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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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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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Young guy on his bike, full speed, on the pavement/sidewalk, on the phone, manages to avoid crashing into us. At the same time, to someone on the phone:

Oh, I see, you are on Bergsgatan! I’m on Amiralsgatan.

That’s mobility for you!

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Bergsgatan and Amiralsgatan are streets in Malmö, Sweden.

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The public use of cell phones is no longer a matter of reflection and wonder.  Their potential of reach – any time, anywhere – has become self-evident. Does anyone still reflect upon the trans-formation of everyday connectivity that the mobiles meant?

Just like this!

The first time I used a mobile was on a field research trip to Eskilstuna, walking on a Fröslunda street. For some reason – not very important, as I remember it – I made a call to my workplace in Lund. It was clear that the department secretary thought the whole thing with cell phones was completely ridiculous. Only yuppies used them. But now, in 1995, the department had purchased one, “for researchers in the field”.

8810A few years later, I got my own. The crucial reason for buying one was the bad standard of regional trains in Skåne. Trains were often delayed and it was really a drag waiting for Pat at the station, with no or lousy information about when the train would arrive or even where it was. Sometimes she would borrow a phone from a fellow passenger. Now we bought a Nokia each. Within-family communication improved. Later I upgraded to a snobbish model in shining metal with a sliding cover.

In Lisbon 1999 (it was during the 25th anniversary of the revolution) preparing an EU project (about teleworking, actually) I found it fascinating to be able to read and send e-mail on my Psion 5 via the cell phone. Charges were directly related to time so the trick was first to write all the e-mails, then connect and send.

6170Texting was not part of our routine, though. It was in 2005, a very turbulent year for me personally, that I understood the benefits of SMS. In our life, texting still is the main type of remote interaction. When on the move, texting is brief and clear, whereas talking is connected to disturbing or being overheard, to background noise and lousy transmission. Texting admits a delay in answering that sometimes is convenient. But when in need for an immediate answer or a longer dialogue, making a call is the only option.

That’s it! None of the functions added to mobiles later had a significant effect on how we live and keep in touch.  Although I do enjoy being able to check the weather or playing with the GPS.

But before the mobile, how did you manage to meet?

The young woman asking this question was dead serious. I was interviewing part of the board of a housing coop in Flemingsberg when I led the conversation into the topic of interaction via cell phones. Me and the other participant, a man of my age, looked at each other. “Well, you see, in the old days…” For the first time, I realized that there is a large portion of humanity (people under let’s say 30 or 40 in the Western world) who find it hard to imagine a life without mobiles. So do I, and most people of my generation. With the exception that now and then we think about the past, and marvel when we reflect upon the changes since the time before the mobile phone.

Tell me what you remember, in English eller på svenska om du föredrar det!

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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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This blog is not dead. It has just had a long vacation. The start of autumn is a good time to refresh the intentions from the beginning of 2008. I will do that by adding a link to a paper I presented at the Architectural Inquiries seminar, arranged by the Nordic Journal of Architectural Research.

The article is primarily based upon a literature study and describes some findings concerning the relations between mobile telephony and urban places. Read Cell Phones and Cities here!

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Asked about how mobile phones change everyday life, a planner compared his own Friday or Saturday nights with those of his sons. When I was young, he said, those nights sometimes could be disasters. You went to all the places where your friends used to go, and no one was there. You could walk around all night without meeting anyone you knew. With my sons it’s completely different! They always seem to know where to go. They keep in touch using their mobiles, and always find where their friends are and where the fun is.

Changes like the one described above, lived through by anyone over 30 but not necessarily comprehended by younger generations, do imply changes in publicness. People who grew up without access to mobile phones, have memories of relations to urban space that were based upon certain places, settings were stumbling upon friends (and others they hoped to make friends with) was probable. For some kinds of meetings within the public, such places were crucial.

A young woman, old enough though to have experienced everyday life without a mobile, told about how to find each other in downtown Karlstad. In the old days we said: Let’s meet in front of Vero Moda (the flashy shop defining the absolute city centre). Now it is just: Let’s call each other when we get downtown!

In the “old” days, cafés, bars, squares, certain streets (like Main Street) and many other places were the interfaces for certain kinds of socializing. They were not only settings for social interaction, but worked as media through which people could be contacted. To some degree, mobile connectivity replaces the role of such public places. Does that mean that there are places that lose their meaning? Obviously people are still getting together in the city. Are their new patterns of meeting developing, that direct people immediately to where things happen; now passing over places that had the function of rendezvous?

On my way to pick up my friend for a night downtown, I happen to hear a young woman, talking on her phone: So what are you guys up to tonight? The negotiations about where and when have apparently started. My friend and I, however, have made our appointment at the railway station at a set time. We go to have some beers and then to watch a movie. Later, we decide to call his woman friend, who is also downtown with a couple of her friends. No reply. We choose to have another beer and then slowly head for the station. Now she calls, a tiny bit worried that he will be late for the train back.

The moral of this story is that mobile coordination doesn’t always work. I don’t know why the woman partner of my friend didn’t answer his call. Maybe there was too much noise, maybe she had turned off her phone.  Had we not relied upon instant mobile connectivity, we would perhaps have decided to meet somewhere during the night. Of course, we had no problem getting together at the station. Railway platforms and timetables are not negotiable.

 

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