New-Tech Society: Finns keep friends at arm's length

February 22, 2002

In a six-page special, The THES looks at the impact of new technology on our society and the degree to which we control it or it has come to control us.

Despite the popularity of mobile phones in Finland, their impact on society has been a little muted, argues Timo Kopomaa.

Almost 80 per cent of the 2.35 million Finnish households have at least one mobile phone. The mobile phone has become a major feature of Finnish life. It has proved capable of responding to the challenges of modern society better, more quickly and at a cheaper price than computer networking technologies. Yet, despite Wap phones, multimedia messaging services and the like, according to the government's Statistics Finland Centre, there has not yet been an increase in people's use of the telephone as a work tool and very few Finns work on the move. Nevertheless, the mobile phone perhaps best exemplifies contemporary urban life in Finland.

Why has it had such an impact? Finland is a small and relatively homogenous society with a good communications network. Added to this is the fact that the common model on which the global mobile phone culture is based derives from Nordic network systems. Enterprising Nordic state communications monopolies needed to plough their profits back into technological development. The fact that private enterprises, such as Nokia and Ericsson, were ready to launch product development was not decisive, but it helped.

The social consequences are likely to be far-reaching. The mobile phone has answered people's needs for instant communication in an age of increasing mobility in which the social coherence of local communities has broken down. It means we have more control over our social life and are not so much dependent on those in our immediate vicinity. Instead we can associate with those who are more in tune with our way of thinking. But does this make our digital communities more precarious because we can more easily choose who we wish to be in contact with and who we do not?

Ironically, another consequence of the increasing use of mobile phones, communicators and other portable equipment is that, although people are always on the move, they can always be pinned down. Accessibility therefore has become more important than mobility.

And then there are text messages. In 2000, about 1 billion text messages were sent via Finnish mobile networks. The use of text messages was particularly common among young people: only one in ten has never sent them. Often it is much easier to send messages than to make phone calls. A considerable proportion of young women appear to have adopted the text message as their main mode of mobile phone use. The Finnish text-messaging market is changing at a fast pace as a result of such widespread usage. Despite the relatively low impact of mobiles on working patterns so far, we are likely to see a much more mobile, less office-based working life in the future.

However, given the extent of mobile usage in Finland, there has been little academic research into its social impact. While there has been some interest in researching how telecommunications services in general are used and how the mobile phone emerged, it is big business that has been the first to study user-based telecommunication. Nevertheless, research into mobile communications has generated new links between big business and universities, particularly with regard to developing new technology. One example is a recent study that found that girls send more text messages and use more characters than boys, who tend to use text messages in more instrumental ways, such as arranging meetings. This corroborates research showing girls' greater facility for language and communication.

But does the use of telecommunications devices have anything new to say about society - virtual or otherwise - or is it just about "communicating" - whether that be the banal, such as booking tickets on the Helsinki tram by text message, or the intimate, such as the uninhibited, rapid personal exchanges that are the characteristic of many mobile encounters?

Research shows that Finnish teenagers share a broad range of behaviour when text messaging. E. L. Kasesniemi and P. Rautiainen of Tampere University, and Swedish and Norwegian studies on the collective use of mobile phones, reveal that teenagers share text material in concrete and symbolic ways. Text messages are circulated among friends, composed together, read together, and fitting expressions or entire messages are borrowed from others. This collective behaviour contrasts with the emphasis placed on mobiles' private and personal nature by advertisers.

Other research shows the effect of mobiles on child-parent relations. The Finnish Nufix research project observed, for instance, that while the mobile phone increased parents' control of the whereabouts of their children, it also meant that they were increasingly out of touch with their children's circle of friends.

The first studies of how digitalisation affects welfare politics show the collective versus personal impact of new technology. While digitalisation means that welfare recipients can receive customised social security information straight to their computer or phone, it also enables new forms of cooperation between social security actors, such as real-time information exchanges about cases that might otherwise take weeks of letters, meetings and phone calls.

But before welfare systems can be fully digitalised, the digital divide must be tackled, the gap between those who have access to the latest information technologies, "the information haves", and those who do not, "the have-nots". The first empirical studies show that more or less everybody in Finland in the 15 to 40-year age group owns and uses a mobile phone. In contrast, only about 40 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women aged over 60 years have their own mobile phone. This will have to be tackled before Finland can truly become a mobile culture.

Timo Kopomaa is senior researcher at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the Helsinki University of Technology.

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