Mobile Communication, Digital Media and Society Series, A Book Review

Mobile Communication, Digital Media and Society Series, written by Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner, is a book about, well, as the title suggests, mobile communication, –or simply put, the cell phone.  The book starts off with Chapter One as an introduction to report the number of cell phone users worldwide, from the onset of the technology until today.  The introduction also includes an overview of what is covered in each subsequent chapter of the book, as well as describes several communication technology theories.  I was pleased to know what the author was talking about, since my class covered these theories early in the semester.   The introduction also briefly touches on the two major themes of the book: 1) the dramatic and rapid increase of global telephony access; and 2) the social consequences of this access, mostly with a focus on “individual addressability” (vs. calling a location), “increased availability”, and the “micro-coordination” of life.  (Ling, Donner)

Chapter Two then positions the readers with a historical account of mobile communication, which actually starts out with the telegraph, speaks a bit about landlines, and gives a good explanation of why cell phones are called “cell phones”.  This chapter also deals with data capability, and business service models, giving in depth information about SIM cards and GSM networks.  Chapters Three and Four offer real life experiences with vignettes of people all over the globe that gives the readers a sense of the social aspects on why cell phones are used in that particular culture in “everyday life”. (Ling, Donner).  Most of the book up to this point discusses social advantages, or changes that have taken place as a result of the adoption of the cell phone, but Chapter Five delves into the disadvantages the technology has brought to society.  And finally, Chapter Six is the conclusion and effectively reiterates all of the main points that the authors seek to convey.

It is quite evident throughout this book of the ideas that Ling and Donner share with their readers, as they remind the audience in most every chapter.  In the introduction, they share the amazement of the “explosion in connectivity” that can be attributed to the minimal cost of cell handsets and service vs. landlines in developing countries, which are typically owned by only the elite.  Statistics and studies are cited often, with caution of some inaccuracies due mainly to prepaid SIM cards remaining on the books of providers, which overstates the numbers of citizens in certain countries who have cell phone service.  The authors also maintain the thesis clearly stated in the introduction throughout this book that “reachability” is now a worldwide social culture that has changed the manner in which we all interact with each other.  These changes consist of the sharing of instantaneous information, increased control and management over our lives, and can even enhance and broaden our social lives.  The vignettes offer the reader many examples to explain this cultural revolution, such as Amihan, the ODW (overseas domestic worker), who lives in Singapore, but communicates with her family in the Filipines, and also sends them money using her cell phone; or Mika, the 16 year old from Japan whose most frequently used feature on her cell phone, of course, is the texting service.

There were some other good points and information brought up that I thought were interesting or that I did not know, so I did learn something from this book.  I knew “cell” phone had to do with the areas where the satellites or stations were located and the range that those stations covered, but I had never pictured driving from one cell to the next where the signal loses strength and regains it in the next cell, which explains dropped calls.  I have a better understanding of how this works now, and can appreciate that no technology is going to be perfect in every way.  I also did not know that the Titanic disaster resulted in the requirement that ships have 24 hour radio availability.  I enjoy learning little tidbits about history and how certain events changed how we do things.

There were also some things I did not like about this book.  First of all, it seemed “textbooky”, and quite dry.  It wasn’t overly technical, so I did not have a hard time understanding the content, but it was just rather boring.  The introduction, or first chapter, was very long, and I felt that ten pages of statistics to analyze the number of people around the world who use cell phones might not have been the best way to grab your audience.  I was glad when I finally got to the second chapter so I could read the historical aspect.  Chapters Three and Four kept my attention with the vignettes, but once I got through the final two chapters of the book, I felt they were not even necessary, since the authors already said everything they stated in the last two chapters that they said in the first four chapters.  Therefore, the book seemed very redundant, in fact, I have to admit, I skimmed a good portion of Chapters Five and Six because I could not find any new information, just more of the same, only stated differently with different examples.

When I was finished reading the book, I was left thinking something was missing.  There were some terms used that were not clearly defined.  For example, “top up” was mention numerous times before the meaning was finally uncovered on page 45.  The historical section was a little too brief, and lacked a timeline; and some “time periods” were mentioned, but the authors did not give dates of these time periods, so I had no idea which decade they were referencing.  There were a few other things that bothered me, so I will not trash the book too much, but there was one major thing I felt the book was really lacking, and that was a better overview of how cell phone use in each country works, concerning the service, handsets, as well as the social contexts.  In my research for my blog this week, I found many differences about how the Chinese people utilize cell phones in relation to the United States.  I enjoyed reading the vignettes, and think it was important to include them, but I would have appreciated a bit more organization on the use of cell phones around the world and the differences in cultures and systems.  There were sporadic comments peppered throughout the book regarding cell phones in different countries, but I think it would have better served the readers to take each country and give an organized account of the service providers, the system (GSM vs CDMA), the handset technology available and most widely used, and the differences in which each culture utilizes mobile communication.

Overall, I think it was an OK book, I did learn some things from it, but I would be interested in reading some other material on the subject, as I was left with the feeling that I wanted to know more.  I suppose Mobile Communications is appropriate for a communications technology course, but I do not believe one would choose to read this book out of enjoyment, unless they have an obsessive liking to cell phones.

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