Think smartphones push men to become multi-tasking masters of the universe? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to world domination: mobile devices collided with the female race, giving way to technology that will impact culture for years to come.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Research published in Scientific Reports waded through millions of texts and phone calls to map out how close, intimate relationships vary over a lifetime. The study, which offers rare and wide-reaching evidence of communication patterns, revealed women use mobile devices to drive personal relationships and cement generational family connections, possibly indicating society is increasingly shaped by female forces.
Women Drive Romantic Relationships, Not Men
The study found a woman’s main contact during her 20s is most often a man, and the same is true about men with similarly-aged women. But the frequency of the communication suggests women value pair-bonding more than men and serve as the driving force in solidifying the partnership, possibly biologically to serve as the basis for stable reproduction.
“It’s the first really strong evidence that romantic relationships are driven by women,” said Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, to BBC News.
Men show a much more consistent pattern. While the male’s devotion, measured in number of calls and texts to a similarly-aged woman, wanes slightly after seven years and the number of his contacts expands to include friends, the original female connection remains dominant.
But Then, As Women Get Older…
For women, though, something a little unexpected happens around the age of 45. After about 15 years, the primary male contact gets replaced by a much younger female, presumably a daughter, and it is this person who receives most of the calls and texts.
The researchers suspect the female pattern reflects women forging strategic social ties, focused on the mate during the reproductive years and then shifting to children, particularly female offspring, later in life — just in time to foster the next generation.
“What seems to happen is that women push the ‘old man’ out to become their second best friend, and he gets called much less often and all her attention is focused on her daughters just at the point at which you are likely to see grandchildren arriving,” Dunbar noted.
According to the Oxford professor, the data suggests important relationships at their core are those between women and not between men — a revelation the professor concludes is evidence that human societies are moving away from a patriarchy and towards a matriarchy.
Echoes in Developing Nations
A quick glance around the globe underscores women’s growing awareness that mobile devices can fuel greater equality by granting them a better sense of connection. But as women access cell phones, particularly in developing countries, they face government and societal backlash in the form of attempts to limit this access.
For example, last year an Afghan man beat his wife when he discovered she smuggled home a cell phone. The 24-year-old victim explained her very traditional husband and his family are against mobile phones for women.
The Kabul women’s plight highlights how cell phones can be life-changing lines to independence and self-sufficiency, connecting them to banking services to free them from the dangers of carrying cash, texting when community resources like water taps are open or sending instructions about prenatal and new baby care.
In countries where access isn’t as central an issue, there are often cultural barriers. For example, over in India, the Punjabi State Commission for Women asked newly married women to cut down on cell phone conversations to save their marriages.
“Talking over mobile is a very serious issue,” said Gurdev Kaur Sangha of the PSCW. “Many cases have come to me where a boy and his family members think that the girl is talking to another man over the phone and they want divorce. This also led to domestic violence.”
In traditional, patriarchal Indian society women go to live with their husband’s family after marriage, but cell phones threaten this ancient pattern of life. Previously, women, who had great difficulty traveling home, were forced to bond closely with their new family, but now they can keep up strong connections to their family of origin with mobile phones.
Access and cultural tensions will continue to affect cell phone adoption by women around the world, but it is nearly certain forces beyond women themselves will help the numbers climb. For the wireless industry, signing up 600 million female subscribers in the developing world by 2014 could boost industry revenues by $29 billion a year, according to GSMA.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Also Holds the Mobile Phone
“If you look at hunter-gatherers and you look at modern humans in modern post-industrial societies, we are much more matriarchal. It’s almost as if the pendulum between the two sexes, power-wise, is swinging [back] as we move away from agriculture toward a knowledge-based economy,” says Dunbar.
Gender and societal structure is often a hot-button subject, but many anthropologists agree with Dunbar that society is shifting to a female-dominated model, in terms of power and movement in communities.
The issue isn’t so much what gender “rules,” but rather what type of forces — notions of hierarchy, building consensus, and ideals associated with masculine and feminine traits — have the greatest impact in shaping culture. After all, there are boundless examples, in the form of queens and other leaders, where women ruled a male-ordered society.
Many anthropologists argue that most human societies are male-dominant on the basis of who moves where for marriages and families. In most communities, men stay where they are born, while the wives move, a feature dominant in agriculturally-based societies. But as the Indian example illustrates, women’s ability to keep up familial connections with mobile phones, even when she is physically removed from her family in these structures, can threaten that very organization.
The study’s conclusion challenges the idea that male-male relationships are more productive and prominent. Instead, evidence gleaned from mobile phones indicates the reversal: the diminishing strength of the patrilineal form of human social organization — where son passes on power, assets and property to son, along the male line — as well as the rise of mother-daughter relationships, which will play a particularly important role in structuring human social relationships.
About the Study
The results came from analysis of more than three million Europeans’ mobile phone calls and texts over a seven month period. The cell phone records were instrumental in tracking personal relationships across the entire lifespan, since this kind of anthropological analysis often takes years to complete, or includes too small a sample to be significant. The sheer volume of mobile phone data offered researchers the ability to see patterns by age and gender in a relatively short time frame to get a big picture of the shifting nature of social ties.
Summarizing the most recent research, Dunbar says, “What this looks like to us is a strategic investment in social capital on the part of women that men just don’t do. You have a limited amount of time, effort and emotion that you can invest in your relationships, and women tend to invest very heavily in single individuals,” a strategy which, combined with mobile devices, will likely continue to shape the evolution of human society.