Thoughts on the Social Construction of Smartphones

What does the precarious contraption on the right have to do with Google Glass?

I generally try to resist the temptation to get caught up in the hype over new consumer technology. It’s part of my desperate effort to convince myself that my purchasing decisions are rational and considered (Really! They are!). That being said, I’m willing to make an exception in the case of Google Glass. A completely hands-free wearable computer that sees what you are seeing and is controlled with highly sophisticated voice-recognition technology? Shut up and take my money. Or rather, shut up and take my money five years from now, when the third generation is being released and a considerably less-exciting knockoff brand has come within my price range. Still, I’m happy just to live in a world where there are futuristic cyborg internet-glasses, even if I can’t have them myself.

My excitement and financial limitations aside, however, I think that the Google Glass concept, when considered alongside a range of other smartphone-related innovations that have surfaced in the last year or so, suggests that we are on the verge of fundamentally changing the way that we interact with computers. That will be fascinating, in a being-present-for-history-in-the-making kind of way. But it also signals that the immediate future of communication technology is probably going to involve a lot of conflict.

I’ll elaborate a little bit more on that in a moment. But first I want to talk about bicycles. Really old bicycles, specifically. There’s a good chance that you have seen pictures of the penny-farthing bicycle that was popular in cities around the nineteenth century. They look ridiculous from a present-day perspective, and they had considerable technical problems. The penny-farthing, you see, was designed for speed, with a big front wheel to allow the maximum possible gear ratio. This configuration had obvious drawbacks. It was hard to get on, difficult to pedal, and carried the constant risk of “doing a header”, in which the front wheel would stop abruptly, causing the rider to flip headfirst over the handlebars and fall straight onto the ground. Risks to life and limb aside, penny-farthings were also fundamentally unsuitable for nineteenth-century women, whose long, socially-mandated skirts would ride up on the frame. Essentially, the penny-farthing was only suitable as a means for upper-class men to enjoy the thrill of speed, so long as they didn’t mind getting their face smashed in on the cobblestones from time to time. Its usefulness for safety-conscious commuters was limited at best.

The diverse problems experienced by diverse social groups led to a diverse range of solutions. Removable handlebars were added so that riders could leap off the bicycle and land on their feet if the front wheel stopped too abruptly. A particularly hilarious solution to the skirt issue was to make a side-saddle version of the penny-farthing. One can only imagine how difficult it would be to balance on such a machine. These and other ad-hoc modifications maintained the general form of the penny-farthing, because the privilege enjoyed by upper-class recreational riders allowed them to set the general form of the bicycle. Only once a chain drive was invented, allowing high gear-ratios without gigantic wheels, were the concerns of women, the elderly, or lower-classes (who presumably just wanted a cheap and safe bicycle to ride to work) seriously accommodated.  The now ubiquitous safety-bicycle, then, could only be a viable solution for the safety and gender problems of cycling once a technical compromise was reached that allowed the dominant and privileged user group to retain their desire for speed. The lesson here is that privileged groups often get to define the fundamental purposes of new technologies, and in so doing define the problems that will be addressed by designers, contributing to a form of technological marginalization and conflict.

So what does this have to do with Google Glass? Well, when we consider the above parable (which is foundational to a theory called the Social Construction of Technology, in case you’re curious), in relation to smartphone innovations we can observe a few things. First, smartphones have many classes of users with many different needs: business users who need to be able to type and send long e-mails effectively are contrasted with social users who are more concerned with style and technical flexibility. The problems of smartphones are also diverse and socially constructed: some people see the distracting nature of smartphones as a liability to a fulfilling social life, while others see smartphone use as a legitimate form of social interaction in and of itself. Some people want to use their phone for reading and watching movies (necessitating a big screen), while others want it to fit easily in the pockets of their skinny hipster jeans.

This has led in recent years to an amazing diversity of proposed solutions to the problems presented by the dominant smartphone design. Google Glass deals with the interface and distraction issues by having the user interact with the phone through voice and sight, rather than pushing buttons. Some, however, might protest the effects of this on privacy and the ability to meaningfully disconnect. A new Samsung phone, which allows users to control their phone with only their eyes, solves some of the same problems of Glass in a less radical way, but still requires users to look down to use it. Meanwhile, ultra-thin flexible screens promise a potential big-screen future smartphone that can be rolled up to fit in a pocket, and dynamic button technology allows all the ergonomics of a blackberry-style keypad with all the flexibility of an iphone-style touch screen. The interesting thing about all this is that not all of these innovations can co-exist. A flexible screen would be meaningless on Google Glass, for example. Furthermore, each of these innovations is aimed at solving a different problem, while potentially leading to different problems of its own. It is likely that there will eventually be a dominant new configuration for the personal communion device-market technologies tend to converge around particular solutions-but different kinds of users have a stake in the implementation of different kinds of innovations. If I am correct and this new configuration is shaped in the next few years, then what we have on our hands is a recipe for social conflict.

This conflict will be interesting to watch; I think it will qualify as a major moment in technological history. But we should make sure we take a critical approach to it. Just as the dominant penny-farthing bicycle was the product of the demands of a powerful group, so the dominant smartphone design could be the result of some kind of social, political, or economic privilege. It is possible for technology qua technology to be socially oppressive, and so we should be careful to consider this as these new phone designs begin to engage in serious competition with one-another. When new and revolutionary phones are released during the next few years, you should ask yourself who benefits, and who is disadvantaged or excluded by each one. And act accordingly.

Further Reading

  • Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
  • Kline, R., and Pinch, T., 1996. “Users as Agents of Technological Change: The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States”. Technology and Culture 37: 4. pp. 763-795
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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Social Construction of Smartphones

  1. I think a major part of that conflict will be driven by how technology also constructs social formations. The bicycle’s existence was made possible by the same industrial technology that created the class system that got to define its use. It’s a two way street. We shape technology as it shapes us.

    • Absolutely, William. The notion that there relationship between society and technology, in which one shapes the other but not vice-versa, is annoyingly persistent. Technology and society exist in a constant state of mutual feedback, and in many cases it isn’t even possible to tell where technology ends and society begins.

      I have take exception, however, with the idea that industrial technology created the class system. It certainly changed it, by making financial capital (rather than just land) a lot more important for economic activity, but I think that a medieval peasant might get pretty angry with you if you suggested there is no class system in her time.

      In the case of smart phones, I think it is obvious that whatever final form they take, it will have a massive influence on social relations. I think that most people realize this, and projections of the social influence of the new phones will play an important role in the ongoing conflicts over their development. I predict that a lot of people will oppose Google Glass, for example, because they don’t want a future society in which everybody is perpetually “plugged in”. Others may embrace that possibility.

      • Sorry, I wasn’t quite clear enough in my reply. I meant that industrialization created the particular class system we have now. I totally agree that class systems in various forms have been around since basically the birth of civilization.

        But yeah, the relationship between technology and society is mutual, and I think an important thing to realize is that makes technology not value neutral. Since technology’s uses are not strictly defined by social values, and it can create social values as well. Like how the development of the steam engine completely remade human society, changing the value placed on hereditary status to one based on capital ownership. And it wasn’t a process we were, and are, exactly in control of.

  2. I think the difference in the times of that bicycle and smartphones makes your argument lose a little. Those days were dominated by class structure. Smart phones today do NOT want to be limited to the upper class, as the best return on investment comes from the masses.

    • There’s some truth to that. Social structures were certainly different in the early days of the bicycle, meaning that social class was one of the main variables that could dictate the kinds of user groups that used a new invention. But by the time bicycles became popular, the industrial revolution had already happened, meaning that production could be expanded to fit any conceivable demand. So then as now, the best return on investment came from the masses.

      The important question to ask, however, is WHICH masses. While class is less of a factor today, the fact remains that not everybody needs a smart-phone for the same thing. This means that the basic functionality of a smartphone, the criteria by which we judge which phones work well and which ones don’t, is subjective and open to interpretation and redefinition. Since virtually all consumer technology tends to settle on a single basic configuration, that means that somebody’s particular definition of what makes a good smartphone is going to win out over the others. The final, standardized configuration will privilege one particular use environment.

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