Mobile Communication

Digital Media and Society Series

New technologies are fundamentally altering the ways in which we communicate. This series from Polity aims to provide a set of books that make available for a broad readership cutting-edge research and thinking on digital media and their social contexts. Taken as a whole, the series will examine questions about the impact of network technology and digital media on society in all its facets, including economics, culture and politics.


Mark Deuze, Media Work

Charles Ess, Digital Media Ethics

Alexander Halavais, Search Engine Society

Robert Hassan, The Information Society

Tim Jordan, Hacking

Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner, Mobile Communication

Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging

Mobile Communication



Copyright © Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner 2009

The right of Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2009 by Polity Press

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Rich Ling:

To Dad, Grandaddy Seyler and Grandpa Ling

Jonathan Donner

To Calliope




1. Introduction: the quarter-century beyond the Maitland Commission Report

2. Short history of mobile communication

3. Mobile communication in everyday life: 3 billion new telephones

4. Mobile communication in everyday life: new choices, new challenges

5. Debates surrounding mobile communication

6. Conclusion: individual addressability, interlacing and the spillover of the control revolution





To get a perspective on the rise of the mobile telephone, it is perhaps appropriate to start with an ode to the past, namely the eclipsing of the phone booth by the mobile phone. Indeed, the mobile phone is helping to push the telephone booth into history.

People born since the mid-1990s may never set foot in a phone booth. Thanks to mobile telephones, most of them have, or will soon have, the ability to reach anyone else they want to, regardless of either person’s location. They will never have to deal with the search for an evasive phone booth in an unfamiliar location. They will not have to rummage madly for a dime (or a krone or a pound or a frank) to buy a few minutes of time. In short, they will not fully understand the way that the phone booth was a shared experience and cultural icon.

Future generations will never really understand that a phone booth was a place where hearts could swell or be broken (“Do you really want to go steady?”); where invitations were received and meetings arranged (“The party is at Frank’s house? Great! We’ll be there with the beer soon”); where important information was recovered (“What was Emil’s address again, I wrote it down but I lost the piece of paper?”); and where deals could be done and undone.

The phone booth was also the location for different types of hi-jinks including prank calls, petty vandalism and phone booth stuffing (the record for stuffing a booth is variously reported as being 22, 24 and 25 persons). The phone booth played a role in a variety of films including Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. It is where the stumbling spy Maxwell Smart enters into CONTROL headquarters and it is where Clark Kent somehow transforms himself into Superman. (What did Clark do with the suit of clothes he was wearing? Is it somehow returned to him as though from the dry cleaners or did Superman leave his suits piled up on the floor of different phone booths around Metropolis?) On the darker side, the phone booth is a frequent setting where movie murderers, blackmailers, kidnappers, extortionists and all-round bad guys made anonymous, untraceable calls outlining their demands or proclaiming their – usually temporary – invincibility.

The phone booth was a symbol of temporary shelter, homelessness and a nomadic lifestyle. Bruce Springsteen talked about sheltering himself in a phone booth on cold winter nights and calling his girlfriend. In another case, the oddly placed Mojave phone booth became a cult location – and phone number – given its anomalous placement miles and miles from any major road, building or normal semblance of civilization.

In their time, phone booths were a stylish bit of architecture. The classic British phone booth was designed by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who, when not working on what were also referred to as “silence cabinets,” found the time to design the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge, the library at the University of Cambridge and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Some suggest, rather morbidly, that Scott’s design was inspired by the tomb of Sir John Sloane in St. Pancras’ Gardens – to which it does, incidentally, bear a passing resemblance.

The phone booth is the past. Since the mid-1980s, we have seen the rise of a device that is slowly but surely replacing the phone booth, namely the mobile phone. The mobile phone is becoming the locus of the calls that mark the different phases of our lives. Lovers are cooing to one another; bad guys are making demands; teens are texting with their friends; profit-driven young bucks are trying to move the markets; and parents are trying to keep up with the delivery of children to a spectrum of birthday parties, soccer practices and after-school engagements. Farmers in India are using the mobile phone to check the price of rice at the local markets, Filipina maids in Singapore are using it to send money home to their families, and entrepreneurs all around the world are buying, selling and arranging their affairs via the device.

The mobile telephone is also becoming a cultural icon in its own terms. The style, model and features of a phone all play into the image that we display to the world. Children can buy toy mobile phones or balloons in the shape of the device. They feature in films, and the release of an iPhone or the most recent keitai (the Japanese word for mobile phone) can make the headlines. The mobile phone is even generating its own form of offbeat contests, such as the mobile phone throwing competition (the current record seems to be 89 meters).

The mobile phone also has a much broader exposure than did the phone booth. The so-called “telephone ladies” (women who run a small independently owned mobile phone-based telephone service in Bangladeshi villages) provided, often for the first time, a local telephone service for their villages with a shared telephone link to the broader world. Whether formal or informal – just a lawn chair, an umbrella and some minutes to re-sell – “Public” mobile phones have spread further and faster than the public call offices (PCOs) offered by most landline companies in the developing world ever did or could. Ironically, as with the traditional telephone booth, the telephone lady in Bangladesh and the public mobile phone in Ghana are also being replaced by individual ownership of mobile phones. As we will see below, the private ownership of mobile phones is skyrocketing across the developing world, while in many more prosperous countries there are now more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people.

We are moving out of the box – the phone box – to what Goffman called “the un-boothed” phone. This book examines the incredibly rapid spread of the mobile phone around the world, and how we are adapting to its presence.


As with any piece of work, this book draws on the experience, insight and courtesy of a broad variety of people. We wish to thank colleagues and friends who have contributed to the writing of this book.

Leopoldina Fortunati, Casey Jenkins, Raul Pertierra, Jack Qiu, Marit Sandvik, Satomi Sugiyama, Carolyn Wei and Rajesh Veeraraghavan have helped us with the development of the fictional vignettes. Their grounded knowledge of the different milieus was essential in helping us render these situations. Our extended network of colleagues, including James Katz, Richard Chalfen and Scott Campbell, have been supportive in their various ways

At Telenor, Nisar Bashir, Christian Nøkleby, Per Helmersen and Hanne Cecilie Geirbo have provided help and insight, each in their own way. At Microsoft Research India, Kentaro Toyama and P. Anandan have done the same. In addition, the California-based Tom Farley is, as always, a valuable resource when it comes to the history of the mobile phone.


Introduction: the quarter-century beyond the Maitland Commission Report

1 Introduction

In 1982, a conference with the imposing name of “The Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunication Union” formed a commission to take up the question of access to telephones in the developing world. Two years later, that commission, chaired by Sir Donald Maitland, issued its report with the equally imposing title, The Missing Link: Report of the Independent Commission for Worldwide Telecommunications Development.

What many policymakers today call simply “The Maitland Report” outlined the impact of telecommunications on the effective operation of public service, commerce, health services, agriculture, banking services, etc. (Maitland, 1984, 7), and examined how telecommunication facilitates coordination and makes transport systems more effective. But it is best remembered for its stark, sweeping statistics describing the discrepancies in telecommunication services between the developed and developing worlds. The report noted that more than 50 percent of the world’s population then lived in countries with less than 1 telephone for every 100 people, and that many of those telephones belonged to offices and businesses, out of reach of everyday citizens. In many countries, it argued, there was literally no telecommunications service outside the more populated towns and cities. Writing in an era before the widespread use of the internet and mobile telephones, the commission lamented: “More than half the world’s population live in countries with fewer than 10 million telephones between them and most of these are in the main cities; two-thirds of the world’s population have no access to telephone services. Tokyo has more telephones than the whole of the African continent, with its population of 500 million people” (Maitland, 1984, 13).

The commission was not blind to the march of technological innovations occurring in global telecommunications at the time. Its report discusses the possibility of using radio in lieu of wired landlines in the service of supplying telephony. It saw microwave systems as an alternative to long-distance trunk lines, satellite systems as serious alternatives for the provision of telephony to rural areas, and terrestrial radio as a way to extend telephony’s reach. In the only real mention of what would become the mobile telephone system, the report’s authors argue: “Improving the effective utilization of the frequency spectrum is possible by using the cellular concept and other methods of dynamic frequency assignment” (Maitland, 1984, 31). However, seen with a quarter-century’s remove, it is clear that the Maitland Commission largely failed to predict the role cellular-based mobile communication would play in revolutionizing the accessibility of telecommunications around the world.1

To be fair, when the members of the Maitland Commission were at work on their report, mobile telephony was still in its infancy – not yet even considered a yuppie plaything. Experiments in 1969 had used a cellular system to place calls on an Amtrak train traveling between New York City and Washington, DC. Only a few years later, in 1973, Martin Cooper placed the first commercial call on a handheld mobile phone in New York. However, in 1984, the commercialization of the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) – the form of mobile communication that is most widely adopted – was still a decade in the future.

This, the picture painted by the Maitland Report, in many ways serves as a baseline against which to measure the digital telecommunications revolution that has followed. We have seen a dramatic change in our access to telephony, and in particular to mobile communication. Inexpensive and used handsets have made it possible for more of the world to partake of these signals. According to the International Telecommunications Union, which keeps track of these things, there were 3.3 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of 2007 – approximately 1 for every second person in the world (ITU, 2008a) – and recent figures suggest the 4 billionth subscription became active at the end of 2008 (Cellular News, 2008; ITU, 2008b).

Unlike landlines, these billions of mobile handsets rarely hang on walls or sit on office desks. Instead, mobiles belong most commonly to individuals, who can carry one or more of them around wherever they go. As we will discuss in more detail in the pages that follow, mobile phone users are more reachable than ever before, and can reach out to others more easily than ever before. If the explosion in connectivity is the first major theme of the mobile boom, then this new level of reachability is the second.

This dramatic explosion in mobile telephony since the publication of the Maitland Report is a one-time occurrence. We will never see it again. In this book, we wish to examine the consequences of that change and to explore how it is working its way through society. We will look at how it affects the lives of people from around the world and how academicians are trying to describe its impact. We will look at the positive as well as the negative impacts of the mobile phone. Finally, we will examine how the mobile phone provides us for the first time with a mediated form of individual addressability.

Transitions such as this are rare, yet it is in such moments that the interaction – or should we say clash – between the technology and the accepted way of doing things gives us a chance to see the inner functioning of society. To put this into a sociological perspective, it is as though we are experiencing a type of breaching experiment (Garfinkel, 1967). Those who are familiar with Garfinkel’s breaching experiments know that they were designed to give us the opportunity to see how we respond when the rules of society are changed. The unprecedented altering of expectations shows us how people understand the unforeseen situation and how they patch together a way of making sense.

In many respects, common questions and tensions surrounding mobile communication use allow us to take stock of what constitutes appropriate social interaction. Do mobile phones encourage political protest? Do we need to respect the sanctity of time-based appointments since we can easily renegotiate them as needed? What are our feelings towards free communication between teens? Should we always be available to everybody? What attentions do we owe co-present interaction when competing with the allures of talking with a friend?

The transition from a world of landlines to a world of mobiles provides us with a unique chance to gain insight into how a personal technology affects social organization, both for the better and for the worse. After the boom is complete and mobile use becomes the worldwide norm, it will become harder once again to discern these interactions between mobile communication and society. If we squander this chance to study mobile use, it will not come again.

2 Increased connectivity: mobiles sweep the world

The first decade of the twenty-first century may be remembered as the historical moment when the majority of the world’s population first secured easy and affordable access to telephones. Of course, the telephone was invented in the nineteenth century, and it steadily gained in popularity and complexity throughout the twentieth century. In fact, between 1976 and 2000, the number of landlines in use nearly quadrupled. By the turn of the millennium, there were 1.7 billion telephones on the planet: 983 million landlines, and 740 million mobiles.

While the PC and the internet have received much attention, it is the mobile telephone that has enjoyed a quick and broad level of adoption. In 2006, there were about 10 internet and 32 mobile phone users per 100 persons in the world (ITU, 2008a). The telecommunications story of the first decade of the twenty-first century is undoubtedly mobile. Between 2001 and 2010 the planet will probably add another 400 million landlines, and a staggering 3 billion new mobile subscriptions. If these estimates about the near future are to be believed, there may be over 5.4 billion telephone subscriptions on the planet in 2010, 1.4 billion landlines and at least 4 billion mobile subscriptions (Cellular News, 2008; GSM Association, 2008; ITU, 2008b).

Sources: ITU, GSM Association

Figure 1.1 Worldwide landline and mobile subscriptions, 1975–2010 (est.)

We stress “may” at this point, because both the historical and projected estimates in figure 1.1 are aggregations, compromises and best guesses (James & Versteeg, 2007; Sutherland, 2008). The staff of the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body in Geneva, has gathered estimates by querying member states and telecommunication companies (or “telecoms”) from around the world, who in turn have gathered their estimates by polling individual operators and national regulators. They have settled on subscriptions, in overall and per-person terms, as a common mode of measuring and comparing mobile use around the world and over time.

Counting subscriptions, however, can be problematic since many users are missed in the count. Some users will take advantage of formal mobile payphones that are run as businesses (Aminuzzaman, Baldersheim & Jamil, 2003; Bayes, 2001), while others use informal ones where payment can be in the form of reciprocity (Sey, 2006). Countless others will share phones within a family (Chavan, 2007; Goodman, 2005; Konkka, 2003; Samuel, Shah & Hadingham, 2005), to place and receive calls even if they cannot afford a handset or subscription of their own. In some cases, subscribers purchase only the SIM card2 and borrow the handset of a friend or neighbor until they can afford a handset. Looking at the situation in Asia, Zainudeen et al. (2007) found that, across four countries with relatively low aggregate mobile phone penetration (Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka), something over 90 percent of the respondents had used a phone in the previous three months. They reported that 80 percent of the respondents were within a five-minute walk to the nearest telephone.

In other ways, counting subscriptions can overestimate the number of people with a subscription, or the number of active subscriptions. We have seen numerous countries surpass 100 percent in terms of penetration. For example, in 2006 the ITU reported that Norway had 108.6 subscriptions per 100 persons. Yet during the same period, data from a random sample of 1,000 Norwegians aged 13 or older indicated that 92.8 percent “Owned their own mobile phone.”3 When asked, about 7 percent of the teen and adult population said that they did not have a mobile phone. If there are 108.6 subscriptions per 100 persons but only 92.8 percent of the people over 13 say they have a mobile phone, something is clearly awry with the numbers. Apart from “dead” subscriptions (subscriptions that are still on the telecom’s books but which the subscriber no longer uses), it is clear that some people have more than one subscription. In the year 2000, about 13 percent of teens in Norway reported that they had two or more telephone subscriptions (Ling, 2004). The motivation is often to save money by “SIM switching,” that is, for example, selecting the subscription that is the least expensive at a given time during the day. Similarly, although many prepay SIMs are discarded by users, operators sometimes carry these dead and dying subscriptions on their books for months or years after users have given them up.

Thus, while estimates suggest that by 2010 there will be at least 5.4 billion fixed and mobile subscriptions on the planet, this does not mean that 5.4 billion people own a telephone. Nevertheless, we can get closer to a back-of-theenvelope estimate of the number of telephone owners in a couple of steps. First, we discount the mobile figures for over-counting subscribers. Sutherland (2008) suggests that, of the 3.3 billion mobile subscriptions active at the end of 2007, perhaps 500,000 should be removed as over-counts. Keeping that same proportionality, if we discount the newer 4 billion mark by the same proportion Sutherland uses, we would arrive at an estimate of 3.4 billion active mobile subscriptions. Second, we can discount the mobile figures by contrasting those who have a mobile subscription and a landline subscription, and those who have only a mobile subscription. Hamilton (2003) contrasts mobile phones as complements (among users who add a mobile line to a fixed line) and as substitutes (among those who have only a mobile). In prosperous countries, some people, particularly youth, are giving up landlines by choice (Blumberg & Luke, 2007). For hundreds of millions of other users, particularly in the developing world, the mobile is the only affordable option. With this distinction in place, we can isolate the mobiles used as substitutes for landlines as the ones that add to the proportion of the world’s population that has a telephone. To be conservative, let’s assume that in 2010 there will be 1.4 billion landlines and 3.4 billion active mobile subscriptions. Let’s further presume that every single landline in the world is paired with a complementary mobile – that the first 1.4 billion mobile subscriptions sold do nothing at all to raise the proportion of the world’s population owning a telephone. That would still leave 2 billion unpaired, substitutive mobile subscriptions in 2010. Roughly speaking, 2 billion “mobile only” subscribers and 1.4 billion “landline plus mobile” subscribers, would sum to 3.4 billion subscribers . . . just about “half the world” of 6.8 billion people by 2010.

Until we have worldwide surveys counting users rather than subscriptions, our numbers will remain approximate. However, the relatively recent arrival, and even more recent sudden uptake, of mobile use around the world is staggering. The arrival of mobiles has, in one decade, roughly tripled the total number of ways to connect to the world’s telecommunication grid (so too have PCs and internet telephony, but that’s a story for another day). At the same time, perhaps 2 billion people acquired their first telephone during the decade.

Most of these new first-time telephone owners will be mobile owners, and most of them are in the developing world. As of 2008, 58 percent of the world’s mobile phones are in these countries (UNCTAD, 2008). As figure 1.2 illustrates, China is the world’s largest mobile market; India will soon overtake the USA as the second largest (IE Market Research, 2008). Figure 1.2 also illustrates that, even with this recent surge in mobile use, mobile subscriptions are not evenly distributed across the globe. Of the ten countries with the most mobile subscribers in 2007, four were from large prosperous nations in the Global North, five were large nations in the developing world (Global South), and one, Russia, is a transitional economy. Although the gap is closing, the prosperous nations have higher penetrations (use per 100 citizens) of mobile subscriptions than poorer nations. Like Norway, mentioned above, Germany and Italy (shown on figure 1.2) each have more mobile subscriptions than people; India had the lowest penetration among the top-ten markets with less than 20 mobiles per 100 persons. Eritrea (1.44 per 100) and the tiny islands of Kiribati (0.75 per 100) had the lowest penetrations among all countries reporting data to the ITU in 2007.

Sources: ITU ICT-Eye,, GNI from World Bank Development Indicators,

Figure 1.2 Where the mobiles are, 2007

Why the boom? It is usually less expensive to install and maintain a cellular tower to serve a neighborhood or village than it is to bring the necessary landline cables across landscape into individual households. This fundamental difference has changed the coverage–access–ownership equation (Donner, 2005; Dymond & Oestmann, 2003) for millions of people who were unable to own a landline, or even in some cases walk to a payphone. Indeed the World Bank estimates that, by 2005, 77 percent of the world’s population lived under a mobile signal (World Bank Global ICT Department, 2005).

This increase in what is known as “teledensity” has social impacts in more prosperous parts of the world, as well. In one such area, namely Scandinavia, material from the national census bureau in Norway revealed that, quite literally, all 15-year-olds had a mobile phone.4 That is, the national census bureau with their advanced forms of random selection and their exhaustive survey recruitment techniques were not able to find 15-year-olds who did not have a telephone. This, too, is a profound change, one with social implications for family dynamics, for public safety and public protest, for work–life balance and for the meaning of adolescence itself. We will revisit some of these questions in the next section, and later in the book.

3 Increased reachability: social consequences of the mobile phone

The mobile telephone changes the way we communicate with one another. Instead of calling to a fixed geographical location as is the practice with the landline device, we call to an individual, wherever they may be. It also allows us to interlace our telephonic communications (and our text messages) into the weave of our other activities.

The mobile phone has developed into a type of safety link for those who would otherwise be tied to physical locations. It has changed the way that we coordinate, or perhaps micro-coordinate, our meetings and our daily interactions. It has become the de rigueur accessory and it has given rise to the practice of text messaging. It has changed the way that teens interact with parents and with peers and it has changed the dynamics of social networks and the development of social cohesion.

In a very short time, the device has had a major impact on the way we interact and organize our lives. Mobile telephones are used by teens to make and break appointments and to keep their friends updated. Texting, a concept that barely existed a decade ago, is used by teens and interestingly also by deaf persons to communicate (Bakken, 2005). It can be used by students to keep track of their social network while they are in class and it can be used by groupies to follow the movements of celebrities such as the UK’s Prince William or, for those with a more decadent bent, Paris Hilton.

Lovers use the mobile to exchange endearments. Soccer Moms (and Dads) coordinate their kid’s next pick-up. Protestors use mobile to outwit police and rattle governments. In the developing world it has spawned “telephone ladies” in Bangladesh (Singhal, Svenkerud & Flydal, 2002) and “umbrella ladies”5 in Ghana (Sey, 2006), not to mention texting matchmakers in the Philippines (Ellwood-Clayton, 2003). Fishermen in the Indian state of Kerala use the device to find the best price for their daily catch (Jensen, 2007). Stressed-out small business owners around the world grab their handsets to take orders and find suppliers (Donner, 2005). Many workers, formerly desk-bound, can carry out their jobs while away from the office or even during leisure time – for example, you could be a poolside real estate sales person. The mobile phone is also used in the pursuit of “alternative” and more seedy business transactions such as prostitution and narcotics sales. In short, billions of people in every country on earth use the mobile to arrange important (and not so important) affairs. No task seems to be too large or too small for the mobile phone.

The actual mobile telephone – that is, the physical handset that we carry with us – can be as simple as a small plastic device with few functions beyond the ability to send and receive calls. At the other end of the scale, they can be elaborate gold and jewel-encrusted pieces of wearable art. They can be a $15 recycled or bootlegged device bought from a small stall in a dusty market in Bangalore, or can be powerful “smartphones” allowing for a spectrum of communication and data-related functions. Some call it the “Swiss Army knife” (Jenkins, 2006) of technologies since, in addition to being a communications device, it is becoming a camera, a photo album, a rolodex, an e-mail reader and a calendar. There are also devices that pro vide location information, and can also function as a small-change purse, a bus ticket and a mini-notebook.

It is not strange that the device has gained an iconic status. There are balloons shaped as mobile telephones; small children play with and even make their own “dummy” mobile telephones; Steve Jobs created a sensation by introducing the iPhone. In Ghana, it is possible to buy fantasy coffins made in the form of a mobile tele phone. Thus, it is not simply a functional device, but has entered into our symbolic panoply (Katz, 2006).

4 Theoretical lenses

For millions of people who have lived without telephony, mobiles provide basic connectivity: a way to gather information and to be in contact with the world. Further, mobile communication makes each of us directly addressable, regardless of where we may be. It allows for the interlacing of different activities. We can attend a lecture and at the same time arrange via SMS (Short Message Service) to meet a friend for coffee afterwards. In these small but persistent ways, it supports the development of social cohesion among persons in the intimate sphere and it gives us the means to control interactions in ways that were not possible before. For these reasons, it is clear that the mobile phone plays an increasingly important and central role in many people’s daily lives, and has consequences for the societies we live in.

There are several relevant theoretical lenses we can use to account for and understand many of these changes. Some scholars have applied existing theories of communication technologies to the “new” case of the mobile phone, without fundamentally altering those broader theoretical lenses. Others have developed theories more specific to the mobile. We will review some of the more notable theoretical applications below. However, given the broad ranges of disciplines, methodologies and theoretical perspectives of the researchers involved, we do not expect a single, integrated “theory of mobile communications” to comprehensively cover all the issues at hand. We assert that the diversity of interpretations of the mobile’s overall impact and interactions with society are driven as much by the diversity of theories at work as by the complexity of mobile use itself.

In fact, even the question of what a “mobile phone” or “mobile communication” is is a matter of some debate. People make voice calls on mobiles, which opens the technology for comparison with exiting assessments of landline telephones (de Sola Pool, 1977; Fischer, 1992). People send text messages, which, as an asynchronous, peer-to-peer practice might have some attributes in common with e-mail or instant messaging (IM), but might be better served by fresh assessments of the text message as a medium unto itself (Harper, Palen & Taylor, 2005). Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. Mobile web browsers beg to be understood vis-à-vis traditional web experiences. Camera phones open one to theories of popular photography (Chalfen, 1987); embedded MP3 players might require a look at the research on portable media players and the original Walkman (Bull, 2001). Even the tiny “occasional games” might be understood by drawing on broader theories of games and society (Rheingold, 2002).

At the same time, the “Swiss Army knife” that is the modern mobile phone sets up a conundrum of convergence – the modern mobile phone is a central actor in “convergence culture,” in which various media intermingle across multiple platforms, and are consumed, re-cut, republished and reappropriated by active users in unpredictable ways (Jenkins, 2006). We’ll return to some of these convergence themes later on. However, for the most part, we have elected to keep the primary focus of both this overview of theory and the book as a whole on the practices of voice calls and text messages. While the additional functions are useful in many situations – and are fascinating to marketers and theoreticians alike – we start from the assertion that most people use the device most of the time to talk and text to one another.

4.1 Applications of broader theories to the case of the mobile

Since the mid-1990s, many existing, broader theoretical perspectives have been brought to bear to understand the adoption and use of mobile communication. These cover a full range of important questions, from identifying the drivers of adoption to the dimensions of impact on individuals and societies; from describing micro-level use in all its complexity to refining broad general theories of the nature of information technologies in the production and maintenance of a global social order (Donner, 2008a). We’ll review a few of these theories in the pages that follow.


Some questions naturally resurface whenever a new technology arrives on the scene: Who chooses to adopt it? Under what conditions? And why? For decades, this approach has been almost synonymous with Rogers’ theory of the diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1995). The application of Rogers’ approach to the mobile phone is particularly interesting, since in many ways, for the general population, the device represented a previously unknown method of using the telephone. Rogers has carefully analyzed how new innovations are adopted by society. He describes how innovators and then early adopters, etc., each adopt a particular innovation in their turn. Each group is motivated by different things. Innovators are the people who are perhaps most guided by an inner compass. They have a need to be the first to use a device or an innovation. They are attuned to the information sources that commonly announce the appearance of novel developments. They are willing to take chances and they are willing to suffer through the various teething problems of new technologies. These were the individuals who bought the large “lunch-box”-sized mobile phones and started to explore their use. Based on the experiences of the innovators, the next group, namely the early adopters, start using the product or service. The early adopters base their decision to adopt on the experiences of the innovators. They are more patient and they use interpersonal interaction to gather information more than the innovators do. This group, however, is a very important one, in the sense that they legitimate the adoption process. When a particular development has survived the critique of the innovators, and enough of the rough edges have been knocked off of the adoption process, the early adopters start to use it. This is an important signal for the groups that follow. The adoption of the mobile phone by these central individuals sent a message to others that the device was not just for specially interested nerds, but had potential for broader use. Following the early adopters come what Rogers called “the early majority,” the late majority and finally there are the laggards. These later groups adopt communication devices when there is a critical mass of users.

The issue of critical mass is a special dynamic associated with the adoption of communications innovations (technologies designed to allow point-to-point communication, such as the fax, the mobile phone or social networking software such as Facebook) that is not seen with the adoption of stand-alone innovations such as MP3 players, digital cameras, etc. This is perhaps best seen with the adoption process of the fax machine. If there are only a limited number of fax machines to which you can send faxes, the device is of little use. However, the value of your fax machine indirectly increases with the addition of each additional fax machine to the universe of devices, since it increases the chance that your interlocutor will have access to a fax machine should you need to send him or her a message. As the number of mobile phones (or fax machines, or Facebook subscriptions) increases, they collectively become more used as an accepted form of communication and thus it is more difficult to NOT be a user. It is clear that some technologies can be superseded by others. The fax machine was supplanted by e-mail, IM and social networking and thus is little used today, just as the telex machine before it was supplanted by the fax. These technologies nonetheless illustrate the dynamics of innovation and critical mass. Rogers suggests some of the key issues during this process of adoption; however, his analyses seemingly stop upon the purchase of the item.

Designers have often focused on the affordances perspective (Gaver, 1991; Gibsen, 1979; Hutchby, 2001; Norman, 1990; Sellen & Harper, 2002). This approach examines how the characteristics of an innovation relate to the way we see using it. This type of insight is useful when designing new products. It does not necessarily, however, help in understanding the broader social consequences.

4.1.2 IMPACT

One of the more common theoretical tools for understanding technology in society is the idea of technical determinism – it is also one of the more common straw horses that gets beaten among social scientists. Basically, this says that as a new technology is introduced it reformulates society in its image (Cottrell, 1945; Mumford, 1963; Sharp, 1952). The classic example of this is the Marxian notion of technology determining the form of society. Another example of more technically based theories is that of Beniger and his notion of the control revolution (see chapter 6