Forbes: Living a Mobile Lifestyle

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By Marcia Forbes, PhD
CJ Contributor

We’ve Come a Long Way!

For one thing, mobile technology has moved way beyond the days of cumbersome, dumb mobile phones to small, sleek, savvy, smart phones with increasingly multi-functional capabilities, made possible by application (app) software loaded onto their operating system (OS).

Discussion of applications can be highly contentious and confusing, so here I narrow my focus to talk specifically about mobile apps for mobile phones. These are computer programmes which allow users to perform specific tasks designed to satisfy lifestyle needs and desires, all via a mobile phone or other mobile device. They pander to taste, with apps for the latest recipes, news and sports. There are apps for navigating cities and countries, finding bus/train routes and schedules, plus much more. Mobile apps can be downloaded onto mobile phones and other hand-held devices such as tablets, eReaders and iPods. These apps, many of them available for free, are made for users. The more user-friendly they are, the better for consumers. At the time of writing, Blackberry and its parent company, Research in Motion (RIM), is losing badly in the apps creation race.

Apple is reported to have over 500,000 apps and through its multi-touch gestures, the hand/finger movements required for their download, has created a virtual language. Long press, double tap, two-hand pinch and two-hand rotate are some of the new descriptive expressions to guide downloads as well as mobile phone use. The creation of mobile apps is now a burgeoning industry, with the USA in the lead but with fastest take-up taking place in China.

Siri

Siri, an intelligent software app only available on the iPhone 4S, has created quite a stir since its Oct. 5, 2011 launch on the day Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder and Siri’s owner, died. Siri promises a great deal: “your wish is its command,” the promo goes. Apple’s website further explains that Siri “lets you use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean, and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you’ll keep finding more and more ways to use it.”

For Jefferson Graham, Siri is a “sometimes sassy, often entertaining – digital friend … consumers are asking Siri for dates, marriage, sexual advice, maths equations …” Sherry Turkle knew this day would come when machines replace people as friends and companions. She had seen it at work in hospices, caretaker robots which give the elderly feelings of being comforted and connected. Johnathan Mann’s hilarious yet deadly serious satire in the form of “A Duet With Siri” places issues of humanity and of a mobile lifestyle squarely on the table. The mobile that is positioned as ‘all knowing’ knows only as much as it is programmed by man/woman to know. The duet makes this starkly obvious with Siri’s frank, “I’m not capable of love” declaration, even as it comically notes that, “my end user licensing agreement does not cover marriage”. People get carried away with the capabilities of mobile phones and ask of them the impossible, as in Mann’s proposal for marriage to Siri. We can get so wrapped up in this mobile lifestyle that we begin to see the instrument of our mobility as our constant partner, our best friend, our lover and the one we want to spend the rest of our lives with. But the machine can only “get back to work now”, as Siri entreats Johnathan to do.

The Sex of a Machine

Taking a gendered perspective on Siri, positioned by its promoters as female, in a Nov. 29, 2011 tweet @Zephoria (danah boyd) notes, “Siri will tell you where to go for Viagra/BJs but if you want abortion info, tough luck….” Technologies are never value-neutral. The dominance of patriarchy can be reflected in the functions as well as functionalities of products designed to enhance a mobile lifestyle. Megan Carpentier’s article, to which Boyd’s tweet referred, highlights the male-skewed requests which Siri could answer. These included finding Viagra and hospitals to visit if one had an erection lasting more than five hours.

In contrast, the ability to respond to more female-skewed questions such as information for abortion clinics or emergency contraception was glaringly missing. The Siri app embedded in its fancy iPhone represents the epitome (for now) of a virtual personal assistant for those who live a mobile lifestyle. Undoubtedly, models with even greater functionality and “humanness” will follow, forcing us to question what it is to be “human” and where to draw the line between mankind and machine. Siri may now be a far-off prospect for the majority of the world’s population, but a mobile lifestyle is not. Around the world this lifestyle is taking hold, aided by smartphones and more recently, tablets.

The preceding is an excerpt from Dr Marcia Forbes’ upcoming book, STREAMING: Social Media, Mobile Lifestyles. Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is also the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica.