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Pappa? Varför håller du telefonen mot huvudet?

(Dad? How come you hold your phone to your head?)

In his article, Anders Mildner offers lots of examples of how children take on new touch screen based communication technology – such as smart-phones and tablets/pads. Very young children learn how to swipe and try to practise their skills on all sorts of screens, e.g. TV:s. The take digital interactivity for granted and expect to find it in any object.* Older kids treat mobiles primarily as the small computers they really are – thus the question above. And they tend to interpret earlier technologies in terms of the ones they are used to. A father tries to explain to his son that he has burnt a CD that now contains a number of tunes. The son:

Cool! A Spotify list that you can bring along!

The examples Mildner brings up call for an in-depth discussion on the materiality of artefacts in relation to socialization and social interaction, a discussion that will have to wait until later. They also work as illustrations to the discussion in Ubicomp and social media (2 parts). Those of you who are comfortable with Swedish are recommended to read Mildners article! You can also read Ubicomp and social media (part 1).

* Those little kids would be pleased with the lamp I saw in a designer’s shop the other day: By swiping its surface one could not only turn it on and off but also control the intensity of light!

Sofa, TV, pod and pad – settings of ubiquitous sociality

In part 1 of this article – posted last summer – the basic idea was that these days ubiquitous computing is realized through the explosive commercial development of gadgets with screens of all sizes. Potentially anywhere, we have access to computer power and Internet connections via a tab, a pad or a board (to use Weiser’s terms). When linking ubicomp in this widespread form with human communication and social media, one becomes aware of sociality as an ever-present phenomenon. Is then ubiquitous sociality an interesting term – and what does it imply as a daily life phenomenon? Has ubicomp finally found its purpose within social media – and in unrestrained socializing at the watering holes of the public realm or in the nooks and crannies of home?

Beep – e-mail to read. Video call on TV, mobile as remote. Pad as calculator when checking accounts on computer. Eager little signals on phone reveal social rush, check Facebook on computer screen. Watch video on TV in sofa, on pad in bed, on phone in kitchen. Download music on computer. Read on laptop in café, in bed. Text on phone in bathroom. Iconic body language on platform reveals intense chatting, or mailing, or texting. Charging phones, pods and pads. Video call on pad. Music on phone, pod, pad. Ding-a-ling – status updates on Facebook. Program HD recordings using pad. Watch movie on desktop screen in office chair. Chat on phone, in metro, continue on laptop in sofa. Streaming music on phone. Watch TV on TV, on laptop in train or in waiting room. Make phone calls on mobile, at home, at bus stop, at work. Tiiing – more e-mails to check. Update status, on phone, on pad, in sofa. Checking TV-shows on laptop, watching TV. Chat on TV, watching TV on laptop. Ti-ding – text message. Download article on pad. Frenetic phone melodies in bus indicate anticipation of workday, indicate homecoming rituals.

Everywhere: screens of all sizes

In part 1, I reminded the reader about Marc Weiser’s three types of ubicomp devices: tabs, pads and boards presented some 15 years ago. Today, such devices are spreading everywhere, now termed pods or smart phones, pads (as Weiser suggested) and large screens (rather than boards). Obviously, Weiser was clever to anticipate the tools necessary to have access to computing power and, more importantly, networks of communication. The touch sensitive screen of the pod or smart phone is now is available on pads and will perhaps – at least for certain contexts of group interaction – be a feature even of large screens. In January 2012, according to what the press reports, the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas seems to confirm the present focus upon screens. Mobile phones that some years ago where shrinking to sizes only children with very small fingers could handle are now growing again, to allow for a reasonably large and user friendly touch screen. The market seems to be overflowing with pads of all sorts. And television (although very slowly) is merging with computing. New types of screens are introduced and new ways of controlling the TV using voice and gestures wants to replace the remote.

The bottom line of this is spatial: There is a screen for every occasion and place, which means that social media are endowed ubiquitous accessibility. Since just a few years, our network of connections now may follow us from the office desk or factory floor to the bus stop or train station to the café to the grocery and finally to the living room sofa, kitchen table or bedroom. A few years ago, Mimi Sheller wrote about the mobile phone user: “He or she is holding in abeyance a wide range of ‘absent presences’, with whom a conversational coupling might easily be established” (Sheller 2004). And similiar to the people of Balliemenone, we tend to leave the digital door ajar for anyone of our closer or more distant friends to sneak in, almost at any time of the day.

The word social media – just like e.g. meeting-place – is definitely a tautology. What is media if not social? What is place if not where to meet? For some reason, we need such expressions that sort of repeat their own purport. Obviously social media refers to being social one-to-one in contrast to the one-to-many socialization of mass media. However, such one-to-one interactions are staged so that all members of a network of friends are aware of them going on, thus “social” also connotes a common (many-to-many) sphere for the interplay one-to-one. Combined with mobile communication tools, social media also refers to the phenomenon of incessant social intercourse without the involvement of a central distribution apparatus.

What then is there to understand about ubiquitous sociality? Firstly that the expression could be used for ancient practices of sociability as well as for those involving mobile communication technologies. Basically it represents the ever presence of the (relevant) world of social connections. But today, spatial proximity as a prerequisite has been replaced by mediated accessibility. Secondly that the intermediaries of social interaction, the non-human actants involved, have existed as long as there has been “culture”. However, little by little we have left old actants behind and found new ones. In the Ballymenone of Henry Glassie, we are strangers since long ago. The door still is there as word and form, but means something different. No longer do we know that the door should always be left ajar to let neighbours discretely sneak in. And the neighbours no longer have time to visit and sit for hours by that smoking fire. Perhaps the peat fire still glows, but now it does something else to us. Artefacts have travelled in time and forgotten there proper places. Humans have also changed. Thirdly, and this can just as well be said at once, place or space do not disappear or dissolve as a result of speed or mediated real time interaction or absent presence. With ubiquitous sociality based upon mobile communication technologies, however, certain new practices of räumen (making room or place-making) are introduced.

Ubiquitous sociality: mobilizing communities

Such new socio-spatial practices are already well-known to most of us. The majority of my posts in this blog refer to them one way or the other. However, lately I have felt an urge to delve deeper into certain practices that more intensely than others create contexts of mutual social interaction. I have a suspicion that, contrary to the widespread criticism, the use of mobiles in public space promotes community rather than privacy. As I wrote in “Lunching alone… or?”, mobile chats in the public do not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities to take place in urban rooms. Mobile communities exist and are reproduced via meetings face-to-face and mediated interaction equally. And public space today is just as much about switching between such contexts as about the classic encounters between strangers.

Perhaps it seems a bit awkward to speak about “media” in contexts of face-to-face communication as I do above. Normally, media involves the use of some kind of machinery that conveys signals. However, to be able to relate ancient practices to those of today, the original kinds of interaction based upon sounds, words, bodily gestures, face expressions etc should be seen as an extremely long-lived system of sociality that the social media of today in certain senses seem to replace. According to ANT (actor-network theory) it is also clear that non-human actants are involved in such primary interaction as “mediators”, even within face-to-face reach. In the world of an Amazon tribe or even in the Ballymenone of Henry Glassie, (almost) all the people one needed to know were available in close distance. And their interaction involved the interplay with material objects and structures. In a globalized world, the corresponding group of people sooner or later are spread out over the planet. Social media – and the communication tools required – in a clever way re-collects this group and makes it virtually present anywhere there is an internet connection.

I remember my spontaneous reactions when reading about Ballymenone for the first time: The whole idea of friends and neighbours coming and going all the time provoked my sense of privacy. I had fantasies about being invaded, of loosing control. For me, this relaxed rural tableau carried strong overtones of frustration. But now it seems that history in an ironic way repeats itself. I am sitting here, in my sofa, watching a movie on TV, and checking Facebook on my iPhone whenever I hear that ding-a-ling.

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Sheller, M (2004): Mobile publics: beyond the network perspective. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol. 22, pp 39-52.

For references, see also Ubicomp and social media (part 1).

Telework Today

A recent study conducted by YouGov and researcher docent Torbjörn Lundqvist at Institutet för framtidsstudier (Institute for Future Studies) shows that, in spite of the development concerning information technology, teleworking continues to stay at a low level in Sweden. The main reasons seem to be managers lack in trust, especially in female employees, and a conservative workplace culture based upon visual control.

Contrary to predictions made already 20 years ago, a very small percentage of today’s workforce are teleworkers. In the studies I made in the late 90ies, lack of efficient technology still seemed to be a hindrance, on top of traditions and conservative workplace organisations. Today, with all necessary information technology available to reasonably low costs, we know that it was never a question of technology. According to a Swedish study, the amount of teleworking or distributed work still remains low. A lot of factors seem to get in the way: suspicious bosses, jealous colleagues, homes without peace and quiet (and perhaps open designs), lack of fantasy and flexibility, no trust in one’s own ability to stay focused, gender-biased prejudice etc. For an academic, the opportunity to share work-time between home and department is self-evident since ages. New information technology just makes it easier and, hopefully, more efficient. Academic work builds upon personal responsibility. It is always the results – research or teaching – that counts. This kind of trust in the employees’ ability still seems to be lacking in the corporate world.

Obviously, today’s workplace cultures are built up around a strong definition of the place of work as central for cooperation and productivity. For others than one person consultant firms, teleworking seems to disturb an aimed at face-to-face spatiality. Bosses rely on the illusion of visual control: They are satisfied as long as their employees are present and (appearing to) doing their work.

However, teleworking could be used to enhance flexibility, e.g. allowing workers to begin their days with a couple of hours at home, then going to work after the rush-hour. Rules can be made about hours of mandatory presence and availability for informal and formal meetings.

The gender bias concerning managers’ willingness allowing men and women work outside the workplace is interesting. Are women to a larger degree suspected to letting children and home getting in the way of paid work? Just like in so many other contexts, the winner is a white middle aged middle class man (like me).

The study concludes that teleworking is not for everybody. Lots of jobs still demand the physical presence of workers, especially within the low-wage service branch, within industrial, construction, transportation and maintenance work etc.

The futuristic expectations of the early 90ies still are waiting to be fulfilled. But why should we work more from home or from other places outside the workplace? One practical reason is more daily life flexibility. Another is to diminish commuting or spreading the travels to work to non rush-hours. A third is that today’s open offices do not function well for tasks that requires concentration and quiet. Still the conventional workplace offers a safe haven for work, socially and culturally, with set expectations and codes of conduct. We can talk about the power of place here: the workplace embodies well established networks of relations between people, artefacts and built structures. The conventional workplace is hard to beat.

The other day I got my new iPhone 4S. Since its short swim this summer, the old one has been a bit erratic now and then. Now it is no longer a phone, so much is clear, as my phone number has been taken over by its successor. I can’t use it for texting. But what about all the other functions? The question is: Does it have a chance of a second life, as a pensioner, indoors or within the range of WiFi coverage? I can still use it to search the internet, to play Angry birds and as a remote for the TV. After having set time and date manually, I can update the apps. Now the calendar works too. And I can listen to music, downloaded or streaming. I can access Facebook and check e-mail. As far as I can see, what we have got here is a fully functional iPod Touch.

But then again, why would I use it? I have got all those functions in my new iPhone, too.

The man behind the world as we know it

16 June 2011
Östen Mäkitalo, one of the pioneers of mobile telephony is dead. He is seen as the father of the NMT system and considered one of the most important inventors of the mobile phone.

In Sweden, the NMT network was recently closed down. However, the infrastructure is now used by Net1, promising telephone and internet coverage in virtually the entire country.

Swedish mobile and internet provider Telia have spent what must be a considerable part of their marketing budget on a quite silly campaign about “internet free zones”. The subtext here is of course that the internet is available where ever you want via mobile broadband, and that some of us needs a relief once and again. However, not even in the Nordic countries, this is true. Actually, half of Sweden is an internet free zone. The frustrations experienced by Swedes on holiday, though, seem harmless compared to those of 1 ooo Brits answering a recent survey about their “digital lives”.

For those how are lucky enough to have a vacation worth mentioning, summer is a time for travelling and perhaps leaving the well-known trajectories of daily routine for less familiar territories. Such travel sometimes lead to places far from the crowded and pulsating metropolitan districts, places where mobile communication infrastructure is deficient or completely missing. Many of the places people of the Nordic countries like to visit for their vacations actually are “internet free zones”* The coverage map below shows that more than half of Sweden (white and yellow** on the map) are internet free zones

However, by this term, Telia, a Swedish mobile network provider, means something completely different.

Förlåt. Nu är det enklare än någonsin att vara maximalt uppkopplad. Därför bygger vi just nu ett antal internetfria zoner som du kan besöka i sommar för maximal avkoppling – om du tycker det blir för mycket av det goda. (We must apologize. Now it is easier then ever to stay wireless to the maximum. That is why we build a number of internet free zones this summer to visit for relaxation – if you get too much of the good.)

Ok, this quote reveals a misunderstanding. In my experience, it is the lack of internet and telephone access that is stressful. The experience of data taking tens of minutes to download – if at all possible. And phone calls that just disappear. Internet free zones, dear Telia, should be a matter of not adding to and improving the mobile network. Telia has quite an interesting definition of accessing the internet “where ever you want”. If it was not for the arrogance, this would almost be fun.***

Lotta Sahlin, obviously an ordinary Swedish woman-with-grown-kids blogger, chaffs about Telia’s idea of internet free zones. She is already living in one! She complains that she cannot access the mobile internet in her summer house. She cannot even trust the mobile phone, e.g. in emergency situations. The answer she gets from Telia is that there are plans for network expansions around her location. Hmm, it seems that Telia is working hard to eradicate those relaxing no connection zones.

I have similar frustrating experiences from my summer vacations in a small village in a densely built-up region in Southern Sweden. The summer time annoyance of quite privileged but still grumpy middle-class people may not be such a big deal (“a welfare state nuisance”). However, it points out a wider and more general question.

Because now British research reveals that people are emotionally dependant on communication technology:

• 53% of Brits feel ‘upset’ when deprived of internet connection
• 40% of people surveyed feel ‘lonely’ when not able to go online
• Challenge of 24 hours without digital devices described as ‘nightmare’

The study was a survey of 1 ooo Brits of ages between 18 and over 65 with questions about their “digital lives” including how they use the internet, smart phones and other devices.

The project also involved qualitative research, including challenging participants to get through one full day without using technology. Giving up technology was considered by some to be as hard as quitting smoking or drinking, while one survey participant described it as ‘like having my hand chopped off’ and another called it ‘my biggest nightmare’.

As expected, the result varied between the young and the old. Belonging to the “old” segment, my annoyance when not being able to  go on line is put in perspective by the answers of the young.

Younger people, who tend to be heavier users of social media and text messaging, found giving up technology the most difficult while older people (over-40s) generally coped more easily when cut off from digital connections. Only a minority of those surveyed reacted positively to the prospect of being without an internet connection, with 23% saying they would feel ‘free’.

The problem with this report and similar texts, however, is that the explicit focus is on technologies. Perhaps the full report is more nuanced in this sense, I have not managed to find more than the press release. It is known from other research (e.g. reported here) – not mentioning the daily experiences of people in the mobile-accessed parts of the world – that it is the content that is important: What people one needs to reach, what vital or stimulating information, what services, businesses and bargains. Today life itself, in all its aspects, evolves with the help of phoning, texting and accessing the internet. To be deprived of that is to be bereaved of important areas of life, to fall between the meshes into the region of the para-nodal, an idea developed by Ulysses Meijas. The paranodal is all that goes on between the digitally connected nodes, that is traditional daily social life. Today, those people limited to this region may feel abandoned. And objectively speaking, they are to some extent left out by the rest of us (in my life: a handful of my late fathers friends). The paranodal, I believe, is about the loneliness shortly mentioned above, felt when not being able to (for the young: immediately) getting in touch with friends and family.

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* Internetfria zoner, see Telia (the term is probably copyright protected)

** In my experience, yellow (3G + Edge) means that the internet works poorly or not at all.

*** Ta med dig internet vart du vill med ett mobilt bredband. Vi har abonnemang för alla hastigheter och behov, både för datorn och surfplattan, från 89 kr/månad. Och du kan vara säker på att ha maximal uppkoppling var du än är. Nu dubblar vi dessutom hastigheten på våra 4G-abonnemang! (Bring internet where ever you want with mobile broadband. We have plans for all speeds and needs etc.)

Ubiquitous computing finally finds its purpose

In this text (still under work) I draw parallels between the phenomenon of ubiquitous computing of the 90ies and today’s social media. The general idea, as the title indicates, is that ubiquitous computing has finally found a purpose beyond experimental surroundings and avant-garde office applications: to allow people to be social in a sense that expands over the borders of conventional co-presence. With today’s small communication gadgets, the power of a hundred years of electronic media is set free to invade all spaces of our daily lives. In a certain sense of the word, we live in a time of ubiquitous sociality.

Ubiquitous computing

The term ubiquitous computing was coined in 1988 – more than 20 years ago – by Mark Weiser at PARC, an interesting and broad-minded character. Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) can be described as “a post-desktop model of human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities” (Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28). The idea concerned computer systems becoming available outside the sedentary desktop environment, i.e. digital intelligence being available in any daily life situation.* Typical applications developed were “the dangling string”, a moving string illustrating LAN activity at the office, large touch screens for shuffling information between several participants, benches in public space that communicate by omitting warmth, office lamps glowing stronger when someone enters home etc. Other term for such phenomena are pervasive computing and ambient intelligence.

When I reflect upon these matters, my perspective is first and foremost communication technologies in the contexts of daily life, people’s tech related routines and practises, developing in the western world and with an increasing speed expanding globally, taking surprising new turns. I find it interesting how some technologies immediately are received and adopted by people – by the “multitude” if you wish. Others may seem extraordinarily useful and smart but never manage to attract a wider interest – there is no broader use for them, and thus no market. In a few years, the mobile phone became everybody’s pet in spite of the (mis)understandings of its producers. For many, it quickly became indispensable, especially when on the move and in public space. Since the 80ies video calling has been pictured as the next mayor development within personal communication and still (in spite of Skype etc.) it remains a specialized tool – though extremely useful for the deaf. So, I am not interested in mobile or ubiquitous technologies per se, it is their intertwining with people’s daily lives that fascinates me.

Manuel Castells – one of very few social scientist seriously engaged in analysing the consequences for society of computing – predicted a development of pervasive computing: a new internet-driven networking logic spreading into all contexts and locations of human interaction. “Castells envisages a system where billions of miniature, ubiquitous inter-communication devices will be spread worldwide, ‘like pigment in the wall paint'” (Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28). Since the 90ies, we have for instance seen microcomputers invading our cars, making them easier to handle e.g. in situations of risk but also quite impossible for amateurs to repair.

From an architectural point of view, these ideas should be extremely intriguing. However, very few architects became involved in the development of intelligent buildings and interiors. Building has always been a quite conservative industry and so far engineers have limited their work in this field to develop quite simplistic automation systems (e.g. shutters reacting on sunlight or heath, building security systems etc.) whereas “smart houses” have remained a very limited feature in terms of realized building, perhaps understandable when reading the text referred to just above. This fundamental lack of interest, of broader appreciation and of market demand of building-related ubicomp indeed is interesting and requires a longer analysis.

A very short sketch would look at the world of human-artefact interaction and the “power” bestowed upon things by us through delegation (see for instance this article by Bruno Latour). A similar theme of human involvement with things is central within the continental phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. As humans, we are already part of networks of interaction with things that we sometimes want to ascribe a will of their own. I myself embody a field of intelligence and power to act that is intertwined with the world I inhabit – the window that I open to get some fresh air is part of my network of things. Being quite pleased with this form of interplay that can be mistaken for simple and trivial**, I seldom ask for things to be more proactive or meddlesome. The window “respects” its delicate interplay with me, it is not going ahead, anticipating my impulse. (Rather, I have noticed, it is not only me that gets irritated when things tell me what to do, when and where. Remember that nasty little paper clip in Windows?)

Artefacts – with or without built-in computing power – are social.

Ubicomp and ubisoc

Thus, the development of ubicomp eventually took a completely different direction – the driving force being humans’ unquenchable lust for the social, the means being the exploding electronic industry and its ability to produce and market myriads of attractive and short-lived, smaller and bigger communication devices. Today, mediated interaction is present through these devices: Still via the computer screen (where I sit right now), which now and then represent a pertinent way to access the possibilities of the digital world, but more and more through the small and extremely mobile devices that often lack set places of their own. Ubiquitous computing today not only means that gadgets with computing power are present everywhere, invading our habitats. It is all about content: Relations are continuously mediated here – and there. Relations to friends, relatives, colleagues, instances of society like local and central government or civic movements, media content like radio, television, the internet. Written like this, it sounds overwhelming, but we someway manage to be present in more than one arena at a time or learn to quickly move between them. All corners of home are connected, are potential places for interaction with people near and far.

It interesting to note that Weiser pointed out three types of ubicomp devices. These where:

  • Tabs: wearable centimetre sized devices
  • Pads: hand-held decimetre-sized devices
  • Boards: metre sized interactive display devices.

(Wikipedia accessed 2011-07-28)

Tabs may be micro computers, hidden in trivial objects like cameras or cars but also miniaturized hand-held computers, smart phones, music players or watches: all sorts of “pods”. The next category, pads, have a certain actuality right now. There appeared to be a need for the interactive pad with its touch screen, enabling access to the internet but also a range of other activities more suitable for the writing paper sized screen. Small-sized and light-weight laptops also belongs under the pad heading. Boards still have not become ever present in the sense Weiser seems to mean. The desktop computer screens become larger and larger but are still seldom touch-sensitive. A few interactive whiteboards appear in offices and schools. Television screens have been growing for years and are slowly being integrated with computing and the internet. It is indeed interesting how Weiser, by emphasizing the sizes and scales of these material objects, relates technology to the human body and its spatiality.

If we forget technology for a while, what we have got is ubiquitous sociality. But wait: Does that not remind us about something? What about other times and other habits, life in pre-historic societies that were more or less isolated tribes, where the world was the group of people one was part of and continuously engaged with? What about the medieval town overcrowded with people one just could not avoid. Or life in the countryside of Northern Ireland as described by Henry Glassie in Passing the Time in Ballymenone (1982)***?

There is much that can be said about the history of technology adoption in the settings of human life. Think about the development of books from very few hand-written or hand-printed copies to the pocket books of the 20th century. Think about written letters, the postal system, e-mail and social media. Think about the telephone from the large handset in the hallway to the ever-present mobile phone. Whereas ubicomp was something new when projected in 1988, ubiquitous sociality seems to be an ancient feature of human life. The question is in what ways the ubiquitous communication technologies of today change social life and interaction in terms of content, time and space. How does ubiquitous sociality interplay with human space and with cities and architecture?

Continued in Ubicomp and social media (part 2): Sofa, TV, pod and pad – settings of ubiquitous sociality.

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* I have written about ubicomp from a spatial perspective in the Swedish paper “Kommunikation och rumslighet. Hur informationstekniken förändrar vardagens rum” (1998).

** The greatness of human-artefact interaction can for instance be illustrated by a documentary by Ingela Romare about a worn-out woman who found her way back to life by daily roving her boat: Att ro i utbrändhetens tid. Her relation to the little boat and its oars is not sheerly practical, it involves here whole body and existence. She masters the boat in sometimes difficult weather, but the boat also interacts with her, discretely reminding her what to do. I know from my own experience that things can be very strong and helpful friends.

*** Glassie describes a world of ongoing narratives, of homes with doors that are never allowed to be shut, of people coming and going, collecting around peat fires burning all day long, of solitude only available for people being sick or escaping into the fields now and then. The network of people and artefacts here stands out as being related to a powerful ethics. Perhaps it is more difficult for us to discover the ethics presently developing around our culture of social-material interaction. Door, room and fire. Sofa, TV, pod and pad.

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