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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.

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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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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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At the local cafe. Warm like in summer. People talking on their phones – and F2F. A light scent of cigarette – we are seated outdoors. Contemporary normality. Using my iPhone to write an entry about almost nothing. So this is what it will be like – the summer of the iPhone.

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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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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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Vancouver not only looks like a small town, it also has the atmosphere of one. People I met, for instance walking in a park, now and then nodded or said Hi! When leaving the bus, it is common to shout a loud “thank you” to the driver. Vancouverites also like to join ongoing conversations on the bus or in in the Skytrain. Standing at a street corner reading a map is a certain way of getting helpful questions like “Excuse me, are you lost?”  (No, I did not say: Well I would be without this map!) On the Seabus, a man asked us if we were from Denmark and apologized when we told him we were Swedish. It appeared that he had even visited Malmö!

Well, there is downtown - but apart from that "The City of Glass" feels like a small town.

Well, there is downtown of course - but still Vancouver often feels like a small town!

Vancouver seems to have a more cordial public atmosphere than for instance the much smaller Malmö. It would be foolish to jump to the conclusion that this difference has something to do with the public use of cell phones.  However, one does not see cell phones utilized in the streets as often as in Malmö. One explanation could be that people in Vancouver are more discreet – but also more keen on public face to face engagement. A simpler reason is that the percentage of mobile phone ownership is quite low in Canada (65% – lower than Argentina, Uruguay, USA and Venezuela) compared to Sweden (110% – obviously not so few people here have more than one cell phone). The more expensive pricing of telecommunications in North America may be an additional reason.

viewApart from this experience of a lower frequence of use, I did not detect any patterns of handling mobile phones that where different from those I have noticed in Malmö and elsewhere. For instance, take the man occupying the best view over the city with his loud conversation, on a beautiful night in Queen Elisabeth Park. Or the young woman, nervously checking her text messages at the bus stop. Not talking loudly, but still clearly expressing her tension.

girlShould not a friendly and helpful Vancouverite blend into his loud-voiced talk? Or ask what worries her? Of course not, the public use of mobiles represent something other than friendly face to face interaction among strangers.  Like everywhere else, phone users in Vancouver are untouchable, existing outside the realm of street cordiality.

As a tourist for a couple of weeks, I really enjoyed the friendly atmosphere in Vancouver. But the visit also made me more aware about the possible effects of the kind of absence from public space that comes with mobile phones.

Read:

Coupland, D (2000): City of Glass. Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver. Douglas & Macintyre.

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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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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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