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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

Chapter 6


Exploring the mobile phone as a legacy of its ICT progenitors


The use of mobile phones in society for business, social networking and always-available connectivity has conflated the capabilities of its progenitors into a single device in a way like no other previous technology. This chapter explores the legacy information and communications technologies that preceded the mobile phone and examines the ways that they may have contributed to the special place that mobile phones have in everyday contemporary society. It is illustrated by examples from the UK, taken from the author’s 12 years of published research about ICT users, from her family history, and her employment in mobile communications industries. Concepts of domestication and electronic emotion are used to explicate the discussion which posits that progenitor technologies are continuing to influence and shape the dynamic and ongoing domestication of mobile phones, as well as the smartphones and tablets now being introduced. The convergence of the capabilities that have supported the social interaction of people in business and society for over a century into this single device does, indeed, appear to make the mobile phone an extraordinary and special device.


The mobile phone is probably the most used of all information and com­munication technologies (ICTs) (ITU 2010, 2012, Vincent 2006, 2010), and perhaps also the one that elicits the most emotional reaction about both its use and its impact on private and public space (Vincent 2011a, Höflich 2009). In this chapter I examine some of the ways in which the electronic emotions (Vincent & Fortunati 2009) encountered in contemporary everyday social practices of mobile phone use may have derived from our prior and contemporaneous use of communications technologies (telegraph, telephone, camera, projector, telex, computer/laptop) going back some 170 years. The chapter explores how people have managed their everyday communications through the development of information communication technologies (ICTs) over time. It then draws on the concepts of domestic­ation (Silverstone & Hirsch 1992, Silverstone & Haddon 1996), and electronic emotion (Fortunati & Vincent 2009, Fortunati 2009), to follow the technological and social developments that have led to the present day ubiquitous presence of mobile phones in everyday life. Primary research conducted over a period of ten years examining mobile phone use in the UK is used for contemporary exemplars, as well as examples from my personal experiences of working in telecommunications industries. Secondary research from telecommunications and family history archives is used to illustrate the legacy systems from which the mobile phone has emerged. These illustrations are mostly taken from UK and British experiences. The chapter begins by examining the context of the legacy communications systems that preceded mobile phone development illustrated by examples of various user experiences. Adopting new technologies has been explored extensively by others in many disciplines including science and technologies studies such as Grint and Woolgar (1997), and Bijker and Law (1992). The historical work of Marvin (1988) also gives a hint of what life was like when electric communications were new, creating excitement (and some fear) among people encountering electricity for the first time. Indeed, the social history of technologies is represented by such a variety of research that I can only glance at it here (McLuhan 1964, de sola Pool 1977, Standage 1998, Pacey 1999). Thus I focus on what has made the mobile phone apparently such a special ICT in contemporary society.

Telegrams and tubes

The telegram sent via the telegraph service became increasingly important for local communications in mid-to-late 19th century. Telegraph wire systems and bicycle couriers struggled to keep up with demand for the delivery of messages, particularly in cities with stock exchanges and a high level of business transactions. Many of the larger cities, including London, New York, Berlin, Prague and Liverpool, introduced a network of pneumatic tubes through which messages could be sent at high speed (Standage 1998). This allowed them to arrive in times only exceeded today by instantaneous email and text messaging. Personal messages were also sent via pneumatic tubes from especially built Telegraph Offices such as in the premises I had the task of managing in 1981 while working for British Telecom. A declining 19th century building in Liverpool, Telegraph House still contained the long unused telegraph office built when the pneumatic system was at its height of popularity. The office had remained intact with its polished mahogany desk, elegant brass tubes and high-class fittings that far exceeded the quality of the 1980s Post Office counters. Going to the Telegraph Office was an event and the splendour of the establishment still showed through the dust of decades of neglect. Some of the mystique of this system is conveyed also in Truffaut’s 1968 film Stolen Kisses1 in which a message is shown moving along the pneumatic tube system in Paris as a symbol of the spirit passing between and uniting two lovers. Be it the cycle courier, the pneumatic tube, the short message system or some other means of ICT conveying the message, this part of the journey links the space between the sender and recipient, and assuring successful delivery is paramount. Whereas today text messages may be lost due to lack of memory capacity in the receiving device or an occasional cellular network problem, the vagaries of the pneumatic system meant that messages stuck in the tube had to be located and then accessed via tunnels or even digging up the road to release them.

Ultimately, the pneumatic tubes’ impracticalities, limitations, and economic unfeasibility led to its “death” as a medium, though it still lies dormant underneath city streets worldwide.2

It is notable that once the voice telephone system began to be introduced, providing valuable audible communication between those who were apart, it further diminished the need for such extensive telegraph services. The telephone immediately extended the reach of real time synchronous communications – although ironically it eventually lead to voice mail and other recorded messaging services and the return to asymmetrical communications.

Projectors and phonographs

The enthusiasm that we see today for the latest mobile phone technology such as smartphone apps was certainly matched in the past by the enthusiasm for the latest technologies. Such experiences included attending the telegraph office to see one’s personal telegraph transmitted by pneumatic tube or going to public events where new technologies formed part of the entertainment experience. Some 120 or so years ago the challenges of using technology to illustrate a public talk could be fraught with some technical difficulties that nevertheless enhanced the public’s wonderment. My great-grandfather was a regular speaker in London’s public halls to Band of Hope (Methodist temperance league) meetings and, supported by his son, he used an oxy-hydrogen3 lantern slide projector. The light for the projector was produced by the mixing of oxygen and hydrogen gases to provide the most powerful and most brilliant of limelight configurations because it had the hottest flame. However, because the gases were mixed before the point of combustion it was also the most dangerous, requiring great care in its operation, needing to be adjusted by the projectionist every minute or so; should there be an error there was risk of explosion. When the phonograph was invented, that too was incorporated into my great-grandfather’s talks, as noted by his son William.

During these years (the late 19th century) the phonograph came into being and one was brought [sic] for the firm which my father could always borrow, how well do I remember those sound wax cylinders & how careful one had to be with them, one day someone over balanced the case & bang went about a £1 worth of records. What a nasal twang those Yankee announcers had, what a paraphernalia that was to carry about, a large case for the wax cylinders – the instrument itself – a big stand to support the very large horn. Well many a happy hour we had with those Edison Bell records for in those days such instruments were not found in every house. (Dr William Vincent, 1886–1931).4

The fragility of wax cylinders mean few survived but some recording a family Christmas in 1904 have recently been rediscovered and made available to the BBC.5 They thank the hosts and mark the event with a cheer and a message for posterity.

The development of visual aids for presentation purposes has continued apace with the advent of computer-based systems and perhaps Microsoft Power Point being a major turning point in style and method. The use of images to support, or replace, textual data has become particularly popular in the second decade of the 21st century as convergence of ICT capabilities allows for greater ease of access and transfer of photographs to presentation material, as well as within text messages and emails.

Picture cards and text messages

The use of photographic portraits to send messages began almost as soon as photography was invented. They have developed from studio-based images taken by professionals in the 19th century to snapshots taken on pocket cameras and shared on digital social media today. During visits to seaside resorts such as Brighton in the early 20th century family portraits were taken by “roving” photographers and posted home as a postcard (Vincent 2012). Nowadays, even the pocket camera is becoming obsolete as the omnipresent smartphones and camera phones enable photographs to be recorded and immediately sent to recipients throughout the globe. Our excitement with technology continued with the development of the camera and photography and for a while the collections of cartes de visite (portrait photo visiting cards) became quite the vogue in early 20th century England (Sarvas & Frohlich 2011), as well as collecting post cards. The text which follows is from a 1907 example from a Vincent family album.

Dear Will, Another card for your collection. How many have you now. I have about 250 Goodbye for the present with love to all from Alice (Vincent Family Album)

A century later and people were collecting phone cards (prepaid cards for use in public payphones), and now even mobile phones are collected. The saving of objects for nostalgic and emotional reasons is an age-old phen­omenon. Following Harper (2002) and his research on photo elicitation, it would appear that people with common interests find something special in collecting, retrieving and sharing their artefact.

Photographs appear to capture the impossible: a person gone; an event past. That extraordinary sense of seeming to retrieve something that has disappeared belongs alone to the photographs, and it leads to deep and interesting talk (Harper 2002, p. 23).

Harper’s enthusiastic description of photographs is, I suggest, also applicable to the postcards, text messages and mobile phones, all of which draw out visual memories via photos and text about things that people hold dear to their self. Numerous respondents in my research have kept old mobile phones, some because of the messages and contact details they hold from deceased friends and relatives, others because of photos associated with their children or for nostalgic reasons associated with the emotional memories engendered by the device. One mother explained how her daughter had refused to pass on her mobile phone to her younger brother:

We’d agreed she’d give her old phones to her younger brother; I found out later that she hadn’t been doing this but had been keeping them under her pillow – she couldn’t bear to think of her brother using them. (Vincent 2005, p. 224)

The sending of written messages instead of, or as well as, photographs was significantly augmented with the availability of mobile phone texting. Early enthusiasts who discovered short message service (SMS) as a complement to voice calls in the mid-1990s led the rapid take up of this service (Taylor & Vincent 2005, Goggin 2006, Hillebrand et al. 2010). 115 billion text messages were sent in the UK alone in 2011 but they are now being replaced by instant messaging, Twitter, Instagram, email, or messaging and shared Apps between proprietary smartphone/tablets such as via the popular Apple, Samsung and Blackberry devices.

Fixed line and mobile phones

The fixed line telephone, present in almost every UK household today, was slow to be adopted after its introduction in the late 19th century, only gain­ing momentum after it was nationalised and run by the Post Office in 1912 (Perry 1977). Similar to the mobile phone, fixed phones were initially used by businesses and wealthier private customers, but it took time for it to complement and supersede the popular, competitively priced, telegram and postal services. Commercial mobile telephone services first appeared as radio car telephones in the 1960s and these stayed in use until the late 1980s in the UK. Early cellular mobile phones partly replicated these car phones as the mobile phone was seen as an adjunct to private transport mobility and so was largely provided for use in cars, and other vehicles. Early handheld devices were bulky and not very portable, but nevertheless they quickly became a compelling “must have” device, most notably by young urban professionals of the 1980s, and mobile phone growth outpaced business predictions year on year. Interestingly, both fixed line and mobile phone services were initially implemented by private companies in a competitive market. However, early capital investment in the fixed telephone service was inadequate, and the tariffs were not competitive; the mobile phone network operators, on the other hand, provided a greater depth of coverage and driven by customer demand for mobile phones they were able to offer a quality of service at an acceptable price to their customers.

Similar concerns were expressed about both fixed and mobile telephones with regard to possible detrimental effects on health, as well as with regard to its impact on the household and everyday life. It was at first suggested that using a fixed telephone might drive people insane. People feared they might be infected by disease transmitted over the phone line or even get electric shocks (Marvin 1988, p. 132). Risks associated with the use of mobile phones by their users include health concerns regarding microwaves from the phones and masts, as well accident hazards arising from walking or driving whilst using a mobile phone.

The emotional response to the phone was not confined to health matters. The fixed telephone was initially seen as a device that was for emergencies in particular, and this combined with the “cheaper after 6pm” tariff shaped the ways that fixed and even mobile phones were used for many years. The ringing of a telephone was not to be tolerated – it had to be answered. Fixed-line voicemail devices were not in common use for many decades and it often fell to the women (or staff) of the household to deal with incoming calls. Conversations with my own family members who remembered the phone arriving in their house in the 1920s and 1930s said that their mothers complained of the emotional upset the phone caused as they had to deal with other people’s problems in the privacy of their own home. It also tied them to the house as they were expected to be there all the time in case an urgent call was received. This was in complete contrast with the experiences of some respondents of my mobile phone studies who said how much more freedom they had after they bought a mobile phone: “I love it because we are not restricted” (Vincent 2005, p. 222).

The traditional fixed telephone is now being removed, or not installed, in some businesses and households, to be replaced by mobile phones and Internet based communications. However, the legacy of telephones being the “always on” and primary means for emergency contact prevails and as overarching theme.

Emotional tensions between ICTs

It would seem that new contemporary technology, whether it is in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century, evokes a strong, often enthusiastic, emotional response to using new devices, as well as being linked to the emotions involved in the presentation of oneself to others. For example, witness the widespread phenomenon of supplementing talking with additional visual material that is shared and shown off via the mobile phone (Vincent 2009, 2012). Furthermore, the shared enthusiasm among the audience who are partaking in the experience is somehow enriched by the modernist way it is presented. The tension and anticipation of the gas limelight of the 1890s is not so dissimilar to those moments when we rediscover a photograph or video clip on the Internet, anticipate the arrival of a new smartphone or wait for an audio visual presentation to commence only to find the Mac is not compatible with the projector and it does not work. Indeed, the tension associated with using novel devices was also experienced by a respondent I interviewed when he first used a mobile phone in public:

The first phone call I made on a hand portable was on Holborn Viaduct Railway station… which was Easter 1985. And I made a call to tell my wife I was coming home by a certain time. She was at home as a, a housewife. I was looked upon by people on the station, carrying this £3000 Motorola 8000X brick as if I was somebody who lived on another planet. So in those days, if you made a phone call out in the street or on a train or a bus you were considered to be very strange. (Vincent 2010, p. 161)

Communications, of course, are not simply limited to the passing of information between parties or to conversations but can achieved through shared experiences such as leisure pursuits. Devices and games that enable the ludic qualities of interaction as well as (for some) more serious pastimes such as playing chess have transferred easily to computational devices. However, although electronic devices do enable many modes of communication, including games, there are, of course, many people who still like and love more traditional ways of doing things such as using a manual typewriter or a fountain pen and paper (Fortunati & Vincent 2012). They may seek the nostalgia of old telephones, like to play board games, or develop their own 35mm film with all the chemistry that it involves. Nevertheless, many people have also moved on and instead, or as well as, using these older methods prefer their mobile phone, complemented by other more specialist ICT devices such as a digital SLR camera.

Discussion and concluding remarks

It would appear from this brief examination of some of the legacy systems of the mobile phone that there has been a largely linear development of information and communications technologies over 170 years. The examples given in Table 6.1 show some major turning points with these ICTs, including developments in mobile phones themselves. The notion that we have only used sound and image to communicate since technologies such as the telegraph and the camera were invented is, of course, erroneous for humans have creatively used all kinds of artefacts to convey messages. However, returning to the question being explored here, that of the ICT progenitors of the mobile phone I would argue that it owes its legacy mostly to the developing telecommunications and computer science industry – supported by the electricity and power capabilities that are needed to make them work.

Table 6.1. Suggested progenitors for the mobile phone6

Over this 170-year period we have amassed numerous communications modes and technologies among which are those that gave us snapshot images; notes, text messages and emails; telephony; broadcast radio and television, music and games. Each of these is integral to developing and maintaining interaction within and between communities as well the personal and family needs they sustain. Today we still use cameras, write letters, have face-to-face conversations and play board games but we can also do all of these on our mobile phone as well as via other individual devices designed for the specific task. Nowadays we communicate and play with electronic computational devices, whereas in the past we would have just waited until we could speak to each other directly or sent messages via others. Looking back in time at some of the old ways we did things that today we take for granted does, however, highlight some intriguing similarities in our emotional responses and perhaps may in some way account for our present social practices. These are the activities that, as we have already learned from our forebears, are so domesticated within our daily lives that we take them for granted. At one time every one of these activities, technologies or devices, was a new idea, an innovation of its time; some found a niche and then died away and others grew and developed and improved. I would suggest it is because of this longitudinal development and growth of communications social practices and the emotions that are implicitly associated with them that the mobile phone has become such a highly charged emotional communications compendium. It is an almost unique sum of all types of electronic and mechanical communication, computational games, social networking, photographic presentation of the self, audio recordings and more.

Thus, the assertion that the mobile phone is in some way the contem­porary apotheosis of communications technologies and electronic emotions requires further examination. Let us consider first how the mobile phone has come to supplant and complement multiple individual ICTs: I turn firstly to the work of Silverstone and Hirsch (1992) on domestication and then to my work with Leopoldina Fortunati (Vincent & Fortunati 2009, Fortunati 2009) on electronic emotions. Domestication as a concept originated from anthropology, consumption studies and modern media studies (Silverstone & Haddon 1996) and refers to the way that people eventually adopt and incorporate technologies (and ideas) into their everyday home life. Silverstone revisited this concept some years later suggesting that the process involves the “constant renegotiation” of values and boundaries with regard to privacy and proximity in particular (Silverstone 2006, p. 233). Indeed, over the decades radio broadcasts, television, and telephones have come to be accepted as part of everyday life, but when they were first made available they elicited all types of emotion responses such as delight, derision, fear and fascination (Marvin 1988, Lasén, 2005). The emotion being expressed (or felt inwardly) with regard to using these different devices was thus not a response to the social practice of communicating but rather was the response to the modus operandi being adopted for achieving new ways of doing old things. For example, receiving a phone call on a mobile phone in any location, even abroad, creates positive and negative responses from numerous respondents in my various studies such as in this example from Nigel, talking about using his phone when he was staying at his holiday home abroad.

If there’s been a rugby game I’ll ring one of my rugby mates and we’ll talk about it, and last year during the world cup, er it was a way of releasing the emotional tension after a world cup game and I’d often ring my mate in England who’d been watching on it TV and we’d talk about it for 5 or 10 minutes just so that I’d, just sort of, just get back on an even keel. (Vincent 2011b, p. 134)

In our research on emotions in the social practices of ICT users (Vincent & Harper 2003, Vincent & Haddon 2004, Vincent & Fortunati 2009) it was found that people of all ages were drawn to use communications technologies – and in particular the mobile phone – because they enabled them to easily maintain their emotional ties to friends, family and work. These relationships engendered “electronic emotions” – the emotions lived, re-lived or discovered through machines (Fortunati & Vincent 2009, p. 13). Electronic emotions help shape the way mobile phones (and other ICTs) are used and in turn influence the design and availability of new products and services. For example, the alacrity with which people adopted short message service and their subsequent zealous use of texting, leading to dependence7 and even addiction for some, highlights the emotion associated with just one of the mobile phone’s capabilities. Furthermore, whilst the type of device, the technology or the applications used are very important for some, it appears that most people acquire a particular brand or model of mobile phone because of their affiliations, their peer group influences and their relevance to what they do in their day to day life. However, although there is evidence of these electronic emotions in the everyday uses of the device (Vincent 2009, Sugiyama 2009) it is not apparent why mobile phones in particular have become so much more im­bued with emotion than other electronic computational communications devices. Carried everywhere and used at inappropriate moments, they are the first thing people grab in a crisis to call a loved one for emotional support (Rimé 2009, Vincent 2011a, b). This is further exemplified in the powerful accounts of last words with loved ones in terror attacks (Dutton & Nainoa 2002). As I have explored the puzzle of mobile phone use in my research it has become clear to me that for most users it is much more than just a device for communicating and storing data. Furthermore, people do seem to desire particular models of phone that they can customise to their personal needs as well as it being representative of their identity. That the device itself creates an emotional response is not unexpected (Norman 2004) but what appears unique to the mobile phone is that this emotion is in some way enhanced by everything it contains – each phone having been uniquely modified by its user.

The curious fact is that although the mobile phone does do all these things in one tiny hand-held gadget it has not supplanted the projector, camera, audio recorder, telephone, television, radio, music player, photo album, games console, phone directory and address book. Instead it has become a shortcut, a shorthand compendium comprising all these capabilities, often used as a temporary (location-based) substitute to be replaced by the real thing such as the projector, the PC, or a paper-based address book when this function is the primary lead technological device most suited for that occasion.

Understanding more about the domestication process of each legacy system as well as the accumulation of the electronic emotions that are associated with these communications experiences are, I suggest, the key to beginning to unlock the mystery of our affection for mobiles. It appears the mobile phone is not only imbued with the social practices surrounding these numerous communications media but it is also imbued with the legacy systems from which they are derived, and the synthesis of the domestication processes that these have entailed. In turn, our mobile phones of the last 20 years are themselves now being conflated with a new generation of smartphones, tablets, and mobile operating systems that offer access to a greater variety of mobile applications than ever before.

In this chapter I have explored how communications technologies have followed both individual developmental and domestication progressions as well as combining multiple technologies through convergence to be available on a single device: the mobile phone. Concurrent with the domestication has been the development of strong electronic emotions with regard to the mobile phone, and it is these electronic emotions that have considerable influence on the choice and uses of ICTs. I have illustrated the chapter with my research findings with regard to the mediation of emotion as well as examining the progenitors of the mobile phone – particularly the camera, telegraph, telephone and text. What this has highlighted is that there has been a constant and dynamic domestication of communication technologies, the sum of which are contained in the mobile phone. In sum, it would appear that people use their mobile phone extensively to manage and mediate emotions with regard to the highs and lows of their self, their relationships and family commitments. Furthermore the mobile phone has incorporated, but not necessarily replaced, other domesticated technologies with which it still interacts or combines. Mobile phones (and the new smartphone and tablet devices) have won a special place in the lives of many people in the UK and beyond; these individually personalised compendiums of everyday life show no sign of being displaced.


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This chapter was inspired by recently discovered family archives including reminiscences noted by a relative in the 1920s and made available online by Jeff Vincent. Acquiring the latest communications technology has been “in the family” for at least five generations and it appears enjoying new gadgets and gizmos continues as the family iPad in continual use, and the iPhone in my teenager’s almost constant grasp will testify.

1 (accessed 11 January 2013).

2 Ghastly remnants of a dead medium (accessed 11 January 2013).

3 Art Gallery of South Australia, Sources of Light for Magic Lanterns (accessed 12 January 2012).

4 (accessed 29 August 2011).


6 As smartphones and mobile devices become more inclusive television, radio, micro-payment systems, computer games, mobile phone Apps, and more can be added to this list. However, to some extent these could be considered as ‘add-on’, or OTT, over the top technologies, which require the basic mobile phone capability to function.

7 Study by University of Maryland ICMPA 2010 (accessed 9 September 2011).

Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

   by Tom Denison, Mauro Sarrica and Larry Stillman