“I can’t talk, I’m texting!”

I was in New York City this past weekend exploring the sights; my mom and aunt really wanted to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree and I like to use any excuse I can to travel and explore for a weekend, so I joined them on the trip. After immersing ourselves in the beauty of the Christmas tree during our first night there (although I must admit I was more excited by the NBC studios that were close by), we ate some street food and then started to head back to our hotel.

Street food!

Being the tourists we were, we had no idea where the nearest subway line was. Without even thinking about it, I took out my iPhone and started searching for it via a map/GPS application. I was having some difficulties locating it (NYC is so ridiculously big it takes some time to orient yourself) so the three of us were just standing there in the cold as hundreds of people were walking by and trying not to bump into us. We started to talk about which direction we should walk in order to find a subway station and then I turned around.

Literally some thirty feet behind us was a sign with stairs leading down into a subway station. It was at that moment I realized I probably should have checked out my physical surroundings first before resorting to the cell phone.

As I was getting on the bus this morning (to come to this coffee shop where I am now writing this blog) I noticed I had left the aforementioned phone in my car at the bus stop parking lot. As anyone who spends too much time on their phones out there can attest to, an instant sense of anxiety and emptiness swept through my body. How in the world am I going to make it through this whole day without my phone? Can I survive the bus ride and walk through the city without listening to my music? Will I know what is going on in the world without being able to constantly check my Twitter and Facebook feeds? What if someone needs to call me and it’s an emergency and I don’t have my phone? As the bus door closed and we left the station I remembered my topic for today was going to be about cell phones and I finally understood—this was somehow meant to be. No better day to discuss our overuse of cell phones than a day when I have to face my own dependency head on!

A Plethora of Phones

Yesterday the National Communication Association (via Twitter) posted a link to this article, written by  Dr. Elizabeth Tolman of South Dakota State University. Dr. Tolman discusses the increase in cell phone use in our society and the negative effects it is having on communication practices. She bases her assertions on previous research findings in the communication discipline and uses examples from papers written by her students.

Tolman (2011) first shares some statistics from Nielsen and Common Sense Media. The statistics state there are over 223 million cell phone users over the age of 13 in the United States and that children as young as 0-2 years are now using mobile media. Cell phones have literally infiltrated every aspect of society (workplace, home, school, etc.). You might be reading this on a cell phone right now.

I will not summarize all of Tolman’s main points, but some of them definitely stand out and relate to my life. Among other things, she says over dependence on cell phones affects our interpersonal relationships and how we behave in public spaces.

Interpersonal Relationships

Focusing on our cell phones while engaging in a face-to-face conversation is simply not possible; we must choose one or the other. Tolman explains this nicely:

Consider if you are becoming a non-participant in a group conversation. For example, this summer while visiting my parent’s cabin, my brother was using his smart phone when we were out on the lake in a boat. In this instance I observed that he was physically present, but not actively participating in the conversation. This example illustrates how an individual can become a passive member of a conversation and become excluded from the group interaction.

I have committed the above crime more times than I can remember. For instance, I might be having a good conversation with a friend at a restaurant with my phone sitting on the table in vibrate mode. The phone will then move slightly, notifying me I have received a message. No matter how good the conversation with my friend is, I usually feel an urge, a need, and a necessity to pick up the silly phone and check the message. I sometimes even respond to the message, while attempting to make eye contact with the friend and acting as if I am still actively listening (which of course I am not).

You know you’ve done it too.

One of the reasons behaviors such as these are increasingly seen as less taboo in our society is because the majority of the population does it. In the above scenario my friend would most likely not have been offended. In fact, they might pause the conversation and check their cell phone as well. These actions are very ironic—we give up face-to-face communication with our friends in order to engage in computer-mediated-communication with our other friends. Thus, we are giving up communication to communicate; we are essentially saying, “I can’t talk, I’m texting!”

Public Spaces

When discussing cell phone use in public spaces, Tolman (2011) asks,

Have you ever observed two people sitting across from each other at a restaurant, not talking, yet looking down at their cell phones? Are there instances when individuals use their cell phones to “look busy” or fidget with their cell phones in order to avoid potentially awkward interactions or silences, such as when getting a hair cut? Cell phone users should consider their motivation for using a mobile device in a public setting.

Again, she alludes to something I have done before and that most of you probably have done as well. When you are in situation with a stranger (an elevator, for example) and you are forced to spend some time with them, chances are that you will take out your phone and look at it like you just received the most important message of your life. You do this just to avoid the possibility of interacting with or (heavens forbid!) making eye contact with a stranger. Cell phones have become such a big part of our everyday rituals that we now use them as shields when we do not want to interact with others. For instance, I will oftentimes put my headphones in and act like I am listening to music from my phone when I am in fact not listening to anything. I do this because having those headphones in guarantees people won’t bother me.

So Do I Fear Technology? 

The Luddites were made up of people in 19th century England who were against the Industrial Revolution because they feared the increase in technology and machinery would decrease jobs and negatively affect their lives. During their protests they actually destroyed machinery.

These days the word “Luddite” is used to describe those who are opposed to and afraid of new technology. I want to make clear that I am not a Luddite.  I am not opposed to the growth of cell phones in our society and I recognize the amazing positive impacts they have had on improving communication. I have even written about the great benefits of mobile devices in the context of traveling. I like my cell phone and love that these devices increase our ability to communicate.

However, I think it is imperative that we also recognize the potential negative effects of too much cell phone use. Too much of anything is a bad thing, and technology is no exception.

While the phone could have helped me to get around New York City (and did several times), there are situations in which I did not have to depend on the phone and in which the phone actually hurt me by distracting me from my immediate surroundings. While phones can help us to communicate with our loved ones throughout the day, they can also hurt our relationships by causing us to not pay attention to those people who are actually in our presence at the moment. And while cell phones can be used strategically to avoid interactions with others, they can also prohibit potential amazing conversations with strangers. Some of my most memorable conversations have been with people who were complete strangers. Since strangers don’t know each other they tend to open up more and learn a lot about each other’s lives in a short period of time. Conversations like these would not happen if everybody avoided them by “fake” listening to music from their cell phones.

As media convergence continues to increase in the Unites States and more technology enters our pockets and daily lives and as technology continues to increase around the world as well, we need to keep in mind to take it all with a grain of salt. While it is perfectly okay to use the latest gadgets (such as smart phones) to communicate, inform, and entertain ourselves, we need to remember that our basic human need for communication always comes first and that some of the best ways to achieve this need have very little to do with technology and very much to do with face-to-face interactions.

Looking Ahead to the World of the iPhone 20

Today I present to you a really cool video I first saw a few months ago when one of my Facebook friends shared it. The video was produced by the glass company Corning and shows us a potential future in which all of our technology is based on touch screen glass.

I am not a technical person at all so I will not even try to discuss the technological details behind this video.

What I am interested in, though, are the effects that technological convergence and media convergence are currently having and will continue to have on our daily lives. I also believe that much of what is presented in this video is a very realistic possibility for the near future (30-50 years) when considering our current technologies and how much technology has grown over the past decade. In fact, much of what is in this video already exists, it just far too expensive for the average western middle class consumer.

For example, you will notice a smartphone-esque device in the video which looks similar to many of the smartphones that are out on the market today; thus the title of this blog entry, which is assuming that a future version of Apple’s iPhone might look like the device in the below video. Check out this article and the photo below to see what people are saying about the iPhone 5, which will most likely be released next year and looks eerily similar to the device in the video.

The possible iPhone 5: iPhone 4S is so last week.

You will also notice in this video that a lot of the technology is touch screen, including tables and refrigerators. Well, Microsoft has already developed a table touch screen product which they call the “Microsoft Surface” and Samsung is already selling a refrigerator with an LCD touch screen that’s also connected to Wi-Fi.

Another item you will notice in the video is that all the different devices are seamlessly sharing data with each other. This has also started to happen today. For example, Apple finally released their iCloud product that wirelessly updates photos, music, calendars, documents, and many other items with all Apple devices. I have tested this out myself and can tell you that it works and it is a great timesaver. Not having to connect my phone to my computer to update my calendar is really neat.

I mention all of these technological inventions not to promote the respective products, but to hopefully convince you that what you see in this video is not science fiction but is a realistic possibility.

Of course, some items from the video are obviously not realistic. The whole world will not have access to such amazing technology; there will be millions and millions of people living in third world countries and in poor classes of the first world countries without any technological gadgets, just like there are today. However, I believe that it is safe to assume that many sectors of the rich, western, and highly industrialized nations will indeed have access to technology similar to what is presented in the video and that it will be affordable to the middle classes.

If this assumption is true, then it is important for us to look ahead and to ponder how the continuing growth of technological and media convergence will impact our daily lives. While all the technology in this video is more likely to be available to our grandchildren than to us, we are currently experiencing and will continue to experience the initial stages of its development and it will affect our lives as a result. So many questions can be asked. Below are just a few examples.

  • Will the fact that we will have access to media everywhere (bus stops, our cars, highway signs, kitchen appliances, etc.) increase our exposure to news about the world and allow us to become more open minded or will it only increase our exposure to our own viewpoints and thus make us more close minded?
  • Will the growth of media convergence create a new digital divide between the richer people of the world (middle and upper class) and the poorer people or will it close the gap and allow the wealthier classes and nations to economically help the poorer ones?
  • How will privacy be affected when all of the things we use everyday are connected to a global Wi-Fi network?
  • Will politicians have more power than ever to present their rhetoric to us or will our access to all these new forms of media allow us to better scrutinize the politicians’ messages and thus give us more power?

Media convergence is not going away and it will affect our lives a great deal over the next few generations. The sooner we begin to think about how media convergence will affect our daily lives, the better our chances will become of using this technology for the benefit, and not the detriment, of the world our children will live in.

The Human Microphone #OccupiesWallStreet

I just searched “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) on Google News and in a quarter of a second I had 29, 300 results. That’s a lot of news coverage on one topic.

To say that mass news media coverage of this liberal American protest movement is picking up would be an understatement. If you follow the news on a daily basis, you’ve probably been exposed to coverage about the OWS protests in some form or another over the past week. For example, both the USA Today and The New York Times covered it again in today’s editions. The former featured it as their cover story and the latter mentioned it on their front page and continued the story on page 18.

USA Today 10-11-2011

The New York Times 10-11-2011

This is not a political blog and, for the context of this specific website, I don’t care about the politics behind the OWS movement. I am more interested in the act of protest itself rather than the content of the message. Protesting requires clever uses of communication for information dissemination and there are few clearer examples of effective uses of communication to spread messages than popular protest movements. Of course, social media has played an enormous role in the OWS protests, just like it has for any protest movement in the past few years. But today the focus is not on new media.

I would like to briefly point out one of the most interesting communicative factors of the OWS movement; the human microphone.

The Human Microphone 

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In many of the cities where the OWS protests have arisen the use of microphones and megaphones is prohibited without specific permits. As a result, the protesters have resorted to the human microphone technique in order to make sure everybody in the large crowds hears the speakers.

It’s a simple concept with a few steps:

1. The speaker says a few lines (usually one or two sentences).
2. The people closest to the speaker repeat those lines for others to hear.
3. To make sure that loud clapping does not complicate the repetition of the speakers’ words, the audience raises and waves their hands in the air when they would usually applaud.

As with many things in life, the best way to help you understand the human microphone is to show you. Check out the first minute of the video below in which Michael Moore speaks to protesters via the human microphone and also comments on the nature of the microphone.

To show you that this was not just a one time thing with Mr.Moore, here are more examples. The first is from a speech by environmental activist Bill McKibben and the second is from a speech by Eastern European philosopher Slavoj Žižek

This may appear silly because you cannot see the rest of the crowd; we just see the “front row”. Obviously the people who repeat what the speaker says can hear the speaker. They repeat the speaker’s words in unison so that the majority of the crowd that’s not close to the speaker can also hear what is being said. Think of it as a “human echo” effect.

The Medium is the Message

It is fascinating to realize the power of the human voice persists in this age of social media and technological media convergence. All the technology in the world would not create as powerful an effect as the human microphone does for these protesters. A recent NPR article by Richard Kim comments on this.

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way).

In the above comment Kim alludes to the famous “The medium is the message” quote that was originally stated by communication scholar Marshall McLuhan.

Citing McLuhan’s media theories (1962, 1964), McQuail (2010) summarizes what McLuhan thought about media in this context.

…changes in media forms and technology can change our way of gaining experience in essential ways and even our relations with others (p. 81).

Thus, the message from the protesters, or any message for that matter, is never just about the content of the message. How we receive that message plays a huge role in how we interpret it; the medium is a big part of the message!

A radio news summary is interpreted differently than a newspaper article, a television image in interpreted differently than a description of the same scene on the radio, a blog post is interpreted differently than a book chapter, and a human microphone is interpreted differently than a traditional microphone. All of these media above might be talking about the same exact topic, but the way in which we get the information affects how we perceive it.

It is for this reason that the human microphone fascinates me so much. It is a very “old school” form of communication (for thousands of years, human beings only disseminated information orally) that is being revived today because the protesters do not have permission to use modern microphones.

This restriction on microphones, however, is turning out to be a benefit rather than an inconvenience for the protesters because the medium in this case (their voices) is helping to strengthen their message of solidarity and resistance.

While there are several issues with the human microphone (such as the inability to use jokes or discuss complex issues, as pointed out by this article) and while not everybody has such a positive perception of it (check out this article), I think that it has more advantages than disadvantages and agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion the aforementioned NPR article draws.

It is, of course, ironic that New York City’s attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting “amplified sound” unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.

So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power.

The above statement seems to support the protesters. As stated earlier, I don’t want to make any claim of support or condemnation of the content of their message.

I do want the reader to realize the importance of preserving everybody’s right to “have a voice” and the fact that it is human nature for us to want to communicate and that we will always find a way to do so, even if it means using nothing else but our own human microphones.

(Digital) Life After Death Creates Modern Day Ghosts

This week I hope to inspire you to think about something that’s most likely going to become a big dilemma for you and/or your loved ones in the future. If you are active on social media and you continue to be active on social media this situation will come up eventually. Many of you have probably already had experience with it.

By ‘active’ I do not mean having Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Google+, and MySpace accounts that you check every two hours. You are active even if you only have a Facebook page and you check it twice a month. I also assume that most people who ended up reading this blog entry are fairly involved on the Internet and have at least one social media type website (blogs count).

And now the topic…


Such a scary looking word, isn’t it?

I could write pages and pages about the abstract nature of symbols (such as the written languages we use) and the amazing phenomenon of people being affected in potentially dramatic ways only because five abstract and human created symbols (a,h,e,t,d) are arranged in a certain order (d,e,a,t,h).

However, for today let’s just accept the fact that death is a scary word and that the majority of people don’t like thinking about it. Due to the intimidating “finality” of death, humanity has been fascinated by the idea of an after life and other notions of defeating death for thousands of years. We may have finally found an answer and it comes in the form of your Facebook status.

Digital Ghosts

If you have an Internet identity it will not die with you when you die. It will remain online for the world to see. I’ve had a few Facebook friends pass away in the past few years and I am always fascinated by how people interact with their pages after the fact, as if they were interacting with the person who passed.

This topic is on my mind because I found the below Ted Talk this morning and also because I am working on a project in class and we are looking at how people respond to the death of others on Facebook. My partner has already done research on the topic and we had a good conversation about it during class last week.

Most of the time people use the online identities of those who have passed to send messages of condolences to the family and to express their sadness at the loss (I’ve done so). As different forms of media continue to converge and as our lives become indisputably more linked with technology, the possibilities of using technology to deal with traditional concepts of death will become endless.

For example, right now you can go to www.ifidie.net and create a Facebook video which would only be shown after you die. It is also possible to create an endless amount of blogs and to have those automatically published years from now. Someone who is dying from cancer might do this and in a sense they would still “be alive” to their loved ones because a weekly blog post from them could continue for years and years after their death.

If we can do these things today just imagine what we will be able to accomplish generations from now as the exponential growth of technology continues. For example, it will be possible for us to have virtual conversations with the dead (see video below for more). In a sense, online identities will become ghosts of those who have passed.

In a 2010 Newsweek article entitled ‘R.I.P. on Facebook’,  Lisa Miller (2010) discussed Facebook profiles of those who are deceased. She states,

Here is a real gathering place, where friends can grieve together–and where the deceased continues, in some sense, to exist (p. 24).

Miller also mentions the fact that today the average Facebook user is 33 years old and this means in about two generations a lot of people who are active on Facebook today will be dead and only their profiles will remain.

Creepy and somewhat morbid to think about, but nonetheless something we will all have to deal with in the future.

If you have the time I strongly encourage you to check out the video (it’s only about five minutes) in which journalist and new media entrepreneur Adam Ostrow discusses this topic further and asks some very intriguing questions.

How do you want your online identity to be “dealt with” after your passing?

A Message in a Bottle (Facebook, Skype, and International Communication)

Image by © Bruce Burkhardt/CORBIS

This post was written on June 21st because I left for a trip to Europe and would not have had the time or the access to the Internet that I usually have to meet my regular Wednesday deadlines. This post and the post for next week were both written in the past and scheduled to automatically go live on their respective due dates (this Wednesday and next Wednesday).

I think it’s pretty cool that the Internet allows me to deliver these ‘messages from the past’ to you! As my life will be consumed with traveling for the next two weeks, I figured it would be appropriate to do some posts about how media convergence has helped international communication (this week) and the modern traveler (next week).

A lot of my writing lately has been academic and probably dry to some of you, so I thought I would try to make these posts a little less academic by basing them on personal experiences.

 Can You Hear Me Now?

When my family moved to the United States from Europe in 1997, one of the most difficult challenges to deal with was communication between those of us in the states and those who stayed in Eastern Europe.  It was not cheap or convenient.

An international long distance phone call of just a few minutes cost a lot of money, and finding the time to talk when there was a six hour time difference and everyone had different schedules was difficult. As a result, we would generally only hear from our family in Europe a few times a month and for very short periods of time.

A phone call to Europe was an event when compared to other phone calls.  We could not talk casually as we would on domestic calls, because time was literally money in this case. Thus, the phone calls were often all about exchanging the most important information in the shortest amount of time. This made it very hard to get a ‘feel’ for how our family in Europe was really doing.

The lack of communication definitely affected the relationships between us and the family in Europe. We were out of the loop on their lives and they were out of the loop on ours.  When communication across continents was concerned, people rarely called to ‘just say hi’. Whenever we received a phone call from Europe (it was much more expensive for them to call us than for us to call them), we could be certain that there was some big news to be reported(someone being born, someone passing away, someone getting engaged, etc.).

This was the norm for a long time. But then Facebook and Skype came to be.

While these websites might merely be cool social media websites for the younger generations, they have been nothing less than game changers for the older generations of my family in the USA and in Europe. If you have traveled a long distance from home and have used Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with loved ones, you probably know what I am talking about.

A (Facebook) Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words

Before Facebook became popular, the only way that we would digitally share photos with our family abroad was through E-Mail. The E-Mail programs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were nothing like they are today. Also, the Internet we originally used was connected through dial-up. This resulted in a very slow process even if we wanted to send a few photos via E-Mail. The creation of Facebook with the simultaneous improvement of Internet speed and connectivity, however, has changed all of this for the better over the past few years.

Through the Facebook news feed, we get almost daily updates of what our family in Europe is doing. Whenever they post photos online, we see them without having to wait for them to be downloaded from our Email to our computers. We also see their everyday lives much better that we did when just calling them a few times a month.

Some of you may believe that it is unnecessary to get a feel for what your family in other countries is doing on a regular basis. Imagine for a second (if you are a United States citizen like the majority of my current audience), that you have not left the USA for the first thirty years of your life. For thirty years, you have always had the opportunity to keep in touch with whomever you wish for a relatively cheap price. Suddenly, a war breaks out and you are forced to move to a place on the other side of the world and as a result lose all contact with the only world you have known for thirty years. This is what happened to my parents, and to every other first generation family that has moved to America as a result of war.

The ability to catch back up with the world in which they spent the first thirty years of life is not ‘Facebook stalking’ for those who came here in their thirties and left their whole life behind, it’s a dream of staying in touch with the people they grew up with and haven’t seen in years coming true.

I Skype, Therefore I Am

To say that Skype is an upgraded telephone experience with our family abroad would be a gross understatement. The incorporation of live and simple video and voice calling has revolutionized the way we communicate with the ‘old country’. Instead of calling a few times a month, now we can speak with those in Eastern Europe on a daily basis. Not only is this service free, it is vastly improved because of the incorporation of video.

The ‘business only’ type phone calls of the past are long gone. These days, I catch my parents ‘sharing’ coffee with old friends and family from all over the world. They will sit at the table and turn Skype on, while the folks on the other side of the world do the same. The daily connection to people who are thousands of miles apart has allowed us to get back that ‘feel’ for how our family is really doing.We see them, and share coffee with them, and laugh with them. Skype has allowed us to share a space with them again, almost as if we were all back together.

Furthermore, Skype has allowed me to stay in touch with friends who are working and traveling abroad. I have also used it for meetings related to school. And, a very recent example, I used it to ‘tour’ the resort in Mexico at which my parents are currently staying!

During a recent Skype conversation, my mom gave me a live 'tour' of their resort in Mexico. She didn't have to tell me about the rainy day, I saw it.

Skyping with the 'rents from their Mexican vacation!

While I recognize that most of the world does not have access to the technology required to take advantage of Facebook and Skype yet, I know that technology and access to the Internet will continue to grow. As a result, more and more people will benefit from the convergence of traditional communication media (such as the telephone) with new media (the Internet), and the resulting technologies (Skype), which will allow us all to stay better connected with each other.

If we are better connected, my hope is that we will understand that cultures across the world are different, and that embracing those differences rather than fighting against them is the only way that we will ensure a better future for our children.

Tacky ending, I know.

Till next time.