By Kristin Pazulski and Patrick Naylis
Photography by Michael David Murphy
For Janet Roberts, having a cell phone is vital to both her business and staying connected to her family and friends, especially since she doesn’t have a consistent home. For six months, Roberts has been on the streets, vending the Denver VOICE and trying to launch her custom T-shirt business. Most of those months, she has also owned a cell phone that she shares with fiancé Mitch Hegg.
“I can’t do my job without a phone. It’s a necessity, I have to call my clients,” said Roberts, standing outside the VOICE distribution office.
But in October, Roberts hit a snag. As many people have experienced, she and her fiancé lost their phone to a toilet. In the same period of time there was a delay with her unemployment, so they couldn’t afford to get a new one. After a few weeks, in mid-November, Roberts started receiving her unemployment. She said the first purchase on her list is a cell phone. Then she and Hegg will start hunting for an apartment. In that order.
And she’s not the only one.
“I cannot believe how many homeless people have a cell phone,” Roberts said. “That does surprise me. I mean they are living on the street and they have a phone.”
Hegg, sitting next to her in the Denver VOICE office, agreed. “When you are on the streets, a cell phone and a bus pass are the two most important things to have,” he said.
What is it about cell phones, and even more recently smartphones, that they have gone from being a convenience to what some consider a necessity—so necessary that even without a home people will be sure to own one? Present day culture has expanded our needs to include not just a telephone to communicate, but cell phones and smartphones to stay in constant touch. Additionally, people are now using them as a replacement for computers and simple technologies such as flashlights and alarm clocks.
Joanne Cantor has been stuck on the issue for a few years. As a mother, she bought a cell phone after September 11, 2001, when she was stuck in an airport unable to reach her family.
Cantor, professor emerita of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the recently published “Conquer CyberOverload,” has been studying our use of mobile technology since 2007, when she started investigating ‘cyber-overload’ because of her own dependence on the technology.
She said there are various reasons why owning a cell phone has become a necessity to the consumer, most prominently, status and peace of mind.
“Knowing that you have a cell phone is … good for peace of mind, and that’s valuable in itself,” she said in a phone interview last month. “And if you are in business everyone expects you to have a cell phone, so even if you were the type of person to say you don’t need it, you have to have it because you seem like you’re out of touch if you don’t have one.”
The last thing anyone in business wants is to appear out of touch. It becomes necessary to have the latest technological gadget so your customers and colleagues see you are on top of trends.
“Most people expect that you can be reachable at the time when you aren’t at work,” Cantor said. “I think these things [technologies] start by being useful, and when enough people adopt them [they] become a necessity because of the expectation.”
Paul Bauer disagrees. Bauer, chair of the department of information technology at Denver University’s Daniels College of Business, said he doesn’t think smartphones have reached the level of necessity.
“There are people who have deliberately put it under a bucket and walked away for a week. Necessity is probably too strong,” he said, although he added, “Maybe in a business environment it’s not.”
But some business people, like Jack Schuler, art director at The Integer Group advertising agency, do not bother with the smartphone, despite being in a media-heavy industry.
“I personally don’t have one,” he said. “I’m in an office where everybody has one. I would use a lot of capabilities if I [had] one, [but] I like to get away from my work. … I don’t see myself having to get one.”
While not everyone sees smartphones or cell phones as “necessary,” most people have one. More than 86 percent of Americans have a cell phone, according to FCC and Census Bureau figures, and according to a 2009 survey by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), between June and December 2009 the number of active smartphones and PDAs increased by nearly 10 million.
And now smartphones seem to be overtaking cell phones. Since 2007, smartphones sales to dealers have grown by about 10 million units per year, while cell phone sales began decreasing in 2009, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).
Which is more necessary?
But are these products, deemed as “necessary,” hurting some things that really are necessary to us? The average user might not consider it daily, but these ubiquitous technologies can impact our pocket book and our emotional lives.
A study released in 2009 by Parks Associates, a research firm based in Texas, reported that in three years, nearly 100 million more consumers in America will be paying for mobile broadband services than there were in 2008.
The CTIA said a monthly voice and data plan costs consumers an average of $47.47 right now, where land lines cost an average of $25.62 per month in 2007, the FCC says.
While some consumers are cutting out landlines and putting their money toward a mobile device, monthly costs, compounded by the cost of other recent technological “necessities” such as cable, television recording and the Internet, have been increasing.
Jules Kaplan, a senior instructor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that people supplement higher expenses by saving less and dipping into their assets, such as refinancing their homes. He also confirmed that the median household income hasn’t changed in the past few decades.
“To the extent that people see these items (iPhones, iPads, etc.) as a necessity, then in the absence of higher incomes, purchases of other items will decrease,” he wrote in an email, adding that people will look for cheaper food and clothing to supplement the additional costs.
The spiraling costs have a lot to do with the relatively quick turnaround of a concept from a lab to a finished product that hits the streets.
“If someone wants to throw enough resources behind it, there is a potential where in a year you could go from a lab to actual use,” said Tim Brown, director of University of Colorado at Boulder’s Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program in the College of Engineering.
If a large corporation like Intel or Microsoft feels a concept has potential as a product, they will expedite it to the consumer. Having more choices as a consumer also means additional expenses.
“Technology gives us something new, and we try it, and pretty soon someone makes it more convenient and once you realize you like doing it, you want it more conveniently,” Cantor said. “So we’re constantly being motivated to get the next thing. … Once we get there, it’s hard to go back.”
Interestingly, it seems that consumers are creating this need for themselves. While commercials and advertising for cell- and smartphones cater to the sense of necessity, David Slayden, an associate professor of communications at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that he doesn’t see the need being created by advertisers.
“I think it’s a rare case when advertising creates a need,” he said. “People look at and do what interests them … you don’t give a speech, you start a conversation, then you curate that conversation.”
Whether advertisers foster a perceived need or actively create that need appears to be a which-came-first-the-egg-or-the-chicken conundrum. Schuler sees it as a bit of both.
“Companies are developing products long before any advertising happens or even [is] thought about,” he said. “After the product’s been out for a while... they seem to play with the customer a bit.”
Does connecting equate to communicating?
Another discussion in the technology industry focuses on the quality of communication, again a necessity to the social human being, and whether it is suffering due to increased use of media to communicate.
Smartphones seem to have the capability to enrich the social experience by enabling us to take our sense of place with us through texting, email, or Facebook updates.
“We’re finding out more about the people we care about,” said CU Boulder’s Brown. “We’re finding out [about] them sooner and we’re able to react to them more quickly.”
We’re connecting more, but is the connection as deep? Cantor doesn’t think so.
“In Facebook vs. Facetime [a presentation Cantor gives to students and business people], I talk about how each of our new devices takes away from face to face, and face to face is a really rich communication because of facial expressions, [tone of voice, gestures, eye contact, etc.], and all of that together tells us a lot more [than just words],” said Cantor. “The further we go the more we take away from the richness… and we seem to be happy with just the words.
“So we are connecting more and communicating less in a lot of these ways,” she concluded.
However, as Brown said, “the focus on technology is really on the ability to be more social and act more. If you really think about the technology, that’s where they become successful.”
Even though the quality of communicating may have decreased, as Cantor suggests, Brown also claims that technology can only ameliorate our relationships with each other and our world. It represents a progression in communication.
For Roberts and Hegg, their list of priorities changed once the unemployment check came in. Initially planning on getting a cell phone first, the couple, who is planning to get married in December, went on a pre-honeymoon to a local resort.
“We have been working seven days a week, we needed the break,” said Roberts.
But next on the list – the cell phone. Another check rolls in Friday, or Hegg might get paid for a construction job. Either way they plan on visiting Cricket Wireless within the week for a new phone. Although in this case, it seemed face-to-face won out over the “necessary” communication technology. •