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  • Taken for Grantedness: The Embedding of Mobile Communication into Society by Rich Ling
  • Jon Agar (bio)
Taken for Grantedness: The Embedding of Mobile Communication into Society. By Rich Ling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Pp. xiv+ 241. $34.

Timepieces, automobiles, and cell phones are all examples of what Rich Ling terms “social mediation technologies.” These are the technologies that we seem not to be able to live without. They have features in common, which are the subject of Taken for Grantedness. Of course, terms of art are useless if they are too broad or imprecise. Fortunately, not every artifact, says Ling, is a social mediation technology. Umbrellas, toothbrushes, and refrigerators are the opposite: they are “stand-alone” technologies. While [End Page 1035] they are certainly social entities—we can learn to use an umbrella correctly and we can share one with a friend, there are dire social consequences of bad breath, and we might leave messages on a fridge—it takes a forced, “radical rereading of their design” (p. 10) to class them as devices whose core function is social mediation.

Ling identifies four main features of social mediation technologies. First, they need to be “perceived as having a critical mass for a group of users” (p. 24). In other words, they won’t flourish unless a tipping point is reached. Think of a successful office-place group calendar or the time when everyone had a wristwatch. The “perceived” qualification is neat, in that it prevents Ling from having to specify, explicitly and quantitatively, the level of penetration the would-be social mediation technology must achieve. What matters is that there is an assumption of use. Second, an ideology of legitimation emerges that works to make this assumption seem natural. A fourteenth-century Spaniard wrote on the subject of city clocks that they encouraged “citizens of honor to lead orderly lives and to call sleepers and idlers to virtuous works” (quoted on p. 48). In other words, punctual citizens are good citizens.

Third, as a social mediation technology diffuses it creates its own “social ecology” (p. 31). The intuition here comes from sources such as economist Kenneth Boulding’s 1950s discussion of commodities as occupants of niches. In general, extreme care should be taken when borrowing naturalizing discourse to frame human technologies. However, the main insight here is reasonable: the term “social ecology” labels the phenomenon by which “physical structures and routines of society … are changed as social mediation technologies are adopted.” Think, for example, of the ways our cities are built—roads, service stations, car parks—to allow the automobile to flourish. Finally, a social mediation technology will “rearrange our expectations of one another” (p. 33). We assume that others will also know the time or have a cell phone. This aspect is the important focus of the book, the key to the opportunities and costs of a technology that is taken for granted. “Nonusers,” writes Ling, “are exiles” (p. 33).

Two short chapters of Taken for Grantedness show how the concept of social mediation technologies can characterize the history of timekeeping and automobility. The bulk of the book is a detailed examination of the concept’s application in the case of the cell phone, Ling’s primary research interest. Diffusion is demonstrated quantitatively. Oddly, the chapter on legitimation is mostly about anti-mobile complaints of triviality, noise, and disruption, although positive endorsements, culled from interviews, are also cited. Chapter 8, the centerpiece, is both profound and banal. We learn that “Bjørn” found it “stressful” when he was in eastern Norway with no signal; “Ayesha,” an American teen, found it “hard” when her phone fell during washing up; “Anna,” another American teen, said it was “just horrible, [End Page 1036] like I was hysterical for like a good two three hours” when she lost her phone (pp. 172–73). Such quotidian distress is a revealing sign that social relations are in peril.

In conclusion, Ling labels our society, mediated by clock, car, and especially cell phone—“tools with which to tie together the members of our intimate sphere”—as a “digital gemeinschaft” (p. 186), giving a virtual hattip to Ferdinand Tönnies. Taken for Grantedness is...