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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.

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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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And now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing.

People are frequently annoyed by all those phone calls going on around them, for instance in public space and public transportation. It is other people’s more or less intimate conversations that one doesn’t want to listen to. But now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing. Here are a couple of observations by a colleague. Thanks!

The first example concerns different perceptions of privacy in the situation:

On the commuter train: A man gets a call. Apparently it is his wife on the phone. She seems to be very angry. “Can we talk about this later”, the man says. But she is angry now and wants to make the most of it. “I don’t think my fellow passengers want to hear this conversation”, he says, trying to calm her down. Finally, the man manages to end the call.

She doesn’t have people around, and in her anger, she is not at all sensitive to her partner’s situation. Had she called in another mood, she might have asked if it was a good time to talk. The phone filters away all those signals that – in full bodily co-presence – stop most of us from quarrelling in the public.

The second example leads to the question: Is the phone-function of the iPhone really a benefit?

On the bus: Two guys are playing games on their iPhones. One of them tells the other about how irritated he was to be interrupted the other day, just when he was about to reach a new high score. It was his girlfriend, calling him on the very same iPhone.

The mobile in your pocket is actually a potential pain in the ass, ready to crush a good mood, a delicate situation. a daydream or a moment of concentration. That is, if you don’t shut it off.

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Telephone both in the old days (photographer unknown).

Arriving at the summer cottage I  discover that I have left my mobile at home. I am immediately beamed back to the days of telephone booths, and find myself driving to the nearest one, only to find that it has disappeared without a trace. Where can one find a phone boot these days? And how do I survive without a mobile?

The weather is nice and I decide to go north to the summer cottage for a couple of days of leisure (read: maintenance work). Arriving there, I  discover that I have left my mobile at home. I am immediately beamed back to the days of telephone booths, and find myself driving to the nearest one, in a seaside settlement of summer houses, actually within reasonable walking distance. The booth is gone, without a trace. Well, not completely. As a phantom itch, the phone is still marked on the neighbourhood information map. OK, going by car was a good choice! I continue to the relatively large farming village a few kilometres inland. Good, just outside the grocery, I spot the telephone sign. But where is the phone booth? “That was long ago!” a friendly local woman tells me. The hunt continues to the nearby small town, but no luck there either. Now my last chance is Båstad, the principal town of the municipality. And there, at last, I find it: A card phone on the tobacconist’s corner of the great supermarket.

Now I can call my partner and tell her I won’t be able to call her.

Later that day, I discover there is another one in Torekov, the fancy seaside resort.

The moral of this story is that there is no turning back. Without your mobile phone, you may discover that there is no phone booth where you need it and that driving is a prerequisite for communicating. Having a mobile is not a matter of choice, it is being part of communicative normality.

“There should be an app for phone booths”, I find myself thinking, just for a short moment.

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Nobody talks about it, no big deal in papers or magazines – or on the net. Now that video calls (using Skype, iChat or whatever) have become technically and practically possible, they have also become completely uninteresting as a topic. Still, I am convinced, there is a revolution going on when cheap real-time remote interaction becomes part of daily routines for people of the on-line world. My speculations are based upon personal experience, but will this subtle revolution in its third phase be taken to the streets?

Well, I am no too surprised by this lack of interest. My experience is that vanguard technologies always get most of the attention. The dynamics of millions of people taking new technologies into use is rarely discussed and poorly understood. Like in the case of mobile telephony, however, the industry is often taken by surprise by the actual use of their products. Video calls or conferencing got a lot of attention ten or fifteen years ago when the technologies were new, but the performance of the networks far from sufficient. Now, when a lot of people (we are still talking about the wired world) have access to broadband internet, these technologies for the first time become really useful.

With my son and his wife in far-off places like France, Canada and Germany, I have had all possibilities to experience the development of video interaction during the last few years. My experiences range from situations where one has to choose between lousy image and staccato sound when chatting to quite excellent image-and-sound conversations.

Video interaction - phase 1 - fixed by the desk

In its first phase, video interaction is a function of powerful desktop computers with a separate web-cam and fixed internet. It is a development from the life on the screen related to written chatting. However, where the traditional phone call involves the ambience of the sound-scape, the video conversation adds visual views which to some part reveal the settings of the people involved. Normally, there is one person in front of each screen and web-cam, but not necessarily so: Sometimes more people want to be part of what is going on and try to push in. In spite of some limitations, video interaction phase one works quite well. One sees the person, his or her mimic, new haircut, shirt, make-up, glasses etc – and the wall behind.  It is quite fantastic to have such conversations with people you have not met AFS (away from screen) for a long time.

video interaction phase 2

Actually, the fixity of the desktop situation is a limitation one really discovers when wireless networks and laptop computers with built-in cameras become involved. Now mobility in a more concrete sense of the word is introduced! Laptops are carried around in a setting while remaining on-line. They are handed over from one person to another and moved from room to room – and used to show the new flat or for absent friends to be part of the party. Video interaction phase two is obviously quite different from phase one. In a treacherous way, it transgresses the simple spatial order of the first phase.

Places and mobilities, OK, but what has this to do with phones? That remains to be seen. The technology is already here (or at least on its way) with phones that have an extra camera for video talks[1], wireless internet in many public places and for some selected urban areas 4G telephony. Question 1: Is video interaction phase three interesting at all for people who already can make phone calls, send SMS messages, update their status on Facebook or Twitter and use all the opportunities of the internet? Question 2: Will the visual component of video interaction be seen as an intrusion upon the (more or less) expected anonymity of urban public space? Question 3: What will the consequences for public space be if  mobile video interaction becomes as common as calling and texting?

So, how will the subtle revolution continue in the streets?

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Footnotes

[1] “People have been dreaming about video calling for decades. iPhone 4 makes it a reality”, Apple says. The new iPhone is not the first phone to have a web-cam, but perhaps it will prove to afford the adequate technology for video interaction phase three.

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Cell phones are certainly nothing new to the village where I like to spend my summers. However this is the first year that I notice them as a sound feature of the rural landscape.

Working in the garden, I hear the loud voice of a woman from afar. It is definitely not a conversation involving two people walking. I distinctly recognize it as one side of a telephone talk. The woman is cycling up the hill, so there is a certain strain in her voice. I don’t really hear the words, but it’s clear she is a local girl. Now she passes on the other side of the hedge. “I’ll be up at the house in a minute”, I hear her panting. Was this a prelude to a conversation later held at home, face to face or over the fixed phone?

Next example, a few days later (this is really a small village and one cannot expect crowds of mobile users): I am burning up old branches and twigs in the very same garden. Another voice, another woman: This one is definitely mid-Swedish, and there is a tinge of public administration and networking in it.  She may be talking to a friend, but it could also be a colleague. Our nice neighbours, the zero-eights1, no more genuine villagers2 than us. Just as she passes behind the hedge, she turns off her mobile and switches3 to F2F-mode: “Hallo, by the way”, she says a bit awkwardly behind the leaves. Talking through hedges is a little uncomfortable even among people that know each other.

“So, what is the point?”, my partner asks, reading the above. “Old village life is long gone and this is how it is now,” she says. “What do you want to prove?”

country road

Uphill, towards the village

I consider the different motives for telling the story. One is my astonishment about this manifestation of change. Perhaps I still see the village through the glasses of my childhood, when Johan and Anna drove by in their two-horse-drawn cart on their way to milk their cows. Or when we were picking potatoes brought up by a sprätt4,  a kind of earth propeller, attached to a grey Ferguson tractor.  I know all that is gone, but obviously there are some rests lurking in my mind. “You’re a sentimental fool”, my partner says.

A second motive was to display two ways in which mobile phone usage appears on a country road. The first woman, who refers to local contexts, may then represent mobility as a parochial phenomenon, whereas the second one stands for a more global mobility. Although this may be correct in the situations described (I admit that even there the evidence is anecdotal), we have no information on how these two people relate to their respective worlds, locally or globally. Still, it is significant if overheard mobile conversations relate to a commonly know context or to the strange regions outside of it.

“What this really is about”, my resident critic continues, “is that you feel uneasy there, behind the hedge, when you do not know whether to say hello or not. There is this unwritten law from the old days that one should always greet passers by and now the use of cell phones has put an end to it.” I guess she has a point there.

1) 08 being the area code of the Stockholm region.

2) Countryside authenticity today, what is it really?

3) Is this a switch in the Harrison White sense, establishing the very spot as a public arena?

4) As a direct translation, ripper is too strong a word, but you get the idea!

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One way of following the spread and acceptance of mobile telephony is to look for how often and in what ways cell phones appear in movies. As parts of a plot or as attributes of characters, cell phones have become so frequent in movies and television series that rather their absence is noteworthy. Still, mobile phones are often skilfully used to signify something or to construct an intricate story-line. Just as fixed telephones were employed as props in older movies, today cell phones are used to enhance the drama in one way or the other.

In fiction movies, the mobile has become a significant object defining a role – by the way it is turned on or off, held, talked on, carried, worn, placed on the table, dropped, forgotten, and by how it looks and sounds. It is a prop used for self presentation and the interaction between the character and her/his phone is sometimes skilfully framed as a drama within the drama. For instance: how does the character react when the phone rings or blips?

Mobiles have also radically changed the plots of detective stories and thrillers. The hero no longer must be contacted via the wired telephone in the favourite bar or restaurant but can be reached anywhere. Mobile phones are examined (by the police or intelligence agencies) in search of phone numbers and contacts. The phone itself is a source of evidence, circumstantial or not, in the form of text messages, numbers called and calls received, images taken and videos recorded – and also fingerprints and DNA. Thanks to roaming, the user of a cell phone can be tracked through the city. The pursuer, however, can be led astray if the hunted person for instance drops the phone on a passing lorry.

A web search that I made recently gave some interesting results. The combination of “cell phone” and “movie” produced a wide range of hits that went beyond what I was looking for. Many refer to the phenomenon of using mobiles to record video and even make films. Others address the nuisance of phone signals and even conversations in movie theatres. Textually.org, a website dedicated to texting and SMS offers a good introduction to most themes, see SMS and The Movies. A sister site, picurephoning.com, covers cell phone video, a phenomenon that has also developed into an art form. But let’s focus on cell phones portrayed in films.

A good introduction is this transcript of a National Public Radio program, covering a range of aspects. The conversation refers to an article by Zachary Pincus-Roth in Los Angeles Times, which explores the intricacies of using mobiles in movie plots. Among other things, he points out the downsides of ubiquitous communication technology. In the Guardian, with respect to such drawbacks, critic Joe Queenan discusses why (like No Country for Old Men) so many dramas and thrillers today are set in the past.

As soon as I started watching the Coen brothers’ dark shoot-’em-up about a philosophical psychopath on the loose in rural Texas, I realised why the movie was set a full quarter-century in the past. No mobile phones. No internet. No Google. No easy access to phone records, maps, personal histories, criminal records. No way to track the killer merely by pinpointing the last phone tower that handled his call. No easy way in; no easy way out.

So, it is not the way cell phones are utilized as attributes to characterise a person that is important here. In that sense, cell phones are no different from Zippos, Volvo P 1800’s and Patek Philippe’s – or worn out shoes, ill fitting suits and rusty pocket knifes. Instead, Queenan pinpoints the specific contemporaneous connectivity that the Coen brothers manage to avoid.

Current technology has fundamental effects on the ways narratives are put together, as long as they are set in the present. The cinema here provides a mirror displaying the ongoing changes in society and in the ways everyday life is enacted. When watching a movie, somehow the absence or presence of sophisticated communication devices – and their consequences for daily life – become a matter of active observation and reflection.

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