Smartphones and communications rights

by Mark Beach last modified 01 August 2019 05:09 PM
Smartphones and communications rights

Photo: Paul Jeffrey/EAA

01 August 2019

During one of several visits to South Korea in preparation for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 2013, I recall riding the subway/elevated train with my colleague, Young-cheol Cheon, as we visited various media organizations.

I love riding subways, well, all trains for that matter. I am a people watcher. Sometimes I just stare off as station-wall signs speed by in a blur. This time, however, something was different.

The days of eyes staring vacantly across the subway carriage to other riders who stared vacuously in return, other’s eyes closed and heads titled back bobbing against the window as the train sways to and fro, and still others engaged in reading a book or newspaper, those days are gone.

By 2011 eyes in the carriage were pointed toward smartphones cradled in the cupped hand, resting on a leg or, if the traveler stands, held tightly in the palm.  Eyes scanned illuminated screens, thumbs danced across smart Qwerty keyboards, pecking out words or half words and emojis.

On one ride everyone seated on the opposite side of the train car had their heads bent, as if in homage or honour, as they focused on their smart phones.  Everyone except for one man. He was the rebel, I thought. Good for him.

What were the others doing? What were they exploring? Was there so much communication going on that when another passenger boarded they robotically shifted in their seat, not lifting their heads, thumbs tapping out messages, not even glancing at who just sat down next to them.

As one who takes joy in scanning the faces of riders on the subway, now I stared mostly at how hair was parted on the top of a head, the color of a hat or scarf. When was the last time they washed their hair?

The idea that everyone is communicating with one another was both invigorating and frightening. What were they talking about?

As a practitioner of communications and the media and now social media, my questions came with a sliver of insincerity. I had read enough studies about social networking and the new media ushered in by the Internet that my question was both naive and knowing. Still, there was a mystery. I really did not know what they were communicating about.

Yet here were the “masses,” so to speak, as a socio-political description, experiencing access to communications. They were being liberated. They could say what they wanted, when they wanted, to whomever they wanted, in whatever way they wanted. And they could hide behind a twitter handle. No one would know.

At the time, I was also involved in ongoing discussions and reading concerning communications rights. I was preparing for the WCC assembly, where the theme was “A Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace” and communications rights seemed to be a fitting sub-theme. After all, how could such an ambitious movement avoid communication rights?

Upon reflection, was it possible that all these people on the subway, their heads buried in the glow of their smartphones, were experiencing communications freedom, communications rights?

In fact, were the discussions about communications rights mute now, because of the global proliferation of smartphones?

In 2016, after departing the WCC and returning to the United States, I was afforded the privilege of spending a week with young communicators, mostly from the Caribbean, in Jamaica. We talked about communications rights, peace journalism and storytelling.

It became clear that while the proliferation of smartphones had continued unabated, there were still questions of communications rights. Why is that? Had the promised “citizen journalism” failed? Isn’t the smartphone the most liberating communication tool of the 21st century? After all, in the palm of your hand sits an image-creating, sound-gathering and video-production machine, or a really tiny typewriter keeping the word mightier than the ... well ... smartphone, and most importantly, a broadcast tool through Twitter, Instagram, etc.

If so, why was there a week of discussion about communications rights? Why are there still the communication haves and have nots? Who rules the message? Who is the messenger? And the voices we hear, are they authentic? Do they represent us, or them, or who?

And who rules the airwaves?

As the fellowship of the WCC continues on its Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace toward its 11th Assembly, the issue of communication rights remains as pertinent and crucial today in the age of the smartphone, as during the closing of the 10th Assembly when the gates of the pilgrimage were opened.

The smartphone is an amazing communications tool. Simply amazing. I love it and still aspire to produce my first documentary composed completely with a smartphone, with its anamorphic lens, Sennheiser microphone, Luma editing tool, and a full array of tools literally at my finger tips.

At the same time, I am certain that communication rights are as important as ever, despite the smartphone. And perhaps as trampled upon as ever.

On the pilgrimage, communication rights mean dignity, the joy of one’s voice being heard, the gift of sharing one’s story, and access to the communications means and venues for reaching one’s audience.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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