Like everyone else I’ve been utterly fixated by the phone hacking/corruption scandal currently engulfing News International. I won’t go into the revelations themselves here, as there are plenty more qualifies than me to talk about that side of things.
But something (largely irrelevant to the case itself) struck me about it.
Semiotics can often be a tiny but powerful signifier of wider assumptions – telling us as much about what is taken for granted as anything else. In this instance it was the use of the phrase ‘phone hacking’. Like ‘road rage’ it’s something that’s become more tangible since acquiring a label, and then very quickly been adopted by pretty much everyone.
It suggests that people allegedly in NI pay have been breaking in, physically, to people’s handsets.
When of course what they’ve actually been doing is hacking into the mobile network. Using voicemail passcodes private investigators are able to hack into saved messages from any other phone. I admit to not knowing the technical ins and outs fo this, but they’re actually accessing personal accounts held with the network.
What’s interesting is that we quite naturally assign the network’s capability to the device that provides us access to it. The device is somehow more tangible, and certainly more visible – we hold it in our hand, and take it everywhere. It’s the symbol of just how intrusive the NI scandal feels to everyone.
Mobile network operators no doubt feel the pinch of this mis-attribution of device power. People don’t really care about the operative power of the network – that is, until it goes wrong. Then it sucks. And when it does, people feel entitiled to tell everyone.
So user expectations of devices are met with help from the network. And it’s the network that enables the connectivity we all love. It wasn’t the laptop that freed us up to use the web wherever we want in the house, it was wi-fi. But it’s understandable that that the two are conflated – and they’ll become increasingly hard to disentangle as technology and platforms proliferate: the more connected devices we have, and want, the more we’ll need the enabling connectivity.
The idea of ‘the cloud’ is potentially very helpful to operators. It makes the idea of the invisible network somehow more tangible. At the very least it’s a metaphorical reminder that you cannot receive content or information without a method of distribution.