Some research gaps don’t need to be filled

The study “Social Topography in a Wireless Era: The Negotiation of Public and Private Space” by Lee Humphreys aimed to observe and explore how people negotiate their private and public senses of self and privacy when they use their cellphones in public spaces. The study was conducted from 2002-2003, years before the first iPhone hit the market. I think that is why this article at times feels idle and meaningless.

At the time the article was written, cellphone popularity was still in its infancy, and the scope of the technology was limited compared to the smartphones of today.

A Samsung SGH-T100, the type of cell phone likely used by participants in the study. Courtesy of Know Your Mobile

Because of this, I think that everything about the new technology seemed remarkable, surprising, and worth studying. But as a present day reader, I don’t feel that I need to be told that people like to not be interrupted when using their phones in public, or that they find it bothersome if people are talking too loudly. I also believe that these behaviors could be observed in the absence of mobile phones. If people were holding a private conversation with their friends in a public space, they likely would not want to be interrupted, would somewhat separate themselves from the rest of the “participation unit,” and would be bothered if a group of people were being too loud near them.

While I will concede that at the time of the study the idea of private cellphone use in a public space was worth observing, I think that Humphreys tends to draw conclusions from mere coincidences. I don’t believe that setting your suitcase down by your feet is a territorial marking, even when you’re engrossed in a private cellphone conversation. Instead, it’s likely that the person in the study was tired of carrying a suitcase around.

The article’s fascination with something that now seems obvious or natural to us now shows how much technology has been integrated into our lives.


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