How Mobile is Changing our Society


In a couple of weeks I will be talking at the Mobile Monday Amsterdam in the context of how mobile is changing our society. The 400-seat event was “sold out” in just 2 hours. People will come and listen what I, Bruce Sterling, Raymond Perrenet and Johan Koolwaaij have to say about the topic. The presentations will be recorded.

The popularity of the event for me points towards increased interest of people to know more about the mobile world. We are at a brink of transformation due to new market entrants (giants like Google and Apple are now Nokia’s new respectable competitors), convergence of the existing social web with the mobile (the web embracing functionality within the iPhone or new Nokia devices as an example), increased volumes, increased number of users and increased complexity in our society.

It’s all about emergence. An entirely new thing is emerging from this interconnected electronic mycelium.

I have a feeling that the question we pose today is wrong. It’s not about mobile anymore. For some people, mobile means the devices that we carry around as we move, usually hooked up to a cellular network. The truth is, the activities we go through online with computers and what we do with our “mobiles” cannot be seen as separate anymore. This convergence means our language needs to change or our culture will never understand its future.

As ordinary physical items enter the same network, it’s not going to be about virtual or physical activities anymore. Both will be different faces of the same coin. It’s not going to be about context or not. Context will be the primary component of everything. The primary device will no longer be a “mobile”, but more like something that interacts with the network in a highly contextual way. Ideas, people and physical objects will be part of the same network in a very literal sense.

“Mobile” providers and operators will face competition from many unpredictable directions. In addition to cellular networks, the devices will interact with a wide variety of other networks, starting from physically fixed WLANs to constantly changing MANETs (mobile ad-hoc networks), where every node in the network is moving arbitrarily. The internet of things seldom stays stationary. In a world where everything becomes densely connected, you cannot clearly define the market and opportunities within. Magic wands, cyborg technologies or matrix aside, what we are going to see is not the future of mobile but something entirely different.

The mobile is like the horse wagon. If Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted, they would have said “faster horses”. It’s the language and our experience of the past that limits our understanding of the future of “mobile”. We need to drop the word and come up with new metaphors to open our eyes. We need new telescopes, binoculars and cleaner eye glasses.

We need to go to the roots of what mobile (latin: mobilis) truly means. Let’s see what the dictionary says about this.

Mobile: Changeable in appearance, mood, or purpose

Adaptable, versatile and migratory. From the point of view of the devices we will see rapid change in appearance and purpose. The mobile devices of the future bear little or no resemblance with the mobile devices of the past. The functionality will be context dependent. From the point of view of our society, we will have tools that help us to adapt to changing conditions and increase our connectedness. We need abilities to migrate from one situation to another in the increasingly changing environment. Yesterdays concepts, tools and metaphors will not work as-is. We need new ways to sense what is changing and adapt accordingly. That’s called effectiveness.

Mobile: Undergoing a shift in status

The social groups we belong to are no longer physically fixed. Electronic tribes will cross cultural and physical boundaries in ways never seen before. The traditional social levels connected to status, merit, power, race and relationships embedded in the fabric of our society will undergo major reconfiguration. The bottom-up and decentralized way of getting things done will become easier as we go forward. In a very McLuhan way, the electronic medium will profoundly involve men with one another.

Time will define our communities: long-term, short-term or ad-hoc. Boundaries will also define our communities: physically connected, ideologically connected or virtually connected. It will be harder and harder to experience the boundaries in a traditional sense. The boundaries blur, therefore time and experience of being connected becomes primary.

We will live in multiple metaverses. Meta+universe implies there are layers to our universe hidden from the previous paradigms of experiencing. Instead of multiple lives – in the metaverse – we will live through multiple personas. In latin, persona means mask. Our masks will be undertaken and carried by avatars. In Sanskrit, avatara means a descent from higher spiritual realms, a god. We will have god-like abilities and our lives will be an interplay between different personas fabricated by ourselves or emerging from our interaction in these contextual virtual worlds. The mirrors of ourselves will reflect who we truly are. Digital environments are capable of extending our experience of being.

Mobile: moving or changing quickly from one state or condition to another

Frequent relocation, fluidity and flowing freely. Increasing complexity implies we are no longer machines, or cogs in a machine. Our organizations will become organic; our tools will support this organic nature. Organic enterprises are like organisms, capable of adapting to changing conditions. Contextuality in learning, knowledge work, collaboration and business strategy requires dynamic and modular behavior. Static cause-and-effect, predictability and tight control are an afterthought. Albert Einstein once said, “a person starts to live when he can live outside himself“. The same could be said about organizations. The unpredictability of complex systems means that there are non-linear changes in time and there will be no silver bullet.

As you may see, by examining the roots of mobility and reflecting the changes we face today, we can no longer go forward by just talking about mobile devices and other devices. There is no need to separate ourselves in two groups, one of them being mobile and one of them being the fixed web. We no longer need to separate our developer communities to mobile developers and the rest. Engineers, programmers, visionaries and designers from various fields are tackling with the same problem. We need new avenues unifying the creativity and passion of people doing basically the same thing: building a better technologically empowered future for mankind. We need a revolution – of language and mind.

We need to reframe the question. With every new technology, it’s not the technology that changes us, but the frame that changes along with it.

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  • http://vint.sogeti.nl Sander Duivestein

    Great. I have been following your work quite some time now. I am looking forward to your presentation. See you at MobileMonday.

  • http://www.mobilemonday.nl Claire Boonstra

    Inspiring thinking, Teemu! The Mobile Monday organizing team & audience are all very much looking forward to your story on November 3rd!

  • http://www.mobilemonday.nl Maarten Lens-FitzGerald

    Great piece. To get the theme going (and i think also come ti the same ideas as you do in yr post) we have now posed the question: “How Has Mobile Changed Your life?” on the MoMo blog. Would be great of you added your answer too.

    http://tinyurl.com/momochange

    We are using Video comments for the answers.

  • http://goldenswamp.com Judy Breck

    Teemu — Great essay! I blogged it on SmartMobs so the many smart people who visit there can read it:
    http://www.smartmobs.com/2008/10/20/how-mobile-is-changing-our-society/

    What you are saying suggests to me the thought from our conversations in Innsbruck about the crucial role of the synapse. In the mycelium you describe, we can think of the mobile as synaptic, serving to exchange information between a human and the network.

  • http://www.arcticstartup.com/ Ville Vesterinen

    Good thinking Teemu. A set of story like case studies (real ones or made up) of the phenomena you outline would make the issues more concrete and push the readers thinking from abstract to concrete, no? ;) Looking forward to reading more on the topic.

    Have a great weekend buddy!

  • http://www.adamus.nl Barry Adams

    I was at MoMo yesterday and your presentation, aside from being visually overwhelming, was very good and I felt touched the core of the issues that are waiting to be solved in the near future.