Is that a phone in your pocket?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Words are important!

Although there is ongoing debate as to the degree, most linguists would agree that the principle of 'linguistic relativity' suggests that language has an influence on certain kinds of cognitive processes.

In short, vocabulary can effect not just the ability for an individual or society to communicate a concept, it may have an effect on their ability to formulate certain abstract concepts.

In '1984' Orwell famously explores the link between language and cognition as his authoritarian state implements their created language "Newspeak" to make it impossible for people to think critically about the government.

In everyday life we can cite examples of the sanitising of our own language through the use of euphemism to soften impact or deflect deeper thought. Corporate executives talk of 'down sizing' rather than 'mass redundancy' or the reality of putting people out of work. Our military reports on 'Collateral Damage' rather than civilian casualties.

Whether by nefarious design or for social expediency, the use of these terms arguably lessen the emotional impact of the signal.

Within a specific domain words are used to communicate meaning with precision. Where a lay person may attack the use of 'computer jargon' there is very good reason why a computer scientist may wince when someone says Internet when they mean World Wide Web - they are very different things.

Language can be fun too of course. Where would a comedian be without the ambiguity in language that is the basis for all puns? The lyricist, novelist, playwright or poet would be rendered impotent without the tools for linguistic mis-direction, simile and metaphor.

What has all this to do with e-safety?

Well, let us consider the Smartphone.

Although the term originated in the late nineties it is really the release in quick succession of Apple's iPhone in 2007 and the Google Android operating system in 2008 which defines the characteristics of what we currently think of as a Smartphone.

Curiously though, if you list the features and functions of a Smartphone, those that would be considered to be characteristics of a telephone pale when stacked up against those which would be associated with a computer.

Would it not be far more sensible for Smartphones to be known as 'Pocket Computers'? They are, after all mostly powerful computers in a small form factor with telephonic capability rather than telephones with extra features.

For a while, the pocket computer and the mobile telephone coexisted, though the pocket computer itself had developed out of the 'personal organiser' - a glorified electronic diary and address book.

As technology improved it was inevitable that the inefficiency of carrying two devices when the functionality of both could so easily by combined within a single box, would see their eventual combination.
In fact, strictly speaking we should add the camera and personal media player to the list of discrete gadgets which have also be subsumed into this single class of device.

There are several obvious reasons why the resultant devices would popularly derive a name evolved from phone as opposed to computer, among them:
i) More people habitually carried mobile phones than personal organisers
ii) The devices required monthly contracts with telephone companies for their primary network connection
iii) Personal organisers had something of a corporate or work related air about them
iv) Verbal communication is an extremely prominent facet of the human interaction
v) Telephones are 'old' comfortable technology whereas computers still have a certain perception of geeky complexity to many

It is partially recognised that these devices are not just 'telephones with extras', hence the coining of the term Smartphone.

When it comes to e-safety, most problems are caused by a mis-perception as to the level of risk. Problems arise when inadequate precaution or education is put in place due to holes in knowledge or gaps in understanding.

The concern is that if our language guides us to conceptualise Smartphones too much in terms of 'Telephones with extras' rather than as powerful portable computing devices, there is a real e-safety risk. Locking down a computing network or adding parental filters to computers in the home have no impact on a device which is capable of independent connectivity and can attach to any number of WiFi networks in cafes, shops and urban areas.

Smartphones are capable of communicating with pretty much all the social networks and other online services which cause e-safety concerns.

In reality, the capability these devices provide for computing, education, communication and organisation are extremely positive and do out-way the risks, but more can be done to mitigate potential problems.

These devices are in the hands of young people and are in your schools and in your homes. They need considering with the same importance as other more obvious computing devices and where prohibition or technical encumbering of capability is not possible or appropriate, education must fill the gap.

Now it is quite likely that the etymology of the word 'phone' will fall out of the public consciousness and be banished to antiquity along with many words we still use today, the origins of which have long been forgotten. In time the word 'phone' may well change it's meaning to 'pocket computer' or encompass whatever this device's next evolutionary step may be. Until that happens however, we must make sure that we don't underestimate the risks and capabilities of these devices by continuing to conceptualise them as being at their heart, a simple portable telephone because we lack the appropriate language to describe them otherwise.

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Written by Safeguarding Essentials on November 13, 2013 16:23

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