I have been reporting, critiquing and analyzing mobile tech and media for a decade now. I am only now coming to appreciate just how tectonic a shift they represent.
Call me a slow learner.
But we all sense how seismic this shift is, even though we can’t say exactly in what direction the shift moves us. That may be why we tell ourselves tales of scale about mobilization. The sheer velocity of the move to devices has been charted dutifully by Nielsen and comScore. The shares of time spent on smaller and smaller screens rather than the large ones that occupied our desks for years is always impressive, in the double- and triple-digit sort of way. We enjoy the trope of “consumers being ahead of marketers and retailers,” as if consumers know where we all are headed with these handheld machines, and the marketing-industrial complex just needs to decipher it.
Most of all, we like to impress ourselves with the uncanny intimacy we are establishing with these personal machines. Pollsters seem enamored with asking us again and again just how important, indispensable, human-like we regard our cell phones. They ask increasingly weird questions about what we would rather live without than be without our beloved cell phone. We use them first thing in the morning (before kissing spouses) and last thing at night (after kissing spouses), in bathrooms, during sex, etc. Yeah, we get it. There are no barriers between machine and me. It is an appendage. It is that McLuhanesque idea of media as an extension of ourselves.
And here we go again. USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future and Bovitz Inc. have tried to understand our relationship to the smartphone by asking how much we will inconvenience ourselves to ensure we have the device at hand. They asked literally whether we can leave home without them. How many minutes are you willing to travel, they asked, to retrieve your phone upon realizing you left it at home? Nearly a third (30%) said they would always go back for their phone, and 28% said they would retrieve the phone if it were less than ten minutes away. Another 30% variously said they would return for different increments up to 30 minutes. Only 23% said they would never go back. Ask Millennials that question, and only 12% said they would never go back.
Interestingly, the gender split on this question skews male in willingness to inconvenience yourself to retrieve the cell phone, with 33% always going back and only 20% never going back. For women the split is 26%/26%.
What do the relentless waves of such research tell us about our relationship with our personal media devices? Well, probably not much beyond the fact that we have a relationship with them. The metrics don’t tell us anything really about the nature of the connection. But we seem to impress ourselves again and again with the idea of how tied we are to these things.
Several years ago communications and technology critic Sherry Turkle wrote in "Alone Together": “We are challenged to ask what such things augur. Some people are looking to robots to clean rugs and help with the laundry. Others hope for a mechanical bride. As sociable robots propose themselves as substitutes for people, new networked devices offer us machine-mediated relationships with each other, another kind of substitution. We romance the robot and become inseparable from our smartphones. As this happens, we remake ourselves and our relationships with each other through our new intimacy with machines… . People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.”
Well, maybe. I think the questions Turkle asks are the ones the culture is asking of itself, and we are asking of the machines we carry. What relationship do we have with the device, and how do we want it to impact our relationships with one another? It is in flux and we are not close yet to things settling into predictable patterns media and marketers can effectively target, interrupt, facilitate. We don’t know the relationship we want with these devices yet, so how can advertisers hope to know yet how to play here?