cell phones

The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.
The plot of Scream is impossible without cordless phones.

In Children of Men Clive Owen’s character Theo is trying to secure “transfer papers” from his cousin Nigel who seems to be one of the few rich people left in the no-one-can-make-babies-anymore-dystopia. The two older men are sitting at a dining table with a younger boy, presumably Nigel’s son, who seems to be inflicted in some way. He’s pale and stares vacantly at somewhere just past his left hand which is eerily still in between the twitches of fingers that are adorned by delicate wires. He doesn’t respond to others in the room and isn’t eating the food in front of him. After Nigel yells at him to take his pill we notice that they boy isn’t really sick or particularly disturbed, he’s playing a game attached to his hand. more...

Does this phone make me seem like...less of a man?
Does this phone make me seem like…less of a man?

When did mobile phones go from being symbols of status and power to being “emasculating”? Probably around the time they became easier to access than toilets are.

Sergey Brin, of course, would likely say that emasculation arrived with the touchscreen smartphone—when using a mobile phone became a matter of “standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass” while looking down, instead of flexing one’s bicep to bark orders into a massive handset while staring straight ahead (or glaring at a subordinate). Real men don’t “stand around”; real men do stuff! Real men punch buttons with authority, and take decisive action! PJ Rey (@pjrey) and I may have argued that we express agency through our smartphones, but “rubbing”? Touching? That’s, like, girl stuff. Eeeeeeew.

Tongue-in-cheek riff aside, there’s more to Brin’s smartphone insecurity than may be apparent on the (glassy) surface. more...

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration.

This panel consists of four presentations that exhibit a theoretically rich range of approaches to understanding theory of mobile technologies in contemporary contexts. Jason Farman’s “The Materiality of the Mobile Internet: An Object-Oriented Approach to Mobile Networks” uses the path of a single mobile phone signal to illustrate the importance of considering both human and non-humannodes in digital networks. Katy Pearce’s “Is your Web everyone’s Web? Theorizing the web through the lens of the device divide” considers the social implications of accessing the Internet via mobile vs. traditional interfaces. In doing so, she casts a much-needed theoretical spotlight on a notion many of us grasp intuitively: that the quality of one’s online experience depends critically on the device(s) used to get online. Along similar lines, David Banks’ “Finding it ‘Otherwise’: Culturally and Geographically Situating The Practice of Texting” takes a sociotechnical approach to mobile phoneuse in Ghana, discovering how residents use their phones to move about their world. In a laudable instance of research informing real-world practice, data from the project will inform the deployment of a regional condom distribution network. Finally, Jim Thatcher’s “MobileGeo-Spatial Devices: a theoretical approach to the GeoWeb” critically interrogates the mediation of geographical knowledge-gathering through mobile devices. Applying a critical Marxist understanding oftechnology, he develops a radical reading of ostensibly innocuous “apps” that may serve to reinforce offline inequalities.

[Paper titles and abstracts after the jump.] more...

Is this an Oxymoron?

Most of our interactions with technology are rather mundane. We flip a light switch, buckle our seat belts, or place a phone call. We have a tacit knowledge of how these devices work. In other words, we have relatively standard, institutionalized, ways of interacting with familiar technologies. For example: if I were to drive someone else’s car, even if it is an unfamiliar model, I do not immediately consult the user manual. I look around for the familiar controls, maybe flick the blinkers on while the car is still in the drive way, and off I go. Removal of these technologies (or even significant alterations) can cause confusion. This is immediately evident if you are trying to meet a friend who does not own a cell phone. Typical conventions for finding the person in a crowded public space (“Yeah, I’m here. Near the stage? Yeah I see you waving.”) are not available to you. In years prior to widespread cell phone adoption, you might have made more detailed plans before heading out (“We’ll meet by the stage at 11PM.”) but now we work out the details on the fly. Operating cars and using cell phones are just a few mundane examples of how technologies shape social behavior beyond the actions needed to operate and maintain them. The widespread adoption of technologies, and the decisions by individual groups to utilize technologies can have a profound impact on the social order of communities. This second part of the Tactical Survey will help academics, activists, and activist academics assess the roll of information technology in a movement and make better decisions on when and how to use tools like social media, live video, and other forms of computer-mediated communication. more...

[SPOILER ALERT: details about the first episode of Sherlock“A Study In Pink” are discussed below. The ending is not totally given away, but major story details are revealed.]

A few weeks ago, I challenged Kurt Anderson’s claim that cultural progress and innovation had stagnated in the last twenty years. Anderson, I contend, has ignored new mediums (the Internet), re-invented genres (hip-hop, electronic music), and new cultural stereotypes (geek chic, hipsters). But what ties all of these things together is the central thesis that consumer technologies are just as much cultural artifact as clothes or music. No where is this more obvious and brilliantly executed than in BBC One’s updated interpretation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Set in present day London, “Sherlock” is a reinterpretation of the most famous Holmes mysteries and does an excellent job of translating the Victorian source material into a modern drama. That translation includes dress, idiomatic expressions, and vehicles- but it also includes cell phones, restrictions on smoking, and the War on Terror. Sherlock is a uniquely 21st century show that could not have taken place in the early 2000s or the 90s. more...

A modern day panopticon. Photo by Nathan Jurgenson.

The first post I wrote for Cyborgology concluded that many of the dominant socio-technical systems in our world look and behave in a similar fashion. The entertainment industry, advanced military surveillance, search algorithms, and academic reference tools are swapping hardware and best practice in such a way that the carrying out of a military invasion, or the Super Bowl begins to look disturbingly similar. Around the time that I wrote that post, USAToday ran a disturbingly cheerful story about police departments’ desire to acquire similar technology. Miami’s police department acquired the  Honeywell’s T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) a few moths later. The only regulations that prevented the MPD (or any police force) from acquiring such technology were FAA regulations about where and how it could be flown. Such acquisitions have gone largely unquestioned by the media as well. In fact, local coverage of the purchase was supportive. A local CBS affiliate led with the headline, “Dade Cops Waiting To Get Crime Fighting Drone Airborne.” This all seems very bleak, but just as powerful actors have increased their abilities to engage in surveillance, the individual has more tools than ever to watch the watchers. more...

QR codes line the bulletin boards of many college campuses.

Lisa Wade over at our sister blog Sociological Images sent us an email from one of her readers, Steve Grimes, who shared this image and some interesting thoughts about how Quick Response codes or, QR codes can contribute to inequality. That is, QR codes such as these serve to make certain content and information “exclusive” to those who have smartphones. He states,

There is a general thinking that technology can create a level playing field (an example of this is can be seen with the popular feelings about the internet). However, technology also has a great ability to create and widen gaps of inequality.

In a practical sense the company may be looking for students who are tech savvy. They may also want to save on ink toner (might be a stretch). So using the matrix barcode may serve that purpose. However, the ad also shows how technology can exclude individuals; primarily in this case, students without smart phones. One may think that being on a college campus every student would have a smart phone. However, when you look at the prices of most smart phones along with the prices for the plans of a carrier (usually somewhere $75-150 per month) one can see that not every student may have one. Especially considering the other things that they may have to pay for that are a bit pressing to their environment (books, food, etc). more...

The original work described in this post was done in collaboration with Audrey Bennett and Ron Eglash and funded by the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 grant-funded Triple Helix Program. You can read all of the dispatches from Ghana on the3Helix fellows’ blog.

Cell phone towers are a constant site in Kumasi, Ghana.
Cell phone towers are a constant site in Kumasi, Ghana.

Alternate universes can be a lot of fun. We can make Superman land in the USSR, put goatees on normally clean-shaven cast members, and revisit moments in history and play the “what if” game. It is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy. But there is much more to be said about the various parallel universes that might exist. At least, that’s what a lot of social theory has us believe.

At the end of the 20th century social scientists released dozens of books and articles with the words “social construction” in the title. Social constructionism became a very useful tool for the post-modern author who wanted to deconstruct such difficult topics as organic chemistry or high-energy physics.  Their premises were rather straightforward and were unceremoniously summarized and simplified by Ian Hacking in his book “The Social Construction of What?” (2000). Hacking writes:



Contents of the suitcase include a cell phone, some antennae, and modems.

In a sort of 21st century version of Radio Free Europe, the US State Department has sponsored a project that develops suitcase-sized kits that set up cell-phone based mesh networks. These private networks are to be deployed in countries that have totalitarian governments (with anti-American sentiment).

Full story at the New York Times.

The protests in Egypt have been front and center in the American media over the previous two weeks.  We were greeted with daily updates about former President Mubarak’s grasp on power, and, ultimately, his resignation.  Buried in all the rapidly unfolding events were numerous stories about social media and its role in the revolution.  I think it may be useful to aggregate all these stories as we begin to analyze how important social media was (if at all) to the revolution – and, also, whether the revolution has significant implications for social media.

As a prelude to the unrest in Egypt (and Tunisia) several cables conveying communications between US diplomats and the State Department were leaked to Wikileaks.  The connection between these leaks and the protests in Tunisia was covered in the Guardian and the Village Voice.  Journalists, ever eager for a sexy headline, quickly labeled Tunisia “The First Wikileaks Revolution.”  The cables also brought global attention to “routine and pervasive” police brutality under the Mubarak regime, giving increased legitimacy to dissident groups.

After Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fell, unrest quickly spread to Egypt.  Largely unprepared to cover the event, the Western media was forced to rely on Twitter feeds (as well as Al Jazeera) as a primary source for reporting.  (For an excellent analysis of the most watched Twitter feeds see Zeynep Tufekci’s “Can ‘Leaderless Revolutions’ Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks.”) more...