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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

All Thumbs

Air Date: Week of December 7, 2001

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New technologies can have unintended effects on the ways we live our lives. Host Steve Curwood talks with Sadie Plant, author of a new report on how cell phones are changing human behavior.

Transcript

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. New technologies often catch on because people think the contraptions will change their lives. Sometimes these changes happen in unintended ways. The Motorola Company recently commissioned cultural critic Sadie Plant to study how cell phones are affecting people and, surprise, surprise--they can affect our behavior.

Dr. Plant, you found that mobile phones tend to give people what you call "bi-psyches." What's that all about?

PLANT: Well, I think it's quite striking, and I'm sure we've all had this experience if we use a mobile phone: that you can often be in one context and you're having a conversation which is radically different and puts you into a radically different context. You're, for example, on the street, or you're on a train, and maybe you're speaking to somebody in another country, in another time zone, in quite a different reality. So, there is this tendency for us to have to now get used to dealing with almost literally being in two places at once.

CURWOOD: Using the cell phone has also affected the ways that people physically interact with other parts of the environment, your study has found. For example, you conclude that some cell phone users have become adept at using their thumbs, in other non-cell phone related tasks.

PLANT: Yes, indeed. Well, this again relates to not just using the mobile phone for the purposes of telephone calls, but text messaging and all the other things, like games and of course internet access, are now increasingly common through the mobile. And I think people do almost evolve to become very sort of dexterous and adept in inputting the information through what is after all a very tiny little keypad. And it does seem that in many parts of the world the people here are most efficient and perhaps, can literally do it with their eyes closed, do tend to use one or both thumbs to input this information. And this observation really was sparked off by many people pointing this out to me in Japan, where people actually refer to the current generation of youngsters as the "thumb tribe" or the "thumb generation." So it really has become sort of a noticeable part of society there.

CURWOOD: So, what do these thumb kids do with their thumbs?

PLANT: The best example that was given to me was ringing on doorbells, something which perhaps would have instinctively have been done with the index finger in the past. But the thumb seems to have become the leading digit.

CURWOOD: Huh. How does a change like that come about?

PLANT: I think these, on the one hand, very small but, of course, very profound changes often accompany new technologies. And what's interesting about the mobile phone is, because it's used in public, it's perhaps the first piece of technology that we can really sort of just walk around and observe these changes happening. But I'm sure it's true that with every generation of new technologies we do, even physically, subtly adapt to using them. Look at something as simple as the wristwatch, say. That gesture of looking at the time, that's the kind of thing which has become, obviously, a part of human behavior, really, and instantly recognizable. And I think you can see the mobile phone effecting similar changes to that.

CURWOOD: Sadie Plant is a cultural critic who lives in Birmingham, England. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

PLANT: Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.

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