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.