"Tool Without A Handle" - Mobile Tools

“Tool Without a Handle” – Mobile Tools

This post continues my thoughts on qualities of digital tools that have helped make political and artistic expression more subjective, accessible and fluid.  In the previous post, we looked at the searchability of text;[1] in this one I examine the impact of mobility:  the ability afforded by digital tools to access vast troves of information, to communicate, to record, and to create from virtually anywhere on the planet.

Digital tool design and operation is naturally influenced by the biology, psychology, physical forms and other features of the humans that build and operate them.[2]  For example, searchable text mirrors some of the information-management features of the human brain:  short-term memory (words on the page) and long-term memory (researchable information stored on servers).   Similarly, migration, exploration, and adaptation to new habitats are among the distinguishing features of humanity. 

At a macro level, humans are resident on virtually every land mass on the planet, and - especially since the advent of inter-continental air travel in the last 75 years – increasingly inter-mixed.  At the micro level, human consciousness is animated by sensory input of the world around us:  we move through space and respond to the input of the moment, the experiences of our immediate surroundings.

Digital tools that we carry with us (augmented by terrestrial and satellite networks) now enable human access to - and transmission of - information to occur anywhere on the globe, at the speed of light.  Advances in technology have driven down costs such that these capabilities are more widely available, and are becoming more widely used where there are rising standards of living and education levels.[3]

There are at least three significant capabilities of digital technologies that have been shaped by portability:  mobile commerce, access to news and information, and visual communications.  Each of these capabilities accelerated significantly with the development of the “smartphone” – in particular the Apple iPhone in 2007 – but were inherent in mobile technologies from their initiation.  Below, I discuss each quality in turn and identify some of its impacts.

Mobile Commerce

Since the late 90’s, markets have developed for using mobile devices for transactions, starting with purchase of customized ringtones.  Applications evolved to allow use of mobile phones for payments to vending machines, parking meters, and for mobile money transfers (so-called mobile ATMs).   Portability now enables not only transactions relevant to a mobile context (such as parking meters) but any type of transaction that could be done from a PC or other device – including point-of-sale devices.[4]    Micro-lending through mobile phones is fundamental to much of the developing world’s economy; four-fifths of the world’s mobile credit services operate in sub-Saharan Africa.[5]

These technologies have such significant potential in part because mobile devices and subscriptions are affordable, but also because, outside of densely populated urban areas, mobile connectivity is much easier to distribute than wired connections,[6] and because the patterns of life and commerce in these areas are more mobile.  The impact of mobile commerce, especially on the developing world, is substantial and could be even more so in the future:  a McKinsey study puts the impact of digital financial technologies – many of which rely on mobile phones – at $3.7 trillion dollars.[7]

Mobility affects commerce beyond simply transactions on a digital mobile device.  Advertising on social media, mobile access to information and other digital interactions may also influence offline and retail commerce.  Mobile messaging apps and social media augment commercial activity by offering convenient channels for customer support.  And, in addition to mobile phones and smartphones, networked mobile devices are likely to include drones, robots and other automated mobile appliances, each of which will augment online commerce capabilities.

Access to News and Information

In the 1990s, prior to the commercial Internet, mobile access to news and information was available to some extent on paging networks (mobile phones generally only made and received phone calls), and by the early 2000s, services would send news and information alerts via the Short Messaging Service (“SMS”).  In fact, technology at that time expanded both commerce and information capabilities:  phones began to ship widely with a Wireless Application Protocol (“WAP”) browser[8] and in Japan with the “i-mode” technology which enabled a broad set of services (sports scores, news, stock market alerts, weather, games, ticket booking, etc.) designed to those standards.[9]

Contemporary use of digital technologies, particularly smartphones of course, involves extensive access to news and information – personal correspondence and social media included.  Unsurprisingly, newsworthy events drive mobile news app traffic, though there are some interesting findings as to particular impacts.  For example, some live video events have had a lower impact on mobile news app usage, presumably because they made for good television.[10]  A study in Sweden suggests that increased use of mobile news sources has increased the extent to which certain groups get their news from more than one source (e.g., as compared to the 20th century where a hometown paper was a primary source of news),[11] though other analyses suggest that users tend to use a narrower range of news sources on a smartphone than they do on a desktop or tablet.[12]

The impacts of mobile are not merely on consumption of news, but also the financing of news gathering and distribution.  Increasingly, digital ad revenue and distribution are the province of technology companies (and their associated mobile apps).  Mobile is now more than half of digital advertising spending, and this advertising primarily goes to five technology and social media companies – Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter.[13]  None of these firms supports original news content and investigations, however; traditional media companies remain the primary sources of such information.  Several such organizations are seeking advantages from mobile digital technologies as well:  a Pew study observed that some news outlets (Washington Post and Quartz) have built “chatbots,” which provide personalized, interactive headlines through messaging services like Facebook Messenger.[14]

Visual Communications

Much of the information on mobile devices is now visual.  The early 2000s also saw the introduction of the camera phone – which I first saw in 2001 on a business trip to Japan.  Adding camera technology to the device helped incent, in turn, the development of Mobile Messaging Services (“MMS”) to support transmission of captured images.  Full motion video capabilities, and the network capacity to share them, followed in the next decade. 

The impacts of these capabilities include visual enhancements to social media, as well as personalization of the content, a wider variety of content, and more immediate content.  Many persons who would not typically venture out with a camera will naturally bring their mobile phone and therefore take advantage of photo/video capabilities in circumstances where they might not otherwise.  Mobile network tools afford the capability to share such content with a wider circle than would ever have been possible with even non-networked digital cameras:  the attachment and transmission of the image is seamless and simple, especially compared to older methods involving connecting the camera to the PC, uploading the photos, attaching them to an email, etc. 

Because networked photo and video capabilities are now pervasive, all of the common issues related to privacy and surveillance come to the fore.  On one hand, these capabilities allow immediate and real-time visual evidence of crimes, accidents and dangerous driving, police abuses, and newsworthy events, including those intended to be officially secret or personally private.  For example, the full execution of Saddam Hussein was surreptitiously recorded with a mobile phone and leaked to the Internet, in violation of Iraqi law.[15]  The wife of Keith Lamont Scott, killed by police in 2016, took a mobile phone video of the incident, which was widely shared online and by news organizations, contributing to public understanding of that tragic event.[16]  A mobile phone video related to the alleged robbery of Kim Kardashian in Paris was also reportedly leaked online.[17

Mobility Impacts Boundaries Between Private and Newsworthy Information

These varied examples illustrate the many different lines separating the personal and private from the newsworthy and public, including cases where video is shared willingly, shared unwillingly, and where intent is unclear – e.g., celebrity videos where it is unclear if the subject honestly objected to the invasion of privacy or intended the distribution and related outrage in order to drive publicity. The legal limits on surveillance and privacy as they relate to free expression and journalism will be discussed in a following blog.

For the time being, it’s enough to note that mobility accelerates trends in modern information and news distribution towards decentralization, speed, and pervasiveness.  Alfred Hermida referred to “ambient journalism” to describe the practice of news distribution into public spaces and conversations through a variety of technologies, including digital billboards, taxicab screens, televisions in restaurants, as well as mobile phones.  Media is “ambient” because it is networked, rather than broadcast, and roles of audience and producer shift dynamically rather than being fixed.[18]  These shifting roles create new forms of organization.  Clay Shirky[19] and others have written on this extensively, and there is not much new I could say here in this short blog on that topic, but one aspect of this is noteworthy here. 

That aspect is that expanded mobility of digital information tools means expansion of the extent to which news, information and in particular images and video, are collected and distributed without the structural filtering, prioritization, and interpretation of traditional journalism.  Mobility adds to this the capability to gather, select, produce and distribute news and information immediately, when the thought strikes, with no temporal intervention required.

This immediacy has some distinct advantages, of course:  Hermida notes an example of real-time reporting from an earthquake in China, which both yielded eyewitness reports quickly and had the advantage of being able to (somewhat) bypass official Chinese structures for filtering news and information.  The ability of photos and information to be captured and distributed without intervening structures better distributes democratic power, and reduces the harms from government ownership or capture of news sources. 

At the same time, there are downsides to having the “news” flow virally, distributed by individuals who lack the incentives or inclination to engage in prioritization, fact-checking and filtering, and by groups who may simply seek out and promote nformation reinforcing existing biases and agendas.  Mobile impacts interpersonal communications as well:  Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently about the changes in communication style – their impact on human connectedness and the contraction of communications – that flow from mobile digital technology.[20]  And mobile tools which permit ready and relatively surreptitious surveillance[21] can further complicate matters by enabling the unauthorized acquisition of information and its publication.

In the following blog, I’ll consider how this boundary between personal and newsworthy is impacted by weaknesses in digital security that afford acquisitin of digital information without authorization, and what responsibilities (if any) downstream recipients of such digital “leaks” have to discourage such unauthorized access, while at the same time maintaining responsibilities to the public and to democratic processes that rely on both information and accountability.  In general, the law's bias is rightly in favor of a free press, but some courts are now recognizing that personal privacy rights can supersede rights to publish.[22]

[2]Hence some tech companies employ anthropologists as part of their business strategy and design work.  See, e.g., http://archive.fortune.com/2010/09/20/technology/intel_anthropologist.fortune/index.htm

[3][3]See, e.g., Pew Research, February 2016: “Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies,” online at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/

[4]See, e.g., Square:  a business and technology that enables mobile payments via a credit-card mag stripe reader that connects to a mobile phone via the audio jack.  https://squareup.com/ ; Stripe:  a firm offering tools to add payment capabilities to mobile apps and websites: https://stripe.com/us/payments

[6]See Pew Research Report, “Internet Seen as Positive Influence on Education but Negative on Morality in Emerging and Developing Nations,”(March 19, 2015), online at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/03/19/1-communications-technology-in-emerging-and-developing-nations/ (“Across the 32 countries surveyed, a median of just 19% say they have a working landline connection in their home, including as few as 1% in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Bangladesh”).


[8]See http://inspiredbloggers.blogspot.com/2004/12/brief-history-of-wap_110252445307049372.html; technical details available at: http://technical.openmobilealliance.org/Technical/technical-information/material-from-affiliates/wap-forum. Most smartphones today, of course, use the general HTML set of tools used for the Internet, and the WAP set of standards is largely obsolete. A British executive at Vodafone (my employer from 2000-2003) was said to refer to the “Wop phone,” including unfortunately in the presence of our Italian colleagues…. 

[11]Oscar Westlund and Mathias A. Färdigh, “Accessing the news in an age of mobile media: Tracing displacing and complementary effects of mobile news on newspapers and online news,” Mobile Media & Communication January 2015 vol. 3 no. 1 53-74, online at: http://mmc.sagepub.com/content/3/1/53.abstract

[12]Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2014, p.11; online at: http://bit.ly/1wxVPJg

[13]Pew Research, State of the News Media 2016, Digital News Revenue Fact Sheet, http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/digital-news-revenue-fact-sheet/

[14]Pew Research, State of the News Media 2016, online at: http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/state-of-the-news-media-2016/

[18]From TV to Twitter: How Ambient News Became Ambient Journalism http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/220

[19]Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody (2008).   

[20]Rebecca Solnit, “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Trinity University Press (2015), quoted in https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/23/rebecca-solnit-encyclopedia-of-trouble-and-spaciousness-2/  Solnit writes, of mobile digital technologies: “[t]he eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection.”)

[21]Even in the 20th century, every good spy had a tiny microfilm camera to capture images of secret documents.

[22]See, e.g., Bollea vs. Gawker Media, LLC, et. al. (Pinellas Ct Circuit Court, Florida, #12-012447-CI); docket online at: http://bit.ly/2eeTKW8; see also https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/middleton-v-persons-unknown-final-judgment-28-9-2016.pdf (injunction on publication of Pippa Middleton private content hacked from her iCloud).


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