‘Thumb Culture’ and the meaning of mobiles

A thought-provoking new book asks: 'What is a mobile phone...?'

  • Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society, ed Peter Glotz, Stefan Bertschi and Chris Locke

What is a mobile phone? A decade ago, the answer would have been straightforward: a portable telephone that allowed an individual to make, and receive, calls from wherever he or she was. Now, as technology consultant Paul Golding writes, ‘The term mobile phone is increasingly problematic’. Mobiles are phones, organisers, cameras, text-messaging systems; they have become our companions, our life-bloggers, even our friends.

At least, this is the message of Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society. At first sight, the book seems a rather daunting prospect: an edited collection of chapters from 25 academics and technology consultants from around the world, including chapters titled ‘Postal presence: A case study of mobile customisation and gender in Melbourne’, and ‘The role of interspace in sustaining identity’; you do worry that a hefty dose of jargon-busting might be required. In fact, the book is engaging, readable and above all very interesting, spanning aspects of ‘thumb culture’ from ‘the social and economic implications of mobile telephony in Rwanda’ to ‘Technological change and teenage life’.

Overall, Thumb Culture is a positive appraisal of the increasingly complex role played by mobile phones in our society. Chapters examine the speed at which this technology has developed already and its potential for the future, and there is a clear sense throughout the book that mobile phones have indeed come to mean a great deal for society, and that understanding this relationship is critical for understanding how we view current social attitudes towards progress, communication and co-operation.

Fortunately, however, the book avoids the trap of being uncritically gee-whiz about the power of these small gadgets to transform our lives. Indeed the first chapter, by Swiss sociology professor Hans Geser, asks ‘Is the cell phone undermining social order?’. He argues that there are a number of ways in which ‘the cell phone works as an “antirevolutionary device” by promoting the retrogression to more simple, “pre-modern” patterns of social life’.

While the rapid development of the mobile phone undoubtedly represents technological progress, it would be too glib to assume that there is something inherently progressive about the multifarious ways in which it is integrated into society and used by individuals. Ultimately, the mobile remains a communications device - it has no autonomous existence, and it does not define us. What ‘thumb culture’ does do is reflect and shape our lives, for better or for worse.

Other chapters pick up this theme. That our mobiles mean a great deal to us today is, at least in part, because other, substantial areas of social life have come to mean rather less. A chapter on ‘Emotional attachment and mobile phones’ by Jane Vincent, research fellow at the University of Surrey’s Digital World Research Centre, describes the relationship between people and their mobile phones as ‘a sentient one,’ and explains how:

‘We interact with a mobile phone in a way that we do not with any other computational devices - we fondle it, we clutch it in times of crisis ready to turn to it and dial for help and solace, and we know that our loved ones are doing the same, probably at the same time.’

This description is clearly true, of some mobile phone users at least, and it would seem churlish to deny the fact that many individuals invest a great deal of meaning into their mobile phones. But there is also, surely, something faintly disturbing about the fetishisation of these objects, and the dependence upon them that many mobile phone users exhibit.

A chapter on ‘moblogs’ - mobile-based weblogs, which individuals use to record thoughts and images about their daily lives - raises similar issues. With sardonic subheadings such as ‘Exhibitionism or journalism?’ and ‘Between breakfast and the front line’, authors Nicola Döring and Alex Gundolf examine the tensions at the heart of blog culture, mobile or otherwise, between the ease of communication allowed for by this technology, the individual creativity and effort that goes into such self-publishing, and the dull, rather insular nature of much of the content that is publicised as a result.

The authors’ argument that moblogs ‘qualify neither for highest praise nor for complete rubbishing’ is based on the understanding that these new features of personal and, to an extent, public life result from broader cultural shifts which mobile phone usage reflects, but for which it cannot be held wholly responsible. When they argue, for example, that ‘Teenagers’ moblog contributions - with pictures illustrating their breakfast, their journey to school, their last party, or their pets and siblings - might seem trite, but so is life’, it is hard to disagree with this statement.

That adults - such as the enthusiastic moblogger Juliàn Gallo quoted at the start of the chapter, who publishes an average of 6.5 snaps per day of his kids on his moblog - increasingly buy in to the trite diary culture of teenagers surely says more about the paucity of real-world public life than about anything uniquely disturbing in the virtual world.

What makes mobile phone culture so fascinating as an area of study and discussion, however, is the extent to which new technology interacts with broader trends to create something that is distinctive and very real. Art does not only imitate life, but also helps to shape it - and the ubiquity of mobile phones, together with the diverse uses to which these devices are put, symbolises above all the frustrations of contemporary culture. In its enthusiasm to embrace this technology, society has shown itself open to new experiments, new forms of communication, new ways of doing business and new ways of interacting with those on the other side of the world as well as those closest to us. There is plenty of energy here, and creativity and will.

Yet all this momentum continually raises the question: where can we go with this? Mobile technology itself cannot overcome the limits of the business world, nor the crisis of political engagement, nor the narrowness of the public domain; and in many respects it fuels certain trends which many worry are retrograde, such as the continual invasion of the private sphere, and the presentism that works against us planning even an hour in advance. How we harness all that is positive within our ‘thumb culture’ while maintaining a critical perspective on its limitations is a key question for future debate.

Buy Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society from Amazon (UK).

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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