Social Technology

August 24, 2006

Of course – all technologies are social. More specifically, some technologies facilitate socialization and communication – e.g., the telephone – and some don’t – e.g., the fork (whose use[s] are nonetheless created and impacted by social trends and conventions – this, briefly, is broader definition of social technolgy).

One exciting and fascinating change in the former category of social (communicative) technologies is how Web2.0 and other associated technologies have entered into feedback loops with their users. That is to say: a new product is developed – users begin to use it, often in ways not particularly intended by its designers – and, increasingly, subsequent versions of the product build on and incorporate user-designed and -demanded functionalities. This happens pretty quickly, too.

But surely this isn’t totally new and bright and shiny – surely people have used communicative technologies in unimagined ways, previously, and/or adapted technologies to their needs with norms of social use? Well, yes – like the telephone.

The analogy is not quite complete – telephones, when introduced and especially in rural areas, were “party lines” (many users on a single switch – as if everyone on your block were sharing the same Internet connection and could see what web pages and e-mails everyone else was reading – yikes), and it seems this was broadly considered a bug, not a feature. However, people of course developed folkways to deal with the usability implications of the technology, and Milena Droumeva has a paper with some excellent insights [.pdf] on this very topic:

By 1920, party lines made up close to 10% of urban American cities, and over 60% of rural towns (Hampson)…

Because of the communal nature of party lines, people had to develop rules and regulations amongst themselves about what is acceptable telephone usage and what isn’t. These rules were also heavily enforced by the telephone company’s advertising. All subscribers were to be very careful not to hold up the line for too long, since someone else might need it. Calls of social nature and gossip were strongly discouraged and treated as ‘women’s chitchat,’ getting in the way of serious business.

…under no circumstances was one to ever invite people over the phone (Fischer, p.184). That was considered very rude and bad style, since a telephone invitation will pressure the recipient to accept even if they have other plans. It was not until 1947 that telephone invitations became accepted and not until 1955 that calling before a visit became popular (p.184).

Again, it is hard nowadays to think of the telephone, line or mobile, in any other terms than social and interpersonal. It is also hard to imagine such consideration for time on the phone when everyone has their own private line, and can spend as much time on it as they need, while all the rest of us are willingly or unwillingly eavesdropping. However, while with party lines, people eavesdropped with a sense of guilt because they were invading someone’s privacy, in my ‘cell phone age’ survey, only 23.9% indicated they tried not to listen in, another 23.7% said they were uncomfortable to be in the presence of phone conversations but sometimes they eavesdropped, and a full 22.4% admitted openly they listen in especially if they are bored.


…in some post modern way we are never alone. In a way cell phones are like a modern version of public party lines.

Indeed! Continuing with the analysis of different phones, different uses, she notes:

Throughout the 1980s, the business aspect of the mobile phone was reinforced by the quick and widespread automation of communication services in order to save time and money in processing business transactions…
It is not until early 1992 that the social role of the cell phone begins to significantly shift from business to interpersonal communication (Katz, p.13). As reiterated in my web survey, only 13% have their cell phone for work – less than those who keep it for emergencies – while over 50% say the reason they own a cell phone is to keep in touch with friends.

… the pervasiveness of cell phones creates a reality where “the absent are never without fault; nor the present without excuse” (Katz, p.14). This resonates with my current web survey where 23.7% of the participants say the biggest disadvantage of having a cell phone is being reachable at all times. Interestingly, even in the early 1990s this need to be reachable was more pronounced among those who already owned a cell phone compared to those who did not (Katz, p.57). This establishes a trend that we can easily identify today – the more people own cell phones, the harder it becomes for the rest of us to stay ‘in the loop’ of things, to be in touch, to be informed, even to participate in cultural activities.

Okay, so several points. I don’t necessarily buy her conclusion – cell phones are currently one of many ways that people stay various different kinds of “in touch,” but they’re far from the only way. I own a cell phone, but my primary means of staying in touch with people and the world is through a computer. Now – I don’t think we’re that far away from widespread adoption of true multifunction devices that will replicate functionalities currently found in cell phones, MP3 players, laptop computers, digital cameras, and probably a couple of other things. And then, lacking one of those widgets will be a serious impediment to social and cultural participation – but we’re not there yet.

And as to the evolution of phone ethics – pretty fascinating stuff, and it seems clear that, while privacy is currently at a low point, behaviors will continue change as functionalities change, and as users and society generally demand new standards of behavior.