Homo Mobilis: How Wireless Communication Connects and Changes Us

In the April 12, 2008 Economist, Andreas Kluth surveys the effects of wireless communication on how we work, live, love, relate to places and to each other. These are some snippets from his survey.

We “urban nomads” (homo mobilis) are no longer defined by the clumsy gear we once carried, but by what we now leave behind. We are free from land lines, fax machines, even laptops. We communicate wirelessly. We carry very little paper. The old technological hassles about wirelessness have been mostly conquered. The new questions are sociological. Wirelessness is changing human interactions.

Travel is not a prerequisite for nomadism. Remaining permanently connected is the critical thing. Our basic tool is a mobile phone. Half the world’s population, 3.3 billion people, subscribe to mobile phone service.

Nomadism keeps us closer to those already close to us, but at the expense of attentiveness to strangers. Half of one’s text messages go to the same three or four people. Sociologists argue that we need not only “strong ties” with family and intimates, but also “weak ties” with casual acquaintances. “Weak ties” are the conduits for new ideas that travel between densely knit clumps of close friends and relatives. Social systems lacking “weak ties” will become fragmented and incoherent. The fatal epidemic raging in bee colonies resulting in reduced plant pollination comes to mind.

Wirelessness encourages adolescents to become socially autonomous earlier than their parents, building their own communities though text messaging and photo sharing among their cliques. With the advent of Facebook and MySpace the Web has become an intensely personal and social medium.

One survey at a Vermont college found that undergraduates communicate with their parents on average ten times per week. Getting drunk and lost after a party is somehow different now, when one push of a button speed dials parents for emergency assistance.

Wirelessness has changed the ways we shop, bank, listen to music, follow the news and socialize. Five of the ten best selling novels in Japan last year were written on mobile phones.

Wirelessness questions our need for conventional offices, even for Dilbert cubicles, though the casual serendipity of the water cooler may be missed. Knowledge nomads spend less than a third of their work time in offices, a third at home, and a third in “third places” such as parks, libraries, Starbucks or equivalent public spaces. Nomads don’t want to be isolated in obsolescent “home offices”. They want to mingle with others. Nomadism combines the autonomy of telecommuting with mobility that allows gregariousness and flexible work styles.

With fewer flesh meetings, staffs are more “purpose driven”, less obsessed with relationships at work. Some employees have no dedicated desk but “hotdesk” from any available. Many don’t come to an office at all. Older supervisors fear they can’t manage people whom they cannot see, though most get over it. Nomading necessitates management by objectives rather than by face time.

Nomadism can create considerable stress. We who work for ourselves have a tyrant for a boss. The danger is that the anytime, anyplace wireless office will lure us into a tiger cage: the everytime, everyplace office. In simpler times, most everyone worked at home. The village blacksmith didn’t separate the physical space devoted to work, family or play. Those once separated spheres of life may be merging again. Work and family have become all one big blur. Has the BlackBerry nestled in the bedroom?

Nomads constantly juggle the social rights of colleagues, relatives and friends, as well as their own needs for down time. How much should we bother each other after hours? The boundaries of etiquette are changing. Much wireless toil is done in public places not designed for work. It’s routine nowadays to answer phone calls in movies, restaurants and public toilets – even at weddings and funerals. Rudy Giuliani famously interrupted a presidential campaign speech to take a personal phone call from home. Witnesses report that interruption turned his National Rifle Association audience into stone.

In the old days there were clear limits on personal productivity, whereas now there are none. Today people seem to judge what they should achieve by what they could achieve. More people feel inadequate, intimidated by the unlimited productive opportunities offered by wirelessness.

Nomads are driven by the illusion that more information always leads to better decisions. Wirelessness encourages addictive behaviors such as winnowing chaffs of email at all hours in hopes of finding an occasional grain. We seem obsessed to project an image of busyness. See my comments on “BlackBerry ADD”: here and here. Bluetooth ear pieces make our phones hands free, though we may appear delusional as we converse in public with an unseen someone.

In rich countries our “smart phones” are connected to the internet. Low-cost users, especially in poorer countries, rely on text messaging that doesn’t require an internet connection. In the third world, text messaging has become the standard for monitoring elections, the primary tool for mobilizing enormous crowds on short notice, for locating health care resources, and for environmental monitoring of carbon monoxide, ozone, pollen, sun intensity and temperature. By adding cheap sensors for the global positioning system (GPS) and for radiation, a network of mobile phones could discover nuclear leaks or track the transport of “dirty bombs”.

Some detect a new shift in language, thought and feeling resulting from wirelessness. Accepted grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation are giving way to a linguistic whateverism. People write more than ever before, though the more we write wirelessly the worse writers we become. With quills, pens, even manual typewriters, people took time and care to clarify their thoughts. Nomads seem convinced that they don’t have time to care – they concentrate on speed alone. Students who can Google a snippet from Hamlet need no longer consult Cliff Notes.

Teachers complain that their students are thinking in snippets i.e. incoherently, having internalized the new whateverism. Young nomads write without thinking, leave home without planning, enter relationships without tying themselves down. Large parts of human interaction are relegated to the virtual. More and more adolescents dump their lovers by text message, or worse, by changing the status of their Facebook profile from “in relationship” to “single”. Such cyber-dumping may be efficient and instantaneous but it’s potentially traumatic.

A generation ago, we worried that television was creating a generation of unimaginative couch potatoes, if not intellectual vegetables. Today’s young nomads who read Shakespeare in snippets, may be creating an artistic culture more vibrant and arguably more imaginative than any preceding it. Creative types do more than stitch together snippets in a mash-together culture. They are forging new combinations almost as neurons and synapses create new thoughts.

Every new technology has created an excess of silliness. In time, each silliness has produced its own backlash and subsequent adjustment. Having invented the “on” button, homo mobilis nomads will likely discover an appropriate “off” button as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, some of these snippets from Kluth’s survey were stitched together in a coffee house from a paper copy of the Economist.

- Gerald Le Van

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