Ruminations on the Social & Economic Effects of Mobile Phones


Mobile Phone Evolution 1992 – 2014

This is a short excerpt from an excellent wide-ranging and philosophical essay about Marshall McLuhan, his main ideas, and mobile phones that deserves to be read in full. It is also well-written. Follow the link at the bottom to do so.

The Mobile Phone

By Peter Benson

… Let us consider some of the effects on our society of the use of the mobile phone. Walk down any street in a busy town, and you’ll see many people with a phone clutched to the side of their head, talking as rapidly as they are walking. It is now possible to engage in verbal communication with other people wherever they are. This major change in human behaviour has come about within a remarkably short time, but its implications need to be considered. Many people have willingly taken this option of continuous communication; and many more have been forced to accept it as a condition of their employment. To be continuously available for work-related discussion expands the condition of being an employee beyond the boundary of office hours, and beyond the office. Non-work time becomes increasingly colonized by one’s job, and the condition of subordinate employee becomes the permanent, all-encompassing condition of one’s existence. Even while making a meal at home, or travelling on the bus, one might be interrupted by a business call.

In the past, people sold a certain number of hours of their day to their employer. This was the social system Karl Marx analysed in Capital. But many analysts are becoming aware that this idea has less and less relevance to the field of modern employment, and that the mobile phone is one of the major factors that has changed the nature of work. For example, the Italian radical thinker Franco Berardi, in his book The Soul at Work (2009), notes that “The cellular phone is left on by the great majority of info-workers even when they are not working.” (p.89). As a consequence: “Cellular phones realize the dream of capital: that of absorbing every possible atom of time at the exact moment the productive cycle needs it. In this way, workers offer their entire day to capital and are paid only for the moments when their time is made cellular… They prepare their nervous systems as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible.” (p.90)

These changes enabled by the mobile phone are merely social: they do not yet reach to the level of effect upon our psyche with which McLuhan’s theories are concerned. However, to the obligatory use of the phone in employment, we must add the extensive voluntary use of it in daily life. Among the people we pass in the street, many are chattering, not to work colleagues, but to friends, spouses, or lovers. They are willingly enacting a condition of permanent connectedness: a continuous co-habitation with others, following them through the byways of their days. The cellular phone in handbag or pocket unites them umbilically to their network of social contacts. This is a condition unprecedented in human history.

McLuhan was correct in discerning tendencies to try to re-establish aspects of village life in the modern world. Villages are notable for human proximity, nosiness, suspicion, and lack of privacy. This trend reverses the development, in the industrial age, of anonymous, isolated, secretive city dwelling. Separation from the pack has never been so rare for human beings as it is in the mobile/Internet age… Read the rest at

Peter Benson currently works in a public library in London, whose future is under threat. He has a degree in Philosophy, a subject which is under threat in British universities. He cannot be reached by mobile phone.

Two smartphones: a Samsung Galaxy J5 (L) & an iPhone 6S(R)

2 Responses to “Ruminations on the Social & Economic Effects of Mobile Phones”

  1. Interesting Philosophy Now article.

    I don’t own a phone (a conscious decision).

    What use-value is there in web-phones? You can’t read easily on them, so study is not one of their benefits.

    What is the benefit of a mobile connection to the 3W?

    Checking email.
    Notifications from social network apps.
    Adds topic search to verify a factoid in a verbal conversation.
    Music listening.
    Light entertainments (like MSM news: politics; sports; weather; movies; business news).
    Tracking a route.
    Checking the viability of a transportation route/mode.
    Organizing a meeting place/time.

    I believe that the size of the device is a secondary driver of use. I posit that a desktop device connected to the 3W is all about where you are – and where you are defines how you will use the connection.

    At home you may be:
    Using Search to discover connections between ideas.
    To create content.
    To read long content.
    Experience video/audio content undistracted (and through interfaces designed for high video resolution and/or high audio resolution).

    Some of these things are about the size of the screen and the input interface (keyboard) – but more often what we do with a 3W connection at home is about our ability to focus on a task.

    So – Turn off your phone at home; and consciously use your desktop differently than you use your phone?

    • Personally, I do own a smartphone, but because we are robbed in Canada by the high cost of buying and using a smartphone, courtesy of our telecom oligopoly Gang of 3, it’s at least 4 generations behind the latest, a Samsung SIII, that costs me just $30 per month from a local small telecom. My hands and fingers are too big for small keyboards and touchscreens, and I want to spend as little time as possible gazing at small screens. So I only use my cellphone for phone calls and taking pictures. But, I was an early computer adopter, born (almost) with a mouse in my hand and own 4 computers, including 2 Windows laptops, a Macbook and a chrome laptop to boot. That’s cost enough for me. My Dell 13″ XPS laptop goes everywhere with me. I don’t want to be reachable on my phone to all and sundry, just my wife and family and a few select friends. I will not be a servomechanism of the smartphone and the cult that is inseparable from their phones.

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