Our New Cellphone Powered Mobile Lives

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Sometime last year, my friend Brett was reflecting on the difference Internet access on his cell phone had on his day to day life: “In the past, when I would go run an errand, I would figure out where the store was, figure out how to get there, and then hop in my car. These days, I just leave the house and let my phone tell me where to go and how to get there.”

I can certainly relate. The ability to access and store massive amounts of information on my phone has radically altered my behavior as well. I have, what is for some, an exasperating habit of arriving at the airport with no confirmation papers for my plane ticket, hotel reservation, or conference registration. There in my email somewhere.

I remember a particularly frustrated cell phone conversation with my father while on a bus ride up to meet him in NYC. We were arranging basic logistics of connecting at Lincoln Center. I needed to get off the bus, get to the hotel, checkin, and then find him. Naturally he asked me “Where is the bus dropping you off?”

I didn’t know. He paused for a moment, confused, and tried again. “Well, what street is your hotel on?” Again, no answer.

Unsettled by my cavalier attitude, he started rattling off subway stations and lines near Lincoln Center, asking if I knew where they were, and how to get there. “Dad,” I interrupted, “it doesn’t matter. I’ll just get off the bus and let my phone tell me where I am and how to get to where I need to be.” Silence. My hotel reservation was in my email, my phone has a GPS in it, and Google Maps in NYC now includes travel instructions for the public transportation. I tried to explain this to him. More silence. “So I’ll see you at 5?”

I should be clear: this is not a story about how my father is a luddite, and how digital natives are tech savvy heroes acting on some techno-oedipal urges. By most accounts, my father is an early adopter who loves his tools: CB radios, early “brick” cell phones, a performance tuned street bike — oh, and don’t even get me started on his Jeep.

But that might just be the difference – for him they are tools, frequently used for specific and limited activities like recreation or a phone call. For me, these tools are an integrated part of my life.

There is a term in software development called “premature optimization”. This is what happens when you try to account for problems in your software that you have no idea are actually going to happen. Building software is a dynamic and iterative enough process that you can adjust to a lot of bumps in the road as they arise. This is what mobile internet access has done for me. It allows me to dynamically adjust to my surroundings, unexpected logistical hiccups, and most importantly, my own whims. There is no reason to make extensive plans for a trip because there are a host of factors that I won’t even know about until I arrive at my destination.

Of course there is a down side. Last week my friend Brett shared a frustrating story of trying to get in touch with Zipcar after having some trouble unlocking the vehicle. His phone had died, and he had raced over a local grocery store to give them a call. They tried to help him solve the problem, but for the life of them, they couldn’t seem to understand that he wasn’t calling from a cell phone. “Sir, aren’t you standing next to the car?”

Jed Brubaker

Jed Brubaker's background involves professional and academic work in the social sciences, marketing, technology, and the arts. He received a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Utah, and is a former master's candidate in the interdisciplinary Communication, Culture and Technology (CCT) program at Georgetown University. His current research interests included digital identity and anonymity, Internet culture, and computer mediated communication. Read more on his blog at www.whatknows.com.