Mobile Communication Tools as Morality-Building Devices

Mobile Communication Tools as Morality-Building Devices

André H. Caron (Université de Montréal, Canada) and Letizia Caronia (University of Bologna, Italy)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8239-9.ch003
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The rise of Mobile Devices (MD) in the last two decades is noteworthy not only for the unprecedented rate at which they have spread, but for the vast number of countries in which they have so quickly been adopted, blind to both culture and economic stature. Moreover, the accelerated nature of their constantly-evolving design and function adds additional layers of complexity to the already-complicated topic of behavior in public places and during face-to-face communication. Drawing on extant literature and research, this article focuses on a specific but underexplored consequence of the mobile turn in everyday communication: MDs enhance the stage dimension of the social interactions they are embedded in, and therefore elicit a moral reasoning on the rights and duties of the individual in public places. They cooperate in building the bases of intersubjectivity: a sense of the other.
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This chapter concerns a quite ordinary although often underestimated consequence of the use of mobile communication devices in public places: by virtue of their affordances and projected uses, these artifacts trigger a moral reasoning on what is right, expected and appropriate (or not) for the individual in public places, i.e. they are morality-building devices.

Fifty years ago, Erving Goffman wrote an unparalleled essay on behavior in public places. As he put it, “rules of conduct in streets, parks, restaurants, theaters, shops, dance floors, meeting halls, and other gathering places of any community tell us a great deal about its most diffuse forms of social organization” (Goffman, 1963, pp. 3-4). In delineating this area of sociological investigation, he precisely noticed the significance of taking into account the usual behavior, the “ordinary human traffic and the patterning of ordinary social contacts” (Goffman, 1963, pp. 3-4). Since then, a whole generation of studies have analyzed face-to-face communication and social interaction, focusing on the multiple ways in which participants constructed locally appropriated social identities, reciprocally managed their self images, and made some interactional work for “doing ‘being ordinary’” (Sacks, 1984, p.414). Yet Goffman’s programmatic simplification of the field of inquiry may at first appear to be no longer applicable: in many natural occurring social encounters, information exchanged on a naked basis (Goffman, 1963, p. 14) is becoming more and more intertwined with information acquired and locally exchanged on a technologically-mediated basis. What was at that time the exception appears today to be more and more the norm: the senses are equipped with contemporary avatars of Goffman’s boosting devices (Goffman, 1963, p. 15) in ways that make Goffman’s distinction between embodied and disembodied messages collapse. In such an altered scenario, is it still relevant to assume that the “linkage of naked sense on one side and embodied transmission on the other provides one of the crucial communication conditions of face- to-face interaction” (Goffman, 1963, p. 15).

Many scholars have already made a conceptual linkage between the use of mobile devices and Goffman’s theory of behavior in the public place. While some claim that mediated interaction has distinctive features that differentiates it from face-to-face communication (see Collins, 2004), others argue in favour of the relevance of Goffman’s theory for understanding the hybrid nature of contemporary technologically-mediated face-to-face communication. According to Ling (2008), mediated interactions have the power to enhance the ritual dimensions of co-present communication by drawing on pre-existing symbols. In the same respect, Gergen (2002) goes as far as to pronounce the mobile phone a technology of communal restoration, being perhaps the most important technological support of face-to-face communication.

Insofar as the use of how mobile devices became more and more common during face-to- face interaction, this condition can only be fully understood when examining what mobile devices both do and make us do in the social encounter. If we still want to understand “the most diffused forms of social organization” (Goffman, 1963, pp. 3-4) of a community (wherein mobile devices are used on regular everyday basis), we need to take into account these non-human participants and their role in establishing, challenging, renewing, or reaffirming the meaning of social encounters and the rules of conduct in public places. As studies on mobile communication clearly demonstrate (Katz, 2002, 2008; Ling, 2004, 2008; Ito, 2005; Caron & Caronia, 2005, 2007; Turkle, 2008; Haddon, 2009), the “patterning of ordinary social contacts” (Goffman, 1963, p. 4) is now largely dependent on these artifacts. Their presence and use within the social scene make a difference (in comparison to their absence) that is traceable in people’s conduct and in the ways in which they account for social interaction being mediated by mobile devices.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mobile Turn: The shift toward mobile communication and information devices for almost any social interaction and communicative behaviours.

Morality-Building Devices: Technologies that trigger a moral reasoning on what is right, expected and appropriate or not.

Active Role of Things: The role artefacts have in delineating the conditions of possibility for behaviours and ways of life.

Ethical Awareness: The understanding of the rights and duties that constraint the individual as a member of a community.

Ghost Participant: A virtual social interactant made relevant by a mobile device that forces us to choose to either let it enter or not in the ongoing face-to-face interaction.

Moving Cultures: Cultural knowledge, cultural consumption, social interactions and identities made possible by and implemented through mobile communication devices.

Affordances: The features of a technology that anticipate paths of action, shape people conduct and make some usages more relevant than others.

Death of Silence: The feeling of being overwhelmingly solicited by virtual information and communication technologies.

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