Why a phone is not an app

Tom Dolan writes about sony’s proposed PDP, and wonders when we’re going to get rid of the concept of the ‘phone’ as a device, and admit that it is merely one of a number of possible applications on a ‘mobile data-linked device’. But is the phone merely an application? It seems that the mobile phones, in particular, are almost ritual objects, imbued with emotional associations that we don’t assign to other devices.

I’ve been digging around for some historical perspectives on how the phone became such an emotional object, and found an excellent excerpt from the book ‘America Calling’. The final section quotes a report on the effect that the telephone had on women in isolated farm communities:

The most dramatic and consistent testimony in the first few decades of the twentieth century indicated that rural people, especially farm women, depended heavily on the telephone for sociability, at least until they owned automobiles. These women used the telephone to break their isolation, organize community activities, keep up on news, help their children maintain friendships, and so on. Observers repeatedly claimed that telephoning sustained the social relations – and even the sanity – of women on scattered homesteads.” Industry men were among such observers. For example, the North Electric Company stated in 1905, “The evil and oppression of solitude on woman is eliminated.” An officer of an Ohio telephone company wrote the same year:

“When we started… the farmers thought that they could get along without telephones…. Now you couldn’t take them out. The women wouldn’t let you even if the men would. Socially, they have been a god-send. The women of the county keep in touch with each other, and with their social duties, which are largely in the nature of church work.”

Tom suggests that the ‘you’ in your mobile device is your data, and so the device is just a dumb brick that stores data and applications. I disagree – the ‘you’ in your mobile device is the intimate connections that the device enables. Its this network that makes us imbue the phone with its emotional power – the hope or dread of its many possible connections. When a phone rings, or a text message bleeps, who doesn’t get a small jump in the stomach, a fleeting sense of wonder at who it could be?

The function that enables this emotional connectivity – telephony, IM, SMS, etc – might subtly alter, but whatever it is, we’ll continue to be in thrall to the emotional connections it enables, not the application itself. And while we have that emotional connection, the phone will always be a whole lot more than just an app.

One comment

  1. TomD

    I’m still trying to work out what I think about this post, but I suspect that I’m going to end up violently agreeing with you.

    IM now means that my laptop has acquired phone-like emotional properties. I pick it up and open it, taking it out of sleep mode. And there’s always that moment when iChat and MSN Messenger wake up and start to automatically reconnect when I think “no! don’t announce to the world I’m out there and available! I only need to do some work/check one email/look up tv listings/etc”. Similarly the ‘plip’ of an incoming IM at the other side of the room can cause all the emotional discomfort of an unanswered ringing phone.

    Bizarrely, because of the odd ‘smart button’ and slightly inept vibrate mechanism on my mobile, I’m often more reliably and pervasively available through IM. At home, and at work, the persistence of my emotional connections is smudged over many devices. Except the one they should be on.

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