WHO ARE WE?

a conversation with Richard Ling, Shaw Foundation Professor of Media Technology, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

It was a late, spring afternoon and the gallery was crowded. This was a must-see exhibition; a priceless collection of works by a Dutch master. The tickets had sold out within minutes. Yet as I walked through the rooms, I noticed something strange. Nobody was looking at the pictures. Instead, they were looking at their phones. They were checking in; they were taking selfies; they were looking up references; they were seeing what other people were doing. But nobody was really looking at the art.

And before you ask, I was surrounded by people in their 50s and 60s. Not a Millennial in sight.

What has happened to us? The first iPhone went on sale in 2007. A decade later our culture has shifted. Increasingly our sense of self and how we exist within a wider community seems to be tethered to a screen and a feed. It’s hard to imagine life without a slab of smart tech.

When a new technology is adopted, it’s invariably blamed for moral and societal failings. As a child of the 70s, I remember the hysteria around video games and video recorders. Now, mobile and social technology is alleged to be responsible for childhood obesity; attention deficits; lack of real-world empathy and bad grammar. In fact, almost everything that’s wrong with the world. But we can’t deny that technology has changed us. This time round, is the change more disruptive?

Creation’s Kate Steele spoke with Richard Ling, Shaw Foundation Professor of Media Technology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Rich, a US national, lived in Scandinavia for 20 years before moving to Asia, so has a truly global view of how mobile technologies are changing our lives. Co-Editor of the academic journal Mobile Media and Communication, he is a Fellow of the International Communication Association and in 2017 became Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.

You’ve spent many years researching how teenagers use mobile technology, can you talk about some of your findings?

I started studying teenagers in the late 1990s and the narrative about them being corrupted by using technology was all there, whether it was about sexting or organizing parties but that’s just being a teen. It’s a space where you can do dumb stuff. At the start, people saw teens using phones on, for example, a bus and felt it was immoral because mobile handsets were so expensive and there was no limit to usage of phones, so what were these teenagers doing? It was very much about how much having a mobile phone cost.

Then in the space of two years, between 2001–2003, there was a sea change. I’m talking about Norway in particular here, where I was based at the time. Public attitudes altered due to two financial factors. Firstly, the cost of mobile phones fell as handsets were subsidized by the networks. Secondly, pre-paid subscriptions were developed, so they limited the damage teenagers could do, stopping them running up huge bills thanks to phoning Moscow just to check the weather there.

We also noticed that parents had started to loan teens their phones so that if they were off to soccer practice, they could just call to get picked up, rather than parents having to wait in the car. It helped parents with more effective co-ordination. Then the phone turned into an umbilical cord. Kids could be safe. In 2001 20% of Norwegian 10 year-olds had a phone, in 2003 it was 80%.

Of course there was a phone culture, teenagers created certain types of slang, took up texting and they’re still doing this with emojis, it’s the identity work of teens. Mimi Ito writes about this. There was also a style associated with the type of phone you had, the Razrs, the clamshells…smartphones are less interesting, they’re just slabs.

Can we talk about the impact of the smartphone?

2007 is when the iPhone was launched and then a year later, the app store. Apple really got it right in terms of design, using a finger-based navigation, as opposed to a stylus — they miniaturized the web browser. This changed the whole dynamics of browsing as the apps put you into an environment which was a relatively constrained silo. This puts browsers in the background and changes the commercialization model. Now we see this being played out on PCs, it’s interesting.

Tell me more about how apps have changed everything…

I’m interested in the whole app economy. Although the chances of some guy in a bedroom creating a really successful app, well, good luck…most people only really use five apps on their phone and the really successful apps are networked. The networked dynamic creating a significant critical mass is key. For example you have WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger, or WeChat.

What trends and technologies do you see as being important over the next five years?

Artificial Intelligence jumps out, how that plays into bots. It will move into the app economy, too.

The second trend I’ve been expecting but it’s not happening as quickly as I’d anticipated, is some functionality moving out of phones into other devices like watches, glasses, clothes and fitness trackers. So instead of everything being packed in you see things breaking out of phones.

And 5G…today’s 4G assumes a handset and a cellular network but 5G is more granular, it allows for a series of mini-networks, for the Internet of Things and then digital assistants, — like today’s Siri or Alexa — can play off this network. The network operators are working hard to beat out wi-fi.