Category Archives: cellphones

My review of “New Tech, New Ties”

Flickr photo by fensterbme

A review that I wrote about New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion for the American Studies Journal was finally published 3 years after I wrote it!

Rich Ling concludes that unlike cellphone ads would tell you, we can’t be both here and there.  Excerpt:

Cellphones exploded onto the U.S. scene, going from commercial launch in the mid-1980s to 88% penetration by 2008 and penetrating still further in Ling’s Norway. They clearly enable us to be in contact when we previously couldn’t. And they have become a cultural icon: cellphone-shaped balloons, parents hearing kids feigning adult cellphone conversations on their toys—“have your secretary call my secretary.”
Undoubtedly cellphones can challenge social norms. A few examples suffice:

  • A couple walking down street together with each talking to someone else on a cellphone.
  • A plumber summoned to Ling’s Oslo house for a leak strolled into Ling’s home as house guests were saying goodbye. The plumber’s refusal to interrupt his cell call to introduce himself, or ask permission to enter, violated Ling’s sense of social norms, not repaired by the plumber’s nodding to Ling and removing his shoes per the Norwegian custom.
  • Whether we should flush when someone in the adjacent bathroom stall is on an important call.
  • What cellphone conversations should be off-limits in public?

[Read rest of review.]

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The Pay-for-Performance NYC schools experiment: the Social Capital Story

Roland Fryer, the up-and-coming Harvard Economics Professor, who at age 30 is on leave as the Chief Equality Officer for the New York City Public Schools, talked yesterday at the Taubman Center on State and Local Government’s Annual Meeting. [Taubman director Ed Glaeser commented on the apparent tension between the words *Chief* and *Equality* in Roland’s title, to which Roland noted that he’s all in favor of equality as long as he can be the leader!]

Roland has been on a quest to marry economics and social science with how to make a difference in the lives of the very poor. Roland himself comes from a poor family growing up in the South (in Daytona Beach, FL), and to some extent wants to enable more poor kids to achieve what he has. [Fryer noted that his grandmother’s sister and her husband, with whom he spent a lot of time. ran a crack ring, and he happened to be at the dog track watching greyhounds when federal agents arrested the two of them. And 8 out of 10 of his closest friends growing up had either died or served time in prison. And he would have gone to jail as he was planning at age 15 to participate with friends in a burglary, but got cold feet and chickened out at the last minute and his friends were all arrested and went to jail.]

His NYC schools experiment aims to marry cutting edge social science (and randomized intervention) with making a difference in these kids’ lives.

The program has a handful of different dimensions including incentive pay for principals, offering cellphones to high school youth who are doing well economically (called *The Million*), paying 4th and 7th graders to take math and reading tests that they were already taking several times a year (with higher pay if they get more right answers on them).

There has always been the most controversy around the *pay for performance* part of the plan, with some principals saying kids should be studying for the love of learning or claiming that when the financial incentive is removed in the future, any patterns of success will disappear. Roland noted that the media (originally negative) has turned positive with support for the plan in the Washington Post, USA Today and a handful of other papers. Interestingly, while white parents on Upper East Side or in Staten Island complaining that the pay-for-performance didn’t respect African Americans and played into stereotypes, there has been no such complaints among African-American parents of students in the pay-for-performance experiment.

Part of the way through the first year, the plan appears to be working for 7th graders, but less so for 4th graders. Roland notes that it is possible that the tests (every 5 weeks) are too far away for the financial incentive to mean as much, or that 4th grade is too young a grade to incent learning, although Roland is likely to try some tweaks to the program in the second year. Moreover, Roland is going to expand the 7th grade program to 8th grade randomizing who continues in the program and who does not (so they can see how the performance of those who do not get the program in the second year compare with those who never got the treatment or those who got it for two years). Among the 7th graders, those who got offered the treatment (pay for performance) were already 1-2 months ahead of their comparable peers after only 1/3 of a year in the program, although gains were higher in math than in verbal skills.

Hearing Roland talk, it was clear (even though he didn’t directly discuss this), the importance of social networks, trust and social capital to his success. He noted for example, that although principals think that they are in charge of these underperforming schools, that it is really probably 20 students who are running the place and his effort aims to change the culture of schools and create a demand-side for learning that can be spread through social networks. It is no accident that as part of *The Million* (his effort to brand student achievement and success), that he gives students state of the art cellphones, since the cellphones promote social networks where Fryer can communicate with the students or send a video (since he has their phone numbers), where teachers can text students about upcoming tests, and where students can spread the excitement of achievement through this program. And he notes that the payment can serve as a valuable foil for legitimzing studying hard; he hears about students claiming that ‘they don’t care about studying, that they are just in it for the money.’ Roland doubts this is true, but it protects them against the charge that African-American kids are “acting white.”

Roland also notes that social networks will play a role in the anticipated higher take-up rate in second year of program. In first year, many students failed to participate. Growing up in a culture and environment where many people couldn’t be trusted, many students thought the program was a scam. But now that students have seen payments deposited in the bank accounts that were automatically set up for them, word-of-mouth is spreading the messages that the program is legitimate.

Roland told a funny story –he has the look of a nerdy African-American with wire rim glasses and a three-piece suit, with a build of someone who might have played football at an earlier age). Yesterday, a group of wide-eyed NYC students had earned a trip to Harvard because of their performance. He asked the group of 7th graders how many of them expected to be professional athletes and 70% of them raised their hands. He then asked them which of them was the best athlete. They pointed to a 6 foot high kid. Roland made the kid a bet; he’d challenge the kid to a 50 yard dash in Harvard Yard. If Roland won, the kids would abandon their goal of professional athletes and focus on making it in academics since they were never going to be professional athletes if the best of them could be beat by a Harvard economics professor. If Roland lost, he’d wear whatever clothes they wanted him to wear for a day (they had decided it would be a frilly pink dress). Luckily for Roland, he won, although he said it was not easy.

Note: all of funding paid for in first year by foundations, with commitment that if the program shows results, NYC will pick up the tab of continuing this going forward.

For a description of Roland see this account by Freakonomics author Steven Dubner in NYT; for some accounts of this program see this NYT article, or “Cellphones as Incentives,” and this entry on “The Million

How technology affects friendships

The Economist has an interesting set of stories this week on the relationship of technology to social capital.

They note that these smaller mini-connections with friends and family throughout the day using cellphones, texting, IM, etc. keep us more connected to kith and kin, at the cost of our connections with strangers — the latter potentially a cohesive glue that holds society together. There is also some question whether the continuing ties of adolescents to their parents through cellphones is retarding adolescence. The article discusses how new technology is changing dating rituals in Japan.

There is also an interesting conversation about how it is changing etiquette. They note a huge gradient in the US by age about whether using cellphones in public is a major irritation with 74% of those over age 60 saying yes, and only 32% of those ages 18-27 agreeing.

Excerpt: “Trickier etiquette problems arise when the issue is not so much noise as context. One example that will enter the history books occurred last September when Rudy Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, was still waging a vigorous campaign for the presidency. As he was up on his podium and in mid-sentence addressing the National Rifle Association (NRA), a crucial constituency for a Republican candidate, his mobile rang and, to gasps in the huge audience, he decided to answer it. What followed, captured on microphone, is worth repeating in its banality: “Hello, dear. I’m talking, I’m talking to the members of the NRA right now. Would you like to say hello? I love you, and I’ll give you a call as soon as I’m finished. OK? OK, have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you.” When he hung up, the audience had turned to stone.

“Usually the situation is subtler and the incongruence has more to do with attention. This can be true even during silent mobile communications. It is now routine for university students to text, e-mail and instant-message during lectures. Mr Ling, whose job includes loitering in public places for observation, watched a woman at an Oslo underground station who texted as she walked. She was wholly focused on her text message but had to look up occasionally to weave through the crowds on the platform. Other people were doing the same. It was an “atomised and individualised” scene, says Mr Ling: a new form of the proverbial lonely crowd.

“But at least this particular Norwegian woman was signalling through her body language to all around her that she wanted to be left alone. The spread of “hands-free” Bluetooth devices, with hidden earplugs seemingly attached to nothing, is removing even those clues. Steve Love, a psychologist, was travelling on a train from Edinburgh to Glasgow once when a girl standing next to him started talking to him. She asked him how he was and how his day had been, and Mr Love, though a bit shy, politely told her how much he was looking forward to watching Scotland play football that evening. As he spoke, the girl looked at him in horror, then turned away. Only then did Mr Love hear her say “OK, I’ll call you later.” Not a word or gesture was exchanged for the remainder of the (suddenly uncomfortable) journey.

“Probably the single most common etiquette conflict occurs, as Mr Ling puts it, when mediated communication interrupts co-present communication, as when two or more people are sitting at a table in conversation or negotiation and one of them gets, and answers, a call. The other co-present people must now keep themselves busy while seeming nonchalant. What is more, they must pretend not to be eavesdropping even though they are only a few feet away from the mediated conversation, ideally by assuming a pose of concentration on some other object, such as their fingernails or their own phone. As soon as the intervening call ends, everybody must try to re-enter the co-present context as gracefully as possible.

“So there is evidence that nomadism is good for in-groups, but at the expense of strangers. If that is true, Mr Granovetter would consider it bad for society. Fortunately, however, the last chapter has not yet been written. Since the outburst of pessimism about the internet among sociologists in the 1990s, the web has recently become an intensely social medium, thanks in large part to proliferating online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Young people have been using these websites on their PCs to keep in touch with much larger groups of people than has ever been feasible before. It is not uncommon for adolescents to add several “friends” a day to their “social graph” on Facebook or to the “buddy list” of their instant-messaging service.”

See Family Ties: Kith and Kin Get Closer with Consequences for Strangers (4/10/08 special report in Economist) and A Wireless Word: Our Nomadic Future (4/10/08 issue of Economist).