In the social sciences as well as media and communication studies there is an increasing interest in everyday technologies, like the cellphone and the webcam. Already in 2004 Paul Levinson, Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC, student of Neil Postman, and author of science fiction novels, published his book “Cellphone. The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything!“. The book situates the cellphone that in the UK is called “mobile phone” or simply “mobile” and in Germany “handy” within the development of other media before and alongside this highly mobile communication tools. At the centre of this highly readable volume are the new forms of communication and the mobility that the “Cellphone” enables. These characteristics of the mobile phone have given rise to a number of opportunities and challenges that Levinson discusses, not without comparing them to the emergence of other media, such as the radio and television or the desktop computer.
Levinson highlights in particular that in the age of the mobile personal communication we have the possibility to reach out to others wherever we are whilst at the same time being reachable by others all the time. In fact, we expect of each other to be reachable at any point in time and have to account for moments in which we do not pick up our cellphone. The further advancement of the cellphone technology that has turned the “handy” into a highly mobile personal computer with access to email and social networking sites has increased the expectation of permanent reachability. Not surprisingly therefore people report that work increasingly interferes in private lives, work email is checked at family dinners and the Internet is being searched for news in sometimes inappropriate situations. Moreover, Levinson discusses the opportunities offered by video-cameras built into cellphones and its potential impact on news reporting, an impact that in recent years, we have seen being played out when news channels increasingly use video-clips shot with cellphone cameras by people present at events such as the London riots or the London bombings in 2007.
Although Levinson’s ‘Cellphone’ is more than 10 years old it still is very relevant. It could do with an update that reflects the increasingly wide distribution of smart phones, includes research on cellphone use in social situations and discusses some of the solutions that people have developed to deal with the problem of omni-reachability, i.e. the use of multiple-phones for different purposes, phone stacks, digital etiquettes and technology shabbaths.