Communications and Society Program
Communications and Society Program
Conventional wisdom holds that the growing influence of mobile media has contributed to the steady dissolution of society’s civic bonds. The creeping sense of disengagement was documented recently in a Duke University study that found we are feeling far more socially isolated today than we were two decades ago. The more we hunker down by checking stocks and scores on our iPhones, sharing our photos on Flickr and jabbering into our Razr phones, the less likely we are to hold a conversation with a stranger, volunteer at a homeless shelter or join a political cause. Or so the argument goes.
But what if the reverse is true? Growing evidence suggests that people—particularly the young—have begun using mobile devices in ways that help to strengthen civic engagement, undergird social participation and buttress our sense of belonging to something that transcends the self and the clan. This report will look at how mobile technology offers opportunities to broaden our ties to communities, both virtual and traditional brick-and-mortar.
For example, in San Francisco volunteers fan out across the city with wireless smart phones to conduct surveys and counsel men about high-risk sexual practices. In New York, residents use mobile to report hazardous street conditions directly to the agency responsible for fixing the trouble spot. Activists the world over are using mobile devices to recruit millions of people to contribute to and participate in social causes. In San Diego, volunteers are carrying around small devices that monitor air quality. In South Africa, thousands of people used their handsets to find out whether indulging in the catch of the day at the local supermarket or restaurant posed a threat to the environment.
Mobile phone usage continues to grow at an eye-popping rate. With more than 2.7 billion of the devices in use, and with a billion more handsets expected to be sold this year, nearly half the world’s population will be using a cell phone by the end of 2008.
But to what end, and with what effect? We are only now beginning to appreciate the potential impact that the rise of the Mobile Generation, young people currently coming of age in a mobile-enabled world, will have on cultural discourse and on our civic interactions.
To help sort out that puzzle, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program convened 29 thought leaders from business, academia and the non-profit world at a roundtable in San Francisco on December 10-12, 2007. The participants tackled a number of questions: How does increased mobility impact our willingness to engage people with different backgrounds than our own? What is it about mobile that sets it apart from other media platforms? How are civic values, such as trust and reciprocity, preserved in the mobile media environment? How are citizen journalists who use mobile devices reshaping the enterprise of journalism? How are mobile technologies being put to good use on the streets to advance social justice?
The roundtable also touched on a subject that many participants believe will increasingly move to the fore of public debate in the coming years: freedom to communicate data on any subject to friends and colleagues, using any device, over wireless networks. The public is still largely unaware of the bifurcated nature of U.S. laws governing telecommunications: common carriers, which cannot discriminate against communications over land lines, and the largely unregulated wireless industry, which can decide what data and interactions to allow on their networks. Freedom of speech and freedom of association are among the touchstone issues that bear close watching in the mobile space in the years ahead, the Roundtable participants agreed.
Near the end of the conference, participants broke into small working groups to devise ways in which mobile media can be adapted to address the needs of different constituencies: political activism, education, journalism and communication, the public health system, other mission-driven community services and the dawning era of m-governance (m as in mobile). The specific action recommendations are detailed in the final pages of this report.