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Richard Ling

Dr. Richard Ling

On the social impact of the telephone

Richard Ling is a sociologist and senior researcher for Telenor's research and development division. (external link) Telenor is the former Norwegian Telephone, Norway's state run telephone company, now partly privatized. His writing and research concentrates on how people use and relate to different aspects of mobile telephony.

Book iconHis new book is The Mobile Connection: The cell phone's impact on society (external link to, due out in early April, 2004. As the publisher, Morgan Kauffman (external link) puts it, "[T]his book will be important to the designers, information designers, social psychologists, and others who will have an impact on the development of the various new third generation of mobile telephones." True enough. But I think it will also interest technology historians, futurists, and anyone questioning how new information technologies change people and society. The article below illustrates how Ling writes on these topics.

Ling and Yttri's article, "Control, emancipation and status: The mobile telephone in the teen’s parental and peer group control relationships" (internal link in Word .doc format) may sound like dry academic writing until you read it. It's actually a fascinating look at how parents and teenagers get along with each other from a wireless communication point of view. Wireless doesn't dominate the paper or the relation between parent and child, it's in the background, but is now a very important part of that landscape. A few quotes:

Part of An Introduction . . .

"The informants described how the exclusive individualized access provided by the mobile telephone was preferred to that of the traditional house telephone as it provided new possibilities for peer group interaction. [Our paper] describes the teen’s radically different way of organizing social interaction when compared to that of their parents’ generation. The discipline imposed by a common family telephone -- and the accompanying irritation of a parent whose child would receive a call in the middle of the night -- has in the last half decade been replaced by a communication technology controlled by the adolescents themselves. Indeed, in a recent survey of teens made by the authors we found that more than 20% of teens say that they send SMS messages between 24:00 and 06:00 at least once a week."

Part of Mobile telephony as a fashion statement . . .

"The mobile telephone, as a physical object, is also a way in which one can display their knowledge of current fashion and thus garner status and influence. The device is a type of jewelry that, beyond its functional aspects, communicates to others the owner’s competence in the purchase and display."

"When asked in the context of a focus group to show their mobile telephones, several of the respondents demurred. Upon further prodding their said that they were somewhat embarrassed by the vintage, size or style of their mobile telephones. Thus, they were conversant with the prevailing fashion and knew that their devices were not parallel with that standard."

"According to Goffman, (1967) reading embarrassment allows one to read the situation. He notes that embarrassment is catching one out of character; that is catching one out of the character that they wish to portray. "

"Thus, the informants’ embarrassment was an indication of the degree to which the façade they wished to communicate would be threatened were the style of their mobile telephone become known. The need to carry out a type of repair work on their facade undermines their ability to legitimately claim status and influence since, in effect, all can see that they are not as able to control and manipulate symbols as they would let one on to believe."

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Typical teenagers! Good reading and great references. Here's more information on the book:

Publisher's Book Description

Can the cell phone forever change the way people communicate? The mobile phone is more than simply a technical innovation or a social fad, more than just an intrusion on polite society. This book, based on worldwide research involving tens of thousands of interviews and contextual observations, looks into the impact of the phone on our daily lives, including changes in our accessibility, safety and security, coordination, and use of public places.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Introduction

The history of mobile telephony
The growth of the mobile market
Outline of the book
Chapter 2: Making sense of mobile telephone adoption
The interaction between technology and society
Technical/social determinism and affordances
The domestication of Information and communication technologies (ICTs)
Methods and data sources

Chapter 3: Safety and security

The mobile telephone as a contribution to security
Use in situations where there is a chronic or an acute need for contact
Abstraction of security vis-à-vis mobile telephony
The mobile telephone in extraordinary situations
The diminution of security
Driving and mobile telephone use
Personal privacy

Chapter 4: The coordination of everyday life

Social coordination
Mechanical timekeeping and social coordination
The development of mechanical time keeping
The standardization of time
The etiquette of time and time keeping
Mobile communication and micro-coordination
Mid-course adjustment
Iterative coordination
Softening of schedules
Time vs. mobile based coordination
Advantages of mobile based coordination
Competition or supplement

Chapter 5: The mobile telephone and teens

Child/Adolescent development and the adoption of telephonyAdolescence and emancipation in contemporary society
Elements in the adoption of mobile telephony by teens
Functional uses of the mobile telephone among adolescents
The symbolic meaning of the mobile telephone
Social networking via the mobile telephone
The monetary dimensions to teens adoption of mobile telephony
Conclusion: Mobile telephony and the dance of emancipation

Chapter 6: The intrusive nature of mobile telephony

Mobile telephony in settings with heavy normative expectations
Mobile telephony in interpersonal situations
Initiation of the call and the production of social partitions
Management of the local situation during the call
Re-emergence into the local setting
Forced eavesdropping and being embarrassed for others

Chapter 7: Texting and the growth of asynchronous discourse

The growth of texting
Texting and the individual
Texting and the group
What is being said, who is saying it and how do they say it?
The content of the messages
The mechanics of SMS writing
Written vs. spoken language
Gendering of text messages
The future of texting

Chapter 8: Conclusion: The consequences of Osborne’s prognosis

The interaction between innovation and social institutions
The history of technical innovation and social adoption
Movable type and the printing press
The automobile
Sociology and the role of technical innovation
Social capital vs. individualism
Social capital
The institutionalization of individualization
The role of ICTs in the fostering of social
The Internet
The mobile telephone
Ad hoc networks
Virtual walled communities



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Book icon

New Book: The Mobile Connection: The cell phone's impact on society (external link to

Article icon

Article: Ling and Yttri, "Control, emancipation and status: The mobile telephone in the teen’s parental and peer group control relationships" (internal link to Word .doc format) logo West Sacramento, California, USA. A Tom Farley production




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