history of technology is part and parcel of social history in general. Technology cannot be studied in isolation.”—John Ellis
It immediately made me think about how social context can apply to all of the technologies that we work with daily. The adoption of technology is closely coupled with the environment in which it was created; and the history of mobile phones is full of long delays and false starts, followed by massive successes.
Mobile Phones in Antiquity
When I say there were long delays, I mean decades-long delays in some cases. The first mobile networks were launched in 1946, applying the technology from World War II and taking advantage of the post-war appetite for new things and a better life.
Sure, at that time, there were technical limitations that we can barely imagine now, and the costs seem shocking in today’s dollars. But despite this, by 1983, there were 10,000 people on the waiting list for a mobile phone in New York City alone. (The networks had very restrictive capacity limits then.)
Cellular mobile—which today lets us wander the earth and tell everyone about our travels on Facebook—launched in 1983, filling our emerging need to be connected as society became more mobile. But, of course, it didn’t emerge fully formed, out of the blue.
A demonstration project put cellular phones on trains starting back in 1969. So why did it take another 14 years before we could carry our phones around with us? Certainly technology was a factor—as well as dropping costs and the greater reliability that resulted from more mature technology. In the US, some histories blame the short-sighted nature of regulation by the FCC—U.S. telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Commission. But, in large measure, I think this was a broader, cultural issue, too.
The Long, Slow Rise of the Smartphone
Let’s consider some more recent technology that people could use in their day-to-day work more easily. Many think that the smartphone arrived on the scene in 2007—when Apple introduced the iPhone—but it didn’t. Mobile devices that were definitely smartphones—with Web browsing, installable applications, and everything—had come out at least a decade earlier than the iPhone. The robust miniature computers that we called PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) had appeared in the 1980s, but came without mobile connections.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the featurephone and the PDA were the technologies that people were comfortable buying and using. And these were products that, for the most part, did not disappoint their manufacturers. People got rich and famous off this work, and PDAs became indispensable to a large part of the working population in the West. But, today, they are largely forgotten with the overwhelming success of modern smartphones.
Next, let’s look at a few of the trends that sociologists have identified as key attributes of the last decade. How could they have influenced the development and adoption of the smartphone? How did the smartphone create or support these trends?
Even as early as the late 1990s, populations with high mobility—people changing jobs or moving from one region to another—were the greatest consumers of mobile phones. The smartphone became their gateway to local communities and an anchor to virtual or remote communities that people would otherwise have all but lost.
The Rise of the Cities
Hand in hand with the trend toward mobility was a reversal of the flight to the suburbs, with an especially youthful and affluent population moving back into city centers. To a certain degree, physics is a key driver here—proximity reduces costs for operators and service providers offering high-speed data and high-accuracy information such as maps in the smaller areas of cities.
With many jobs no longer tied to a desk and job descriptions becoming increasingly fluid, work hours have largely disappeared. For many workers, there is no longer a need to spend hours in the office every evening or even to slave away on their notebook computers at a local Starbucks. Instead, their smartphone provides a window into the office that allows constant connectivity and instantaneous response, without really interrupting their everyday lives. While we may lament that dad has his face buried in his phone at the little league game, at least he’s not at the office on Sunday.
The world has always been hugely more complex than we might think. For millennia—at least since lone villages became the trading partners of city-states, then people vassals of empires—most people have been part of complex interconnected systems. But in the past decade especially, this complexity has become more obvious. Many factors have contributed to a general sense that information is complex and worth evaluating and that it’s necessary to keep up on things. In today’s smaller world, the influence that different societies have on one another and on people throughout the world have all contributed to this complexity—for example, political and security backlash and the complexity of banking and trading systems that none of us really understand.
People regularly complain that we are always connected and should take disconnected vacations, but most of us will never do that. We’ve become part of a world where we may feel disconnected just because we’ve slept through a major news story and need to catch up. Because we live in such a complex, connected world, it’s essential that we absorb the context of the information that we consume. Connected, always on, always with us, always notifying devices are the ideal fit for most people today.
Smartphone technology was not in prevalent use until the mid-2000s, not because of technical limitations, but because people were not yet ready to accept the technology. We still regularly see similar phenomena, where a new technology seems clearly to be a step too far…, until people finally accept it, then it becomes ubiquitous.
We hear much about the digital native, people belonging to a younger generation that has grown up using computers, game consoles, and increasingly, smartphones and tablets. But I dismiss the premise that early exposure fosters deeper comprehension of the technology—and the societal issues that arise from its use. We should apply this designation more simply.
Like the pre-industrial farmer, the digital native learns through ritual, myth, and societal pressure. There is little to indicate that these users—or any users—deeply understand the technology of smartphones or could apply their understanding of it in other cases or that it would result in their making good policy decisions.
Understanding Our Society
While digital natives are comfortable with technology, the question is: which technology, in which context? There are now more mobile phones on Earth than there are people! And most of these phones have cameras. Yet Google Glass feels invasive because of its ability to record video.
We are not one society. Communities are stratified and tribal. In different contexts, people have different levels of understanding about technology. What does your user base know and understand? Whatever you are planning to design and build next must be not only technically feasible, but also comprehensible and accepted by your users.
Do you really understand the people who use your products and their environments? User experience has long respected the user—both individually and in aggregate. Maybe now is the time to analyze and understand our user populations as a whole—from a broader societal viewpoint. We must understand and plan for the social and cultural environments in which our users live and the ways in which technologies and cultures interact.
Berelowitz, Marian. “Q&A with Michael Björn, Head of Research, Ericsson.” JWT Intelligence, February 1, 2012. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
Chipchase, Jan. Jan Chipchase.com. Retrieved June 17, 2014. Jan Chipchase is a legendary mobile-centric ethnographer who has done work primarily for organizations, but has always revealed a little about his findings.
Crouch, Andy. “Ten Most Significant Cultural Trends of the Last Decade.” Q Ideas, January 5, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
Ellis, John. The Social History of the Machine Gun. Baltimore Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. The central premise of this article, as well as the quoted phrase, are from this very interesting and well-researched book. If you are even an amateur sociologist who is interested in technology, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.
Hoober, Steven, and Eric Berkman. Designing Mobile Interfaces. Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly Media, 2011. In this book, I wrote a summary of the history of mobile phones, including some useful information that explains the technical limitations of early mobile-phone systems, as well as the regulatory environment.
Magid, Larry. “Study: Some Teens Feel Obligated to Use Facebook—Most Savvy about Privacy.” Connect Safely, May 22, 2013. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
McCarty, Brad. “The History of the Smartphone.” The Next Web, December 6, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part 1.” On the Horizon, Volume 9, Issue 5, 2001.
Television Post. “Internet Privacy Is Largely Misunderstood.” Television Post, March 14, 2014. Retrieved June 17, 2014.
Winward, John. “The Metroliner and the First Cellular Radio System.” Privateline.com: Mobile Telephone History, undated. Retrieved June 17, 2014.