Take my nephew. He doesn’t want to just talk to people anymore, but instead wants to Skype them (oh, how he slings around this brand/verb with gusto). What used to be simply talking on the phone has now become Sound + Sight—being able to show off pictures he’s drawn, play music on his little guitar and engage an audience with his favorite things. Interacting visually with people and their
environment has already become his baseline expectation of how to communicate with those who are not nearby. And he’s four and a half.
Or consider a family I shadowed recently during an immersive, consumer research project. We shopped, drove around town, and spent time together in their home so I could observe firsthand the role technology plays in their lives. This was a family in a (self-admitted) precarious state: a busy Dad not home a lot and a working Mom were trying their best to raise two teenage daughters who were busy channeling Britney Spears (think head shaving, tattoo parlor, Vegas wedding vs. cute, innocent, perky).
It soon became clear that, for them, the cell phone had become a defining instrument—enabling a fragile balance between the opposing forces of control and freedom at play in any household with teens. Cell phones got rolled into discussions on sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking, and this Mom inspected battery levels in her kids’ phones before car keys got handed out. Her house rules would impress a prison warden: 1) Don’t ever say you couldn’t pick up, 2) Don’t ever claim your battery was dead, 3) Don’t claim you couldn’t get reception; if you have to, don’t go places with no cell coverage, 4) Blow any
of these and you will lose your phone; lose your phone and you will lose your freedom.
Extreme? Perhaps, but there is no doubt that carrying around little supercomputers with phones in them is giving a new shape to our lives and driving a constantly resetting, accelerating level of communication and connectivity. Something that virtually didn’t exist when these teens were born has become an indispensable, enabling item whose usage now literally defines their lives.
“This little thing,” said an emotional Mom tightly clutching her worn, pink Motorola, “keeps my family intact. Take it all, everything else, the stove, microwave, refrigerator, TV and I’ll find a way to manage, but don’t take this phone.”
Originally published 12/24/09