Rich Ling: An Intellectual Auto-Biography

Rich Ling: An Intellectual Auto-Biography

Rich Ling (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8239-9.ch037


I have been privileged to observe the diffusion of mobile communication into society, first from the perch of a researcher at Telenor Research and subsequently as a university professor. Mobile communication is the most wide-spread mediation technology in the world. The trajectory of the research, both mine and that of my colleagues, has often been first descriptive studies followed by more theoretically driven studies. This cycle was evident with the original adoption of the mobile phone and we are seeing it again with the adoption of the smartphone/mobile internet. New areas of research include the transition from interpersonal interaction to the mobile internet, the analysis of big data and the use of mobile communication for social good.
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Introduction: Discovering The Blessed Banality Of Mobile Communication

Since the mid 1990's I have been studying mobile communication. In many ways it is a banal mediation form. Particularly in its pre-smartphone semblance, it was (and still often is) “only” used for talking and texting. As with studies of email, this is simple functionality often puts it in shadow of other perhaps more flashy mediation technologies. The weight of research in this area shows that it is far more interesting to study how newer technologies (social networking, blogs, gaming, etc.) engage “first users'” attention. That said, mobile telephony is the most widely diffused mediation technology on the planet (6.6 billion connections as of this writing).1 In spite of its banality, it is something unique.

The mobile phone has, from its inception, changed how we carry out social interaction. To gauge this, we need to simply think about to the situation before mobile telephony to see the complexities of organizing our lives. The fact that the mobile phone system makes us individually addressable has dramatically changed the way that we are able to microcoordinate our social interaction. Indeed, this is perhaps the most revolutionary social consequence of the device and it has been a motivation for my work.

The idea of using the mobile phone to coordinate seems obvious. Let me relate a story from my own life that shows how it has changed things. One evening — before we had mobile phones — my wife and I were invited to eat dinner with a friend. We lived within walking distance of a small shopping area. My wife (who is Norwegian) and I needed to separately attend to a couple of errands enroute to the dinner. It was easiest that I drove and she walked to the center. Then we planed to meet up to drive to our friend’s house. As I rushed out the door said that we should meet at the Texaco station. In my haste, and given that she has a “different” way of pronouncing Texaco, what I heard was “taxi station.” The Texaco and taxi stations are not more than 100 meters apart, but since the one is not visible from the other and we had no way of calling one another, they might as well have been Venus and Mars. In short, the seeds of a planning calamity had been sewn.

After waiting too long, I eventually parked the car (illegally), ran into a store to get change and find a phone booth so that I could call home to find out why my wife was delayed. Of course she was at the gas station, equally frustrated, and also trying to call home from another phone booth to see if, for some reason, I had returned home. I next called to our friend to say we would be late. Somewhat later my wife also called the friend to give the same message. I eventually called the friend again. She was able to help coordinate a family reunion. After several iterations and almost an hour of running into stores to get change in order to use phone booths, we managed to meet up at home again and start from zero.

This scene, based on a mispronunciation (or an inattentive listener depending on one’s perspective), is comedic. However, it also underscores the role of the mobile phone in our lives. Had both of us been equipped with mobile phones, the problem would have been solved with a call, a few rebuffs and a five-minute delay. The mobile phone may be banal; but it is also blessed, it is a godsend.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Cohesion: The extent of connectedness and solidarity among groups in society. It is the ongoing process of developing a community of shared values, shared challenges and equal opportunity among all members.

Ritual Interaction: It is a mundane everyday occurrence and its consequence is social cohesion.

Mobile telephony: Telephone services that provide to phones that may move around freely rather than stay fixed in a location.

Mobile Communication: Human communication with mobile phones.

Interpersonal Interaction: Various interactions among different individuals.

Short Message System or SMS: A text messaging service component of phone, Web, or mobile communication systems that allow exchanging short text messages.

Social facts: As Durkheimian suggested that, while there is individual agency, we are not free to ignore social constructions. We gain social efficiency by observing them at the expense of a small part of our free will.

Microcoordination: The ways people use mobile phones to coordinate everyday life at home (e.g., parents use mobile phones to coordinate a plan to pick up children from school) or at work (e.g., workers use mobile phones to coordinate equipment delivery).

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