with this summer's iPhone 3G from Apple and Google's latest unveiling of the G1 smartphone, mobility seems to be the current communications tech buzzword, especially for so-called social media. having just acquired a new iPhone myself, i admit i'm pretty excited by its possibilities -- continuous data, location-based services, and a superslick interface that may indicate the future of touch-based interfaces. i've been especially impressed by the free applications offered by established social media sites, like Facebook, MySpace, Last.fm, and Twitter. where internet services have tended to focus on web-based applications, the iPhone redirects usage back to standalone apps which implement their own framework while drawing on networked content.
i find myself updating my Facebook and checking my Myspace messages more often, as the iPhone apps are often quicker and cleaner than their web-based counterparts, and more fun to use. i'm titillated (and a little creeped out) by how Yelp and Google Maps can now figure out where i am, and deliver data specific to my location. i'm beginning to envision how devices like the iPhone and G1 might allow for more constant engagement and interactivity with peers -- as long as, of course, they also own the pricey equipment and pay for the data subscription (not to mention having a working wireless network, which neither AT&T nor T-Mobile consistently provide).
this brings me to my current question concerning increasing mobility -- whose mobility is at stake here? the "digital divide" between technological haves and have-nots may not be a foreign concept in tech circles, but it's not one that has been very well addressed either, as it's often chalked up to socio-economic inequities that must be solved separately. certainly it's not surprising that tricked-out web-capable smartphones are mostly available to consumers in the upper social strata (with devices starting at $179 and combined voice/data plans running $55/month and up). moreover, social and geographic mobility have often been the purview of the middle (and upper middle) classes, those who are more likely to leave home for college, take jobs in different cities, and establish themselves far away from their extended families.
migration, of course, is a reality for many working-class people in the US and abroad, whose ability to earn a living is often tied to the movement of global capital. the demands of the global market tend to drive mass labor migrations, as people must move to find jobs that can support them and their families -- often living far from home and working abroad illegally (from migrant Mexican and Central American laborers in the US, to domestic workers in Europe and the Gulf states who come from South Asia, the Phillipines, and elsewhere). mobility per se may not be limited to those with greater resources, but voluntary mobility is still a privilege.
yet by contrast, mobile communications technologies have precisely been adopted in places where more extensive infrastructure may not exist. in the US, for instance, mobile phones were adopted first by younger users, partly because they're less likely to have their own landline (or own a home), and also because cell phone carriers began offering pre-paid plans that made phones accessible to those without steady incomes (the Pew Internet Project has some interesting reports on cell phone and internet use among different American demographics, though their methodology is limited to phone interviews, and they appear to conflate race with regional ethnic identity). outside the industrialized world, furthermore, mobile phones increasingly provide communications access to low-income regions and neighborhoods where landlines are simply unavailable. according to this article on MobileActive.org, for example, Brazilians living in favelas (slums) have taken up cell phone use, as have low-income youth in South Africa. free incoming calls and text messaging make mobile phones useable where landlines aren't, and encourage different ways of engaging with mobile technologies. according to Jeffrey Juris' review, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, shows how mobile phones in Jamaica allow low-income users to intensify their social networks in beneficial ways.
what's clear is that mobile technologies are used differently by different groups, often in ways not intended or imagined by marketers or tech companies. marginalized populations are probably less likely to be targeted by companies like Apple or Google, but at the same time, new technologies do present novel possibilities for social interaction at multiple social strata. text messaging, as the New York Times anxiously warned last week, is on the rise, often over and against voice calls, while improved handheld devices might actually provide web access to those who can't afford more expensive computer equipment (though Apple and Google for now are both assuming their devices will be paired with a home computer and broadband connection). mobility may turn out to mean more than just the latest toys for those of us who can afford them, and perhaps suggests an emerging way to think about and analyze new patterns in technology practice.