[Research] Using the automobile as a lens for looking at the telephone

Howard Rheingold on the feature:

People whose lives and whose children's lives were changed by the coming of the automobile failed to foresee the social side-effects of this wonderful new invention that brought freedom and power to so many people, so quickly. Can we foresee the mobilecom-dominated society any better than we planned for the automobile dominated society? (...) It's no secret that the automobile changed courtship patterns. Not only did physical mobility make hooking up possible for people who lived beyond walking distance of one another or lacked easy access to public transportation, the automobile itself furnished a somewhat cramped but conveniently mobile place for two people to be alone together. And adultery became more easily accomplished. The automobile certainly changed the shape of cities, the way people used cities, and the size of cities. Steven Johnson pointed out in his book Emergence that telephones made skyscrapers possible, since there was a limit to the height pneumatic tubes could convey messages in a building. The wireline phone even gave rise to a new form of settlement, the suburb.(...)How can I use those examples to examine mobile telephony? We know from the work of Ito, Seyler-Ling, and others that adolescent mating patterns changed rapidly with the introduction of the mobile phone, particularly via texting. In regard to adultery, the mobile phone has proved to be an enabler, and also as a way for suspicious spouses to catch the adulterers. In the former case as an enabler, we've heard of married men who use a "shag phone" exclusively for communications with their lovers, and in the latter case as a detector, suspicious spouses have used the call records built into their husband's or wive's mobile phone to catch them.

I like this comment:

What will happen if cheap networked devices that can reliably report their current locations on demand become cheap and as widely-used as today's standard mobile phones? What if people can broadcast (or narrowcast) pings and preference ratings from anywhere by hitting a single thumbs-up or thumbs-down button, Tivo style? If city dwellers and suburbanites can explore live and historic visualizations of the activities and preferences of their friends, colleagues and family and of strangers as well, what will this mean? What happens if people regularly examine the preferences and activities of groups ranging from small circles of friends to thousands of people simultaneously, in aggregate? What if most people in a city can add their own preference and location information (as well as decoys and misleading information) to these socio-geographic data pools throughout the day?

Here are just two possibilities: -Things get worse and these inward-focused bubbles are reinforced. This technology encourages people to focus ever more closely on their own lives and those of their small circles of friends as separate from the rest of the world. Now a person can ignore neighbors and the outside world even more because at any moment he can view an up-to-the-moment display of the activities of his circle of friends and colleagues. Group preference and activity maps can be made private and exclusive, closed off to the outside world. Such technologies might lead to widespread social balkanization by reducing mixing between groups, by making it easier for each clique to gather in and move among private venues or venues that are far from other groups. Drivers in the twentieth century occasionally escaped their automobile/garage/home/office bubbles in places such as grocery stores, parks, bars and cafes, where they crossed paths with people outside their groups. Will locative technologies just provide tools for retreating into the bubble in these places -- tools even more effective than the Walkman and the mobile phone?

-Things get better. Location-based technology encourages people burst the bubbles, to widen their focus and become more conscious of their neighborhoods and communities as a whole. The tools can provide new ways for people to explore and observe and appreciate activities of and suggestions from people who they might not otherwise encounter, and this could bring a region's disparate groups together. A timid person who happens into an unfamiliar neighborhood might not normally explore the cultural attractions nearby, even if he has an hour to kill. But if he glances at a display that shows a friend a block away, he might link up with that friend to visit places he wouldn't explore alone. In the cities, young nightlife aficionados who use such services might engage in more bar-hopping and party-hopping as they check out up-to-the-minute visualizations showing hundreds of their friends' activities and ratings simultaneously, in aggregate. Location-based services might make getting from place to place via public transit much easier, further encouraging travel between nightlife destinations, and further encouraging mixing between different groups of people.

This is becoming far too long for a comment, so I'll cut it off. But an important point: as technical geeks and social-science geeks we can try to predict the future like this, but this is the sort of tech that really won't arise from the geeks. It will be defined and shaped by the regular people who use it. The best we can do is release minimal versions of locative services to people, watch what they do with them, then iteratively build them up to serve those uses and desires. I think our best hope for bursting the bubbles lies in avoiding overly-restrictive standards and definitions of these technologies, and encouraging open, hackable, evolvable approaches to building these tools.