Introduction : subverting the relationship between individuals and institutions

In the last 10 years one billion people have gleefully adopted the possibility to stay in continuous contact with the people they love. Their days are now dotted with small interactions with family, partners and friends. Research has repeatedly shown that up to 80% of the exchanges of any one person, regardless of the channel (mobile phone, social networking, instant messaging..) are with only 5 people. Obviously, the five closest ties.  Psychologists talk of a new form of emotional dependence, sociologists of tele-cocooning and a retreat from public engagement, but everyone else just enjoys the fun, comfort and pleasure this is providing throughout the day.  Everyone… that is, but the institutions that host these joyful connectors….   Schools, workplaces, administrations are slowly but surely setting limits and regulations on where, when and how much people are allowed to keep in touch with their loved ones.  Schools have introduced measures ranging from confiscation to fines, companies are blocking access to many websites such as social networking, instant messaging or private email, transport agencies are dismissing personnel found with cell phones, manufacturing plants prohibit the use of phones during working hours.

The billions of text messages, video calls and postings that are travelling through the world are in fact, seriously subverting the relationship of individuals with the institutions they belong to. They are challenging a number of well rooted conceptions on the need to remove people from their personal social environment in order for them to be productive and effective. The issues at stake are far more complex than “etiquette”  because the conflict is between people’s sense of fundamental emotional wellbeing  and  organizations that for the last 150 years have banned the private sphere from their premises.  Much of society has functioned on the principle that attention, isolation and productivity are strictly interrelated; therefore each minute spent on personal communication is seen as reducing focus and efficiency. But is this really the case? Or is the problem that the intrusion of the private is suddenly and finally concerning everyone and not everyone is seen as sufficiently trustworthy to handle this new found autonomy?

The possibility to keep some form of contact from the workplace was already present after the introduction of the fix phone in offices in the late 1930s, but social determinants such as status, position and reliability meant that only the highest professional ranks were allowed to do so. The revolution of personal devices, PCs first and then mobile phones, has meant that personal communication has become possible at all levels of the professional and educational hierarchy, factory workers as managers alike. The debate about allowing office employees access to facebook or students the use of their mobile at school is more about who can be trusted not to abuse the right to have an independent means to communicate. Restrictions are the tightest in the environments where people are trusted the least : schools, factories, prisons, banks.

What the exceptionally rapid adoption of personal communication devices has shown, is that the division of realms is in the least arbitrary and artificial.  When given the possibility most people want to be able to keep in touch with their personal social sphere whenever they want or feel the need for it. The transformation of family and marital relations in the last 50 years which has led people to expect much more happiness from their relationships, is perfectly reflected in the need to feel that contact throughout the day. The clash is therefore between a rather archaic vision of people isolated from their affects in order to produce and a contemporary approach to the importance of sentiments in people’s daily wellbeing.

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