[EAS] Telecoms Anthropology

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Jun 21 14:10:29 EDT 2007

The Economost's Technology Quarterly feature often offers an antidote 
to conventional wisdom. Vide this item.  --PJK

Home truths about telecoms
Jun 7th 2007
 From The Economist print edition

Technology and society: Anthropologists investigate the use of 
communications technology and reach some surprising conclusions

Belle Mellor

SUCH is the social significance of mobile phones that when it comes 
to evaluating their use and planning new products and services, 
mobile operators and handset-makers cannot rely on the 
technology-driven, engineering mindset that has traditionally 
dominated the telecoms industry. Most famously, industry leaders 
expected people to embrace videotelephony, which flopped, but failed 
to anticipate the success of text-messaging. So they are turning to 
social scientists, and in particular to anthropologists, the better 
to understand how telephones are used.

One of Nokia's in-house anthropologists, Jan Chipchase, recently 
investigated how people carry their phones, for example. He and his 
colleagues carried out street-level surveys in 11 cities on four 
continents. They found that 60% of men carried their phones in their 
trouser pockets, whereas 61% of women carried their phones in 
handbags. (The difficulty of finding a mobile phone in a cluttered 
handbag meant that half of women reported missing calls as a result.) 
Belt pouches were particularly popular in China: 19% of men used them 
in Beijing, and 38% in Ji Lin City. But they were less popular in 
fashion-conscious Milan, where only 4% of men used them, and belt 
pouches were non-existent in Tokyo. Adding covers to phones was most 
widespread in Seoul and Kampala, and the use of decorative phone 
straps was most popular in Seoul and Tokyo. Findings like these can 
help handset-makers design new products and accessories that are 
appropriate to particular markets.

Meanwhile, Stefana Broadbent, an anthropologist who leads the User 
Adoption Lab at Swisscom, Switzerland's largest telecoms operator, 
has been looking at usage patterns associated with different 
communications technologies. She and her team based their research on 
observation, interviews, surveys of users' homes and asking people to 
keep logbooks of their communications usage in several European 
countries. Some of their findings are quite unexpected. Although 
mobile phones make it easier to keep in regular touch with a wide 
group of friends, for example, it turns out that a typical user 
spends 80% of his or her time communicating with just four other 

Next, despite much talk of "convergence" within the industry, people 
are in fact using different communications technologies in distinct 
and divergent ways. The fixed-line phone "is the collective channel, 
a shared organisational tool, with most calls made 'in public' 
because they are relevant to the other members of the household," she 
says. Mobile calls are for last-minute planning or to co-ordinate 
travel and meetings. Texting is for "intimacy, emotions and 
efficiency". E-mail is for administration and to exchange pictures, 
documents and music. Instant-messaging (IM) and voice-over-internet 
calls are "continuous channels", open in the background while people 
do other things. "Each communication channel is performing an 
increasingly different function," says Ms Broadbent.

Another finding is that despite the plunging cost of voice calls, and 
the rise of free internet-calling services such as Skype, people seem 
to prefer typing. "The most fascinating discovery I've made this year 
is a flattening in voice communication and an increase in written 
channels," says Ms Broadbent. Her research in Switzerland and France 
found that even when people are given unlimited cheap or free calls, 
the number and length of calls does not increase significantly. This 
may be because there is only so much time you can spend talking; and 
when you are on the phone it is harder to do other things. Written 
channels such as e-mail, text-messaging and IM, by contrast, are 
discreet and allow contact to be continuous during the day. "Users 
are showing a growing preference for semi-synchronous writing over 
synchronous voice," says Ms Broadbent.

And although the rise of the BlackBerry has prompted concern about 
work invading private life, the opposite actually seems to be true: 
private communications are invading the workplace. Workers expect to 
be plugged into their social networks while at work, whether by 
e-mail, IM or mobile phone. Last year at a food-processing factory 
near Geneva, the workers revolted when the director tried to ban 
mobile phones from the factory floor, and he was forced to relent. 
Their argument was that they wanted to be reachable during the day, 
just as people who sit at desks are.

Of course, improvements to mobile networks and the spread of 
third-generation (3G) and Wi-Fi networks mean that you no longer need 
to be at your desk to get things done. But Ms Broadbent found that 
there is not, in fact, much appetite for working while on the move. 
Indeed, she calls this "the hypermobility myth". After studying 
workers who spend more than half their time out of the 
office-salesmen, consultants, pilots, journalists and 
photographers-she found that they generally stick to communications 
while on the move, gathering information that they then work on when 
they get back to their desks. Hotel rooms and airports are, she says, 
"not seen as an appropriate environment for substantive work" and are 
mainly used for e-mail.

Finally, Ms Broadbent found that migrants are the most advanced users 
of communications technology. A family of immigrant workers from 
Kosovo living in Switzerland has installed a big computer screen in 
their living room, for example, and almost every morning they have 
breakfast with their grandmother back home, via a webcam. It is 
migrants, rather than geeks, who have emerged as the "most 
aggressive" adopters of new communications tools, says Ms Broadbent. 
Dispersed families with strong ties and limited resources have taken 
to voice-over-internet services, IM and webcams, all of which are 
cheap or free. They also go online to get news or to download music 
from home. In the case of a Spanish family living in Switzerland, the 
daughter often does her homework with her aunt-but over a free Skype 
video-link, since the aunt lives in Spain.

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