The smartphone: a shackle once more

Here’s a phrase many of you will remember, probably from the late 1990s: “Yeah, I’d get a cell phone, but I don’t want to be on, like, an electronic leash, you know?” People had land lines, pagers, car phones — the pocketable mobile phone was still a luxury and, to some, an unwanted responsibility. Over the next 10 years or so, the mobile phone gradually reached such high levels of market penetration that it’s quite difficult to find anybody without one. It is simply too practical and affordable to refrain from at this point. However, in the last few years, as smartphones and texting have become the default mode of communication for many people, the tone has changed again; the electronic leash is returning.

Why is this? It’s actually pretty simple: once a tool reaches a certain level of integration with the social and communication norms of a person, it receives the same level of cognitive consideration as, say, speech. Do you wonder whether you should end a text message with an exclamation mark, a period, or nothing at all? This is because texting and email are approaching the same level of integration with our daily lives as the speech and gestures we’ve been using for millennia. I realize one could have said this at any time over the last decade, but I’m saying it now for a specific reason.

As someone who works online, I have a bit of an unusual communication situation, to be sure. Most of my interactions take place via text boxes. IM, email, the CrunchGear chatroom and task manager where we administer the site — these are my main methods of social interaction during most of the day. Even at my previous job, where I worked in an office and spoke to clients regularly, the volume of email and otherwise written communication approached that of “real” interaction. I’m sure, dear reader, if you were to submit your life to this analysis, you would also find a startling amount of what people like to categorize separately “virtual” (or some such descriptor) communication.

Now, the level of expression possible in 140 characters, or a two-paragraph email, or in a chatroom, is clearly not equal to the level of expression possible in a face-to-face conversation. That is a fact, as far as it goes… partially because our brains are actually designed for the latter sort of interaction, so it’s not really a fair fight. And although the expressive bandwidth, if you will, of a series of text messages is very small, we are beginning to imbue these impersonal, telegraphic communications with the subtlety and power of a normal conversation. You see? As text begins to more completely supplant conversation, conversation more completely informs how we create and interpret the text. Observe this overly simplistic diagram that took way too long to make:

This is, I believe, why our phones are beginning to be electronic shackles yet again. Oh, I don’t mean that because we can write a 🙂 or :(, it’s just like looking in someone’s face — but what was impersonal only a couple years ago is rapidly becoming extremely personal, as we project ourselves more completely onto it, as we must necessarily when it takes up such a large portion of our social interactions. Think of the way correspondence made up such a huge portion of communication before the age of the computer. The Victorians, my god! Half their life was in trunks of letters, and lovers of 19th-century literature will recall the minuteness with which letters are scrutinized; it was at least as important a form of communication as face-to-face conversation, and it got the weight it deserved. Similarly, the delimiting of microcommunications like texts and tweets over the last few years (socially and monetarily) has put them more firmly on our cognitive maps.

So why is it suddenly a shackle, then? Have things really changed so much in the last year or two? Well – it’s an ongoing process, obviously. The best way to see it in action is to hearken back to when BlackBerrys started getting popular. People were glued to them, because as major email users and connected people in general, they were the early adopters not just of the technology, but of the repercussions of relying on that technology. So you’ve got CrackBerrys blowing up, and then you’ve got the iPhone and the popularization of the smartphone that it brought. Over the last couple years, many more phones have integrated push email, instant notifications from things like Facebook and Foursquare, and so on — to say nothing of the increasing popularity of unlimited texting. The reliance on the phone as primary (or close secondary) method of communication is an expanding circle, and it’s starting to envelop the “man on the street,” whereas not long ago it was only the tech-savvy guy, or the business guy, or what have you. The personalization of impersonal communication is happening on a large scale, and the implications of that are interesting.


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