In his work New Tech, New Ties, Richard Ling (2008) presents a compelling argument on the ways in which ritual interaction is increasingly moving from co-present (i.e. in person) to mediated space. His primary means of analysis is the cell phone and how it connects people nearly constantly through voice or text. Ling begins this examination by noting an initial encounter with a plumber. Ling writes:
Sometimes, remarkable things happen right in front of your nose. One morning at about 8:30, I was bidding farewell to some guests who had spent the night at our home in Oslo. …At this point, the plumber, with whom we had an appointment, appeared around the corner of the house. He was checking the address against an order he held in one hand. In his other hand was a mobile phone, into which he was talking. Indeed he seemed quite engaged in the conversation.(2008, p. 2).
Ling’s real “remarkable experience” was that the plumber failed to even introduce himself, just walking into the residence and preparing to do his work. This first interaction sets the stage for explaining how people have become frequently less interested in speaking to strangers, and are more likely to continue exchanging information with family, friends, and others already in their social circle.
Ling (2008) largely utilizes theoretical frameworks provided by Emanuel Durkheim (the large-scale ritual such as sporting events and religious ceremonies) and Erving Goffman who speaks of encounters among dyads or small groups. Both hold insights into how the mobile phone has entered into and influenced people’s ability to communicate with one another.
In the Durkheim sense, Ling (2008) posits that cell phone users are able to enhance their experience of a shared ritual event, the essence of which is generated by an external entity. They do this by continuing to text either those at the event with them or their friends who are not in attendance, thus adding to the sense of excitement (Ling notes the theorists would call this effervescence) surrounding the activity. This texting and other written interaction may also help to more effectively preserve the memory of the experience.
Ling (2008) states that Goffman, on the other hand, suggests through his work analyzing archival information that the cell phone and mediated communication like it may contribute to the strengthening of ties among related groups. It allows for the passing on of information discretely and throughout the day. In Goffman’s parlance then, it can allow people to live on two front stages: that visible to co-present others and that of which only those on the other end of the cell message know about.
Ling supports these assertions through a series of informal observations of people using mobile devices in public. He notes generally less civility in the store as people purchase items and barely speak with the cashier, in public transit as individuals are more willing to openly discuss personal life situations and the like. A particularly telling example is below:
Observation: A man in a bookstore was browsing for books while talking on his mobile phone. It seems he was getting instructions or recommendations as to which book to purchase. …I moved into the same shelf area, about a meter away from the man. I was in his sonic sphere. From snatches of the conversation, it seemed he was asking if a certain book would make an appropriate gift (Ling, 2008, p. 107).
Ling continued following the man around that store, effectively pushing him from section to section as the cell phone user sought a privacy he could not obtain. In this occurrence, Ling notes that these devices can give us an enhanced sense of a right to such privacy, even in clearly public spaces.
I found this title to be of moderate interest. Many of the points made therein are ones to which I could have concluded even without the assistance of theory, namely that strong ties have become stronger and weak ties weaker. Ling’s (2008) deep dive into cellular culture is informative in some respects though, because it can help in understanding the pleasure that some get when continuing to update from performance venues, and how such behavior can actually aid in enhancing the experience of ritual. Thus, though no explicit mention of intended audience is made, I would think this title to be most appropriate for those with less affinity to cell phones, perhaps those of earlier generations. It could provide valuable insight to and help them connect with, even if not entirely understanding, their children and other younger persons.
My main issue with this title is that is has so obviously become outdated. The smartphone era had only just begun in 2008, and so little mention was made of this even more revolutionary technology that nearly everyone now carries around all of the time. In a rare mention of the smartphone, Ling states “it is now possible to receive email via mobile communications devices (the Japanese mobile phone, commonly called a Keitai, the BlackBerry, and most ‘smart phones’)” (Ling, 2008, p. 189). This statement demonstrates the general newness of such products at the time, and that maybe the book is a bit less useful than current research material. But one would likely conclude that many of the observations made therein still hold, in the bigger picture. As a light, fairly non-academic read, I would recommend it for anyone who wishes to ponder the mark cellular devices are placing on how we conduct culture, and of course communicate overall, in the 21st Century.
Ling, R. S. (2008). New tech, new ties. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.