Is mobile entertainment empowering or imprisoning -- or both?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006
By Monica Haynes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Norma Desmond, the silent-film star of "Sunset Boulevard," was right. It is
the pictures that got small.

Those people who used to be out there in the dark movie theater or on the
couch in front of their TV sets are now on the school bus, in the doctor's
office, or at their desks watching movies and television shows, listening to
music or surfing the Web on small devices with tiny screens.

Cellphones to PDAs, iPods to PSPs are making it possible for us to never
leave home without access to entertainment and/or information. "Mobile
content" was the buzzword at last week's Consumer Electronic Show in Las
Vegas. Major players like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft along with untold
numbers of smaller companies are trying to carve out a slice of this
ever-growing iPod-inspired pie.

However, the proliferation of handheld devices, and the rush to provide
nonstop content for them, leads not to the question: If you provide it, will
they access it? Ringtones, a $3 billion business last year, answered that.

No, the question is: If you provide it, should they access it -- all the
time? Do we have control over the technology or does the technology have
control of us?

That's the question that Linda Garcia, director of communication, culture
and technology at Georgetown University, asks her students.

Her department was established nearly 10 years ago to look at where social,
technological, economic and political issues come together.

"Technology becomes a form of life. We mold ourselves to fit the technology
as opposed to the technology fitting particular needs we have," Dr. Garcia
said. "The industry that supports this form of life becomes embedded in our

Her students develop products in class and talk about the negative and
positive aspects of them.

"I think technology is neither good nor bad. It's what are the conditions
it's being used in," she said. "I think the most significant question to ask
is under what circumstances do we have control."

Some could argue that mobile content providers are offering the ultimate in

"You access what you want, when you want it and how you want it," said Ralph
Vituccio, director of Media Development in Communications Design and an
instructor in the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon

"In my age group, you don't see people who are accustomed to that kind of
viewing," said the 55-year-old instructor. "They'd rather sit down in a
passive way and do it."

Younger people want two things, choice and control, and they don't care
about anything else, he said.

Dianne Lynch, dean of the Parks School of Communications at Ithaca College,
also believes that there is a correlation between the intensity of the
demand for mobile content and the age of the consumer.

"Cyberkids grew up with the Internet. They have no experience that does not
include ubiquitous, pervasive, on-demand content," she said. "They expect to
be able to access information, entertainment, news you can use. ... We are a
mediated culture, and to the degree that media becomes mobile we will take
it with us."

To help students develop the skills needed to feed this burgeoning industry,
Dean Lynch is sponsoring a "film" contest called Cellflix.

High school and college students can submit a 30-second narrative film with
audio done entirely with a video cellphone. The prize is $5,000.

"I think our choice is going to be consistently, if we can we will," Mr.
Lynch said. "[Students] are going to need to know how to make content for
mobile delivery."

Mr. Vituccio and four of his graduate students also are riding the wave by
developing what they call "micro-content". They're producing a
student-written piece set on a college campus, a drama based in an office
and an animated series. A 30-minute children's program, originally done for
television, is being retrofitted to a mobile format.

But being able to use technology for creative purposes, which Mr. Vituccio
sees as empowering, points to the ever-present social and class issues.

"If you don't have open access to technology and new technology, you tend to
use it rather than develop it," he said.

One of the drawbacks of mobile content Mr. Vituccio sees is that it will
provide yet another outlet for advertisers to target young people and drive

"In other words, you can run, but you can't hide," he said. "It'll become
even more ubiquitous, but it will still be selling you the same old stuff."

David Greenfield, a psychologist and author of the book "Virtual Addiction,"
said society must treat any technology with a sense of awareness.

"Not everybody will get addicted in the sense that they will spend 10 hours
a day on it," he said. "But it's more about how it impacts their lives and
their relationships."

Like many of us, Dr. Greenfield uses technology in his daily life. He owns a
cell phone and a PDA and recently bought an MP3 player online.

However, after a few minutes of fiddling with it, he sent it back.

"Not because I don't like music and don't want to do it," he said. But the
thought of having another piece of technology to lug around, another charger
to worry about carrying, deterred him, he said.

"It's one of the healthiest choices I ever made," Dr. Greenfield said.
"People need to make choices and not just get it and assume it's a good
thing. ... If technology is all that great, why isn't everybody happy?"

(Monica Haynes can be reached at [EMAIL PROTECTED] or 412-263-1660.)

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