Kate Crawford of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, is two years into conducting a massive study of mobile phone use amongst 18-30 year olds in Australia. The study, supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, continues through 2011, and is moving from a qualitative to a quantitative phase. Her presentation at the Berkman Center today, “Art of Noise: Mobile Social Media and Attention”, focuses on insights from the 339 interviews conducted so far.
She begins with a 1741 engraving by William Hogarth titled “The Enraged Musician“. A busy London street generates a welter of noise for the bewigged musician, who finds himself competing with village criers, a seller of songsheets, playing children and other distractions. The image isn’t just a narrative – it’s an example of anxieties about urban life and coming industrialization.
Crawford tells us that we’re now facing a new noise complaint complaints about the networked conversation. There’s a set of anxieties about network noise – “information overload” and “data smog” – starting to be discussed in the Australian context that Crawford is interested in unpacking.
In Australia, she tells us, there are now more mobile phones than human beings. She sees a metamorphosis underway, where the phone is moving from mobile communications to mobile media. Understanding this shift involves understanding how young adults are represented in the media, and what panics occur around youth and mobiles, and moving on to understanding the lived realities and the roles mobiles have in friendships.
By studying mobile use in four Australian states, looking at users in big cities and small towns, Crawford has concluded that mobiles are surprisingly emotion-rich items. She uses the term “emotional containers”, a device that serves as, in the words of one interview subject, “a network of all my friends in one.” As such, these devices are always on… but they’re not generally used for making phonecalls. In her study group – 18-30 year olds – voice calls are the least prefered mode of contact. Instead, young people use texts and social media, “light touch” contact through media like Facebook, which is “far and away the most popular space.”
Because light touch is so common and the device is always on, there’s an anxiety that comes from being separated from a phone. One subject tells her, “It’s under my pillow when I sleep.” She tells us about another interview subject who was trapped in an elevator for six hours. Her anxiety wasn’t about her personal safety – it was about being entirely off network.
This is likely a specifically urban anxiety – while users off network for a few minutes in cities complained, rural users were used to being off network, and got good at communicating in bursts when on network, and heading off network to escape.
The practices we use to manage constant connectivity are evolving, and they are negotiated between friends, families and colleagues. The workplace, in particular, is “a key space for this normative construction.”
Because we’re negotiating this in realtime, there are fears about “network noise” that seem to invoke a “myth of the fall”, positing a period when media didn’t impinge on our time. She cites Jaron Lanier as making this argument in “You Are Not a Gadget” and Giorgio Agamben, who made the case that the mobile phone as reshaping Italian gesture and speech, and homogenizing Italian society. But this isn’t a new problem – she notes that the philosopher Walter Benjamin was complaining about telephones as “uncanny and violent” in 1932.
The response to these concerns about information overload are well summed up by Clay Shirky’s pithy quote, “There is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.” There’s a wave of “productivity porn” (using Merlin Mann’s term) like Lifehacker and Getting Things Done that promises to help readers focus. But total focus was never possible, nor desirable. Excesses of information is part of the human experience – no human could have read all the scrolls in Alexandria – and this tension between too much or too little information – between noise and silence – is an old one.
Crawford tells us about an organization founded in 1906 in New York City, “The Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise”. The society – which chose Mark Twain as honorary president – advocated for quiet zones around schools, hospitals, homes for the aged based on the belief that noise damages thinking. In contemporary thinking, she sees this idea echoed by cultural anthropologists Adam Greenfield, who talks about “zones of amnesty” and Genevieve Bell who speaks of “spaces of refusal”, places where we societally agree to disconnect and be silent. Greenfield is fond of positing a set of cafés called “Faraday’s”, where a Faraday cage prevents computers and phones from receiving a signal.
But there’s a creative role for noise as well. We see musicians start to embrace noise with the 1919 Antisymphony concert, rooted in the Dada movement, which leads to the rise of noise as a material for composition. Noise can be an intrusive element of randomness, but also a catalyst for creativity and new ideas.
People get enormous amounts of data by being always on and managing the flow of that data through their social connections. This is an evolutionary moment for us. We’re undergoing a social adaptation to high levels of information and a change of definitions about what constitutes attention, focus and productivity.
These aren’t technological changes so much as they are social changes inspired by technology. Crawford suggests that young people aren’t as tech savvy as we tend to think they are – most use only a few functions of their phones. They’re not especially invested in the technology but are using it as a means to an end: maintaining connections with their friends. As such, the problems that arise aren’t technical problems with technical solutions – “we’re going to negotiate this out through social means.”