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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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In restaurants and squares, concert halls and clubs, individuals and groups are accompanied by their invisible buddies. Mobile chats in the public does not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities to take place in urban rooms.

A young woman in the corner of the Malmö restaurant, having lunch all by herself. But wait, she is talking to someone! She is having a phone conversation, using her earphones and mic. One chat is followed by the next. Even though she speaks Danish, I notice differences between her calls. Her tone of voice and body language disclose the changing statuses of her conversation partners, intimate relations or more formal. Obviously, she is not lunching alone. Parts of her network, perhaps her communities, become present for her at the restaurant table. And I picture, probably falsely, her successive partners, all sitting alone at other restaurants, enjoying her company.

It is a bit strange though, that her voice comes out clear over all other ongoing conversations. Is she just talking louder than everybody else – or does her voice carry through some kind of “filter” that turns most of the chats into mere murmur?

Perhaps I am the only one noticing this situation. Today, an event like this does not attract much attention. And that, in itself, is interesting. The presence in public space of invisible buddies and partners is more or less taken for granted.

 

Any time and anywhere, the mobile phone user can log into global communication systems and interact with people in remote locations, Mimi Sheller writes. “He or she is holding in abeyance a wide range of ‘absent presences’, with whom a conversational coupling might easily be established” (Sheller 2004). In restaurants and squares, concert halls and clubs, individuals and groups are accompanied by their invisible buddies. Mobile chats in the public do not simply connote privatisation. Rather it is a way for communities – or tribes, to use Michel Maffesoli’s term – 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 (Sheller ibid.) as about the classic encounters between strangers.

 

Maffesoli,M (1995/1988): The Time of the Tribes. The decline of individualism in mass society. London, Thousand Oaks, California & New Dehli: Sage.

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

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Recently, the PTS (the Swedish Post and Telecom Agency) published statistical figures representing significant crossings of curves describing the use of mobile ICT in Sweden. The number of text messages (SMS) now exceeds the number of phone call minutes. And people in Sweden now spend more time talking on their mobiles than on their fixed phones.

A few years ago, we learned that the global urban population had reached a level where it exceeded that of the countryside. In spite of the lacking exactness of the statistics supporting this proclamation, it symbolizes an important development in the world. This point in time is set at the crossing of two curves: one representing the diminishing rural population and and the other the growing number of people living in cities. Even if certain hybrids are conceivable – commuting being the most important – city or country is by and large an either/or predicament.

The uses of mobile ICT:s on the contrary are more often related to complementarity than to substitution [1]. The curves put forward by the PTS [2] represent the relative quantities of use of certain communication technologies and lack the strong historical significance of global urbanization. They point, however, at interesting trends concerning how communication media are adopted by people in daily life, in ways that increase their mobility.

According to PTS, “during 2009 more SMS were sent than call minutes were
made from private mobile subscriptions”. Texting has been growing rapidly, now to become the most frequent way of communicating via cell phones, and this in spite of the fast growth of mobile phone calls. Estimations by the PTS suggest that in Spring 2010, the use of the mobile (measured in minutes spent on the phone) exceeded the use of fixed phones. Also, the number of mobile broadband subscriptions is rapidly increasing, whereas the growth of fixed broadband has stagnated.

Text messages vs phone calls

It is fascinating that the popularity of texting is still growing in Sweden, a country where SMS messaging was adopted quite early. Among the advantages of texting are the possibilities to send or receive messages in situations where phone calls are inappropriate, as well as to delay answering until the time and place is right. The shorthand style of expression may also be seen as an advantage by those who want to avoid long conversations.

Total number of outgoing calls, traffic minutes, SMS and MMS for private subscriptions in mobile networks

However, one cannot just compare the number of phone call minutes with the number of text messages. A telephone call is a dialogue with at least a question and a reply. It should be compared with an SMS conversation. If we estimate the number of such dialogues by dividing the figures for SMS by let’s say 2 (question + answer), texting still has a long way to go.

Mobiles vs fixed phones

The estimation that people in Sweden now use cell phones more often than fixed ones probably does not surprise anyone. It rather confirms a common impression that the mobiles are taking over and the fixed phones are on their way out. But there is more to be found here that what first meets the eye. Actually, the development of telephone use seems to be a case of substitution. According to the PTS graphs, the use of fixed phones is diminishing at the same rate as the use of cell phones is increasing, whereas the total time used for phone calls remains more or less the same. Thus, the mobile is taking over time hitherto spent on fixed telephones.

Outgoing traffic minutes from fixed and mobile telephones (PSTN means traditional telephones whereas fixed telephones also include IP based telephony)

The hidden drama behind these seemingly trivial figures concerns the potential change of setting. The data themselves reveal nothing about where phone calls are made. In the case of fixed telephones, we can assume that most of them are carried out indoors, preferably at home or at work. Mobile phones, on the contrary, are used anywhere: at home, at work, but also in public space and on the go. So what we have is the quantitative manifestation of certain new conditions of everyday life, the very conditions of mobility that set people free from their dependence upon the base camps – or the fixed places – of their day.

The world of ubiquitous connectivity

There used to be a time and place for making phone calls. In Swedish homes, the telephone traditionally had its place in the hallway. Later on, extensions to e.g. the bedroom offered some individual privacy. When outside their homes or work places, people were inaccessible by phone. As we know, the mobile changed all that.

Much later, certain settings were forbidden or inappropriate for mobile calls. In the classroom, in church, in a hospital ward or during a concert, making a phone call meant breaking strong taboos. In others, for instance shops, waiting rooms, buses and trains, phone conversations could lead to irritation. Callers could be seen looking for the right niche for making calls without disturbing or being disturbed. Texting, to a certain degree, has changed that.

The ongoing development is of course in favour of mobility. In this world of ubiquitous connectivity,  the airplane [3], absurdly enough, remains a haven, free from mobile interaction. And, of course, so does the far off wilderness, where the number of presumptive customers is to low to make the building of antennas lucrative. But only so far.

The fixed, stable and place-bound in communication is substituted by the fluid, changing and mobile. Today, information technology is less than ever a restraining factor for mediated interaction. However, in the world of fast and continuous accessibility, the heavy materiality and physical inertia of human daily life still exists.

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[1] Thulin, E & Vilhelmson, B, 2009: “Mobile Phones: Transforming the Everyday Social Communication Practice of Urban Youth”. In: Ling, R & Campbell, SW, The Reconstruction of Space and Time. Mobile Communication Practices. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

[2]
PTS press release 2010 about mobile broadband and SMS

The Swedish Telecommunications Market 2009 – PTS-ER-2010:13

(The diagrams are borrowed from this report)

Abstract Full report

[3] Yes I know, it’s on its way. American Airlines and others already have “inflight internet” on select flights.

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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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Cell phones appear ever so often in fiction movies these days. Still, it is hard to deny that the vast majority of fiction movies depict but a small segment of the living conditions of our world. So much more interesting, then, when the mobile phone appears in a documentary – in the hands of Alisher, a young migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan trying to make his living in Moscow.

Alisher on the train to Moscow

Alisher on the train to Moscow

Long Distance Love is a beautiful, sad but not entirely pessimistic movie about having to leave ones home and family and go to the big city to look for a job, a reality shared by millions. This quiet drama has a love story in its focus but it is simultaneously about conditions that can be described as “modern slavery and global injustice”.

We estimate that there are today approximately 12–16 million guest workers in Russia who support themselves with low-paid jobs. Most of them come from the Central Asia countries, where unemployment rates are enormous. (Natalja Vlasova, Head of the Russian Department of Migration.)

Alisher is newly married but has to leave his pregnant wife to earn a living for her and the family. As there are no jobs available where he lives, he has look for work in Moscow. He is not paid well, but also tempted to spend the little he earns in bars. Very little money is sent home.

What keeps him from complete disaster, it seems, are the signs of life from Dildora, his young wife. There are several emotional episodes of reading a letter, talking on the phone or receiving text messages. Especially one text message, received on a night downtown, is a strong reminder about his responsibilities for his wife and child. Alisher feels ashamed for not answering texts from Dildora, who worries about him and their future.

I will not disclose how Long Distance Love continues. See it, not for the details of mediated interaction, but for its remarkable take on living conditions in a globalised world.


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As a digital flâneur I have one very interesting relationship to time and place: I can stay physically fixed but still be mentally mobile through the internet. I can also be the opposite: mentally fixed through the use of my cell phone but be physically mobile.

The quote is from a travelogue written by a student and based upon her experiences from travelling in front of the computer. She performed her task as a dérive, using a series of movements on Manhattan as a scheme for travels in Stockholm, all by means of maps and other information available on the internet.

What she brings forward here are two very different ways of relating to concrete and virtual space in contemporary life. The first one can be expanded to all opportunities of staying in one place – for instance at home – and using available means of virtual or fantasised travel, from printed to electronic media. The second opportunity not only includes using the mobile to stay in touch with friends and family members when on the move, but all ways used by travellers to maintain networks of stable relations.

Her quote brings me back to a text I wrote some years ago on daily movements in housing environments. In the paper “Spaces of flow and coincidence“, I introduced the two extremes of the (computer) nerd and the (digital) nomad as representatives of ways of relating to the world in “information society”. They were sketched as ideal types and based upon very little empiric evidence apart from what was reported and debated by the media at that time. The idea was to put a new light upon community – in the sense of settlement – to acknowledge all the opportunities of social intercourse that go beyond local encounters face to face. Such modes of interaction were regarded as non-contributing to the creation and upholding of local social contexts.

It is still possible that the “nerd” and the “nomad” in some sense are relevant as ideal types in the sense that they refer to actual behaviour among groups of people. We all notice that some people around us actually tend to stay in front of their computer screens and others are always out, making use of their mobiles.

But more interesting are the opportunities (suggested in the quote above) to shift between states of being bodily static or moving and being mentally stationary or mobile. This way of putting it actually offers four opportunities, or four modes of combining travelling and staying.

static-mobile

Square 1 is applicable upon all sorts of place-bound relationships where interaction occurs between corporeally present people and communication via media play a limited role. Square 2 refers to the digital nomad, being on the move but still – by way of mobile communication tools – maintaining her or his social network. Just like nomadic tribes used to bring along their communities on their seasonal moves, the digital nomad is constantly in touch with friends and family. In square 3 we find for instance the hacker, the computer nerd or anyone who spends a lot of time in front of the computer, for instance armchair travel by way of internet. Square 4, finally, represents a condition of hybrid mobility when for instance wireless internet is used to navigate mentally, while simultaneously travelling in a physical sense – or when mobile phones are used to communicate within changing networks of people constantly on the move.

The reason for making this diagram is to sort out different possibilities of movement and stillness in the information society. However there are non-mediated variants of all four options. Storytelling or reading is a way of armchair travelling without using television or internet (3). Even hybrid mobility is an opportunity without electronic media just by bringing a travel book when going by train or air (4). Taking one’s family on a trip by car is in a way staying while travelling – and commuting sometimes means joining a relatively stable group of fellow travellers or even workmates (2).

Is this at all interesting? For me, the mobile phone represents the second square – being on the move without losing contact with the base camp – be it home or any other inhabited location. But the graph suggests the prospect of (more or less) abandoning the base and instead interacting with a fluctuant set of mobile contacts (4). Mobile communities are (temporarily) stabilised by the ever-present capacity of keeping in touch offered by the cell phone, of interacting while roaming. We still need somewhere to stay and to meet, but the communities we are involved in are becoming less and less dependant upon those fixed places.

Now I am going to a café where I have never been before to see a person that I know only via e-mail and internet.

Reference

Jennie Boija: “A Cyberflâneur’s Travel Guide”. Unpublished paper, 2008

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