STEMPEC: the Socio-Technical Shaping of Multimedia Personal Communications

This three year multi-disciplinary project started in 1999, funded by the DTI under the Foresight Link programme and support from all four of the UK's mobile phone operators at that time:

  • Cellnet (now O2)
  • One2One (now T-Mobile)
  • Orange
  • Vodafone

The project aimed to provide an account of the trajectory of a new and developing technology. It is widely recognised that projections based purely upon assessments of technical capacities have limited predictive value. It set out to show how a range of non-technical (or social) factors influence the trajectory, emerging shape, and patterns of usage of a new technology, using primarily ethnographic methods.

These non-technical factors include the following:

  • how new technologies fit into or are constrained by particular social and physical contexts (and the norms and obligations that operate within them);
  • how the usability of a device is related to such contextual considerations;
  • the functional, aesthetic, cultural and symbolic dimensions of the mobile device;
  • the significance that these dimensions have for different groups;
  • the contexts within which needs for new technologies and services emerge;
  • the organisational, economic and regulatory contexts in which new technologies and services are designed and produced.

Since the technology is shaped by activities within the spheres of production and consumption, a proper understanding of its trajectory cannot be obtained if empirical study is restricted to one or the other. Accordingly, the project was designed to illuminate the significance of both spheres and, in particular, the relationship and forms of communication between them (the social shaping of technology).

The findings can be grouped under these themes:

  • The sociology of mobiles
  • The use of mobiles in public spaces
  • Young people's use of mobiles
  • Device interfaces
  • Consumption: the cultural context
  • Production: the organisational and economic context
  • Location based services
  • Point of sale investigations

As would be expected a project of this size produced a wealth of information. Below is a selection of the findings:

  • There are many ways of defining the mobile user, such as their social type (e.g. parent or teenager), their usage costs, or their functional needs. From the mobile operators' and manufacturers' point of view there is a need to bring these together but this has yet to be achieved.
  • The management of etiquette has implications for call forwarding, answering services, and for the concept or continuous real time connectivity
  • Texting does not replace voice calls but offers teenagers a new tool for communicating.
  • A large proportion of text messaging can be viewed as gift giving, with important implications for asynchronous communication loads and remote and locale storage requirements.
  • The success of SMS is related in large part to its social limitations; this questions the view that future services should do away with these limitations (see Gift of the Gab)
  • Current usage patterns suggest that the convergence of mobile communications and PDAs may not occur as envisaged. This could have a major impact on future 3G terminals (See The Mobile Interface).
  • The social effects of non-access to information services have been overstated and oversimplified.
  • Mobile devices are complex and this can make it difficult for consumers to know what the source of their problems
    with technology might be. Hence technical support also has difficulties in providing the right assistance.
  • The mobile operators do not use models of the user consistently.

The project started in 1999 and ended in 2002.

The Research Team

Geoff Cooper was principal investigator and Richard Harper was project director, assisted by Lynne Hamill. Neville Moray, Evanthia Lyons and Neil Rickman also supervised PhD students. The project employed two research fellows, Nicola Green and Ged Murtagh, and five PhD students - three sociologists, one psychologist and one economist:

  • Barry Fentiman
  • Kevin McSorley
  • Karenza Moore
  • Alex Taylor
  • Dionisia Tzavara

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Digital World Research Centre
Alan Turing Building
University of Surrey