As of December 2011, there were 331.6 million wireless subscriber connections in the U.S. according to industry tradegroup CTIA – The Wireless Association (1). By a growing margin, more telephone numbers ring through to mobile phones than to land lines (2), and it has become a common occurrence for households to abandon or forgo landlines in favor of mobile phone service. Surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that as of mid-2011, nearly a third of all American households (31.6%) had only mobile phones. While individually these statistics reflect a significant change in consumer preference, when taken as a whole, the shift towards mobile phones as the primary telephony platform highlights a subtle, yet amazingly profound transformation.
Over the past two decades telephone numbers have transitioned from being primarily associated with a place (e.g., 301-696-3657 dials to 113 Rosenstock Hall) to being primarily associated with a person – the owner of the mobile phone assigned to the number. Untethered by physical location, mobile phone numbers provide a constant, convenient, and consistent way to reach an individual. That is, of course, when you have the mobile phone.
In the China of the factory girls, stories abound of girls who became unreachable because they lost their mobile phones or had them stolen and of teachers who, without their mobile phone, became unavailable to students. When a phone was gone, so to was the ability to reach the individual to whom it belonged.
In the U.S. ownership of one’s telephone number is so valued that legislation was passed to allow consumers the ability to transfer a number from carrier-to-carrier or from phone-to-phone (3). In China however, such legislation does not yet exist. For migrant factory workers this presents a unique limbo where workers can, and often do, become disconnected both from a physical location and reliable personal connection. “The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone.”
I would like for you to consider for a moment how you might connect with one of your friends if nether of you had access to a mobile phone. Perhaps you would use email to agree upon a time and location to meet. Perhaps you might call his or her dorm room, apartment, or workplace and leave a voicemail suggesting some convenient meet up. Devoid of these means, you might have to be more creative – a letter sent through the mail, a note attached to a shared door or other frequented location.
When I pose this question to my students, they very quickly fall into relying on the use of a physical location – most often a residence – as a means of connecting. In the U.S. though, some 2.3 – 3.5 million people lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence at some point during the year (4). Roughly 8% of this tally is youth aged 13 – 21 (5). According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq., this population is homeless. For these individuals, maintaining connectivity with their social circles is an ongoing challenge. It is no wonder then, that to those suffering from homelessness, having a mobile phone provides a means of retaining a sense of connection, even without a fixed address (6).
So now for my challenge to you. Try turning off your mobile phone and avoiding online social interaction for a weekend. If you are brave, try a week. How disconnected did you feel? Leave a comment on the blog and let me know about your experience.
David Gurzick, Ph.D., Department of Economics and Management