Friday, April 25, 2008

My New (Sort Of) Blog Playground

I've been blogging for the Amazon Electronics store for a good long while now (since late 2006), and this week it got a new name (End User), snazzy, refreshed design where it's broken out of the Amazon site (it's now powered by TypePad), and given some Web 2.0 love. One post that I submitted a little while back never made it up because of the transition work going on (I can now publish directly, which makes me gleeful and probably makes my editors at Amazon a little nervous), so I offer it to you here:


A couple of months back, I stood rather aghast in the checkout line of my local grocery store as a woman continued chattering on her phone rather loudly during her entire transaction, acknowledging the mere existence of the check-out person just enough to grab her receipt and whirl away to finish the conversation. But rather than being witness to a mannerless boob, it turns out I was watching a sociological revue play itself out, at least according to one of the collection of articles in this week's Economist magazine (happily available to nonsubscribers) about the way that wireless communication is changing the way that people interact with one another.
Richard Ling, a sociologist at Telenor, the largest Norwegian telephone company, and author of New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion, was standing on his porch in Oslo one day, saying farewell to a few guests, when a plumber walked around the corner, talking on his mobile phone to what appeared to be his wife. Mr Ling, who had a leak in the kitchen, was expecting him. But the plumber took Mr Ling and his guests aback by walking right past them and into the house, where he took off his shoes and headed for the kitchen, chattering into his handset all the while.

It was the sort of thing that perhaps excites only sociologists. Here was an example of two big tensions in nomadic society. First, mobile technology pitted the plumber's interaction with a stranger (Mr Ling) against that with his own wife on the phone. The plumber, to use the technical term, had a "weak tie" to Mr Ling but a "strong tie" to his wife which easily prevailed over the weak one, leaving a few Norwegians feeling temporarily awkward and pondering the fate of their society.

Second, the plumber gave precedence to what Mr Ling calls the "mediated" interaction with the person at the other end of the phone, at the expense of his "co-present" communication with Mr Ling who was standing right next to him. In other words, the person who was physically more distant was nonetheless psychologically closer. So out went social norms and rituals (handshakes, greetings) that Norway and other societies accumulated during a past of exclusively co-present interactions. The plumber's only nod to ritual was to take off his shoes.

As a once budding sociologist (for a few semesters back in college, before one of my many major changes), the collection of special report articles at The Economist about the "new nomadism" of our wireless ways is a great read, and reminds me that the way I work today is so much different than I did even 5 years ago. I now conduct business via email and Twitter on my iPhone as I push my toddler son's jogging stroller. There's still a lot of work to do on my laptop, but assignments, review of documents, and conversation of direction can be made completely untethered from my PC.

Sociologically related, the New York Times Magazine from last Sunday (NYTimes membership required) featured an article that focused on Jan Chipchase, a man whose job I'm envious of. He works for Nokia as a "human-behavior researcher," also sometimes referred to as a "user anthropologist," he travels the globe "to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company -- to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia."

The article is a great reminder that the cell phone isn't just a communication convenience and knowledge worker accoutrement in the industrial world, but is also a technological key to how the cell phone will shape micro- and macroeconomics in the developing world over the next decade.
During a 2006 field study in Uganda, Chipchase and his colleagues stumbled upon an innovative use of the shared village phone, a practice called sente. Ugandans are using prepaid airtime as a way of transferring money from place to place, something that’s especially important to those who do not use banks. Someone working in Kampala, for instance, who wishes to send the equivalent of $5 back to his mother in a village will buy a $5 prepaid airtime card, but rather than entering the code into his own phone, he will call the village phone operator ("phone ladies" often run their businesses from small kiosks) and read the code to her. She then uses the airtime for her phone and completes the transaction by giving the man’s mother the money, minus a small commission. "It’s a rather ingenious practice," Chipchase says, "an example of grass-roots innovation, in which people create new uses for technology based on need."

Maybe in a century or so, someone will write a Kurlansky-esque book on how the cell phone changed the world. Of course, the way Moore's Law seems to accelerate the pace of technological change, we might get that book within my lifetime.