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On my walk, a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring, I happen to pass the neighbourhood playground. A number of mothers and fathers are watching over their little ones. By the swings, two young women are busy with their little kids. Or rather: both are talking in their phones and maybe not so busy with their children, just now and then giving them a swing. Their absent minded, mechanical movements contrast sharply to the intensity in their conversations. I continue my afternoon stroll, wondering about what I have just seen.

I notice that my spontaneous reaction is something like: Is that a way to take care of one’s children, just keeping them quiet by this pacifying movement and instead being occupied by the chitchat? My next thought is: What do I know? Maybe both of them have spent the whole day with their kids and right now, just when I pass, both of them happen to get phone calls. In that case, what I see is an exception – and also a good example of multi-tasking.

My first response is undeniably moralizing, but I guess I am not alone. I remember having read indignant letters to the editor about mothers and fathers with prams, listening to music in the headphones or talking in their mobiles. Obviously there is something important to comprehend here. First of all, it is a generation thing. I am old enough to have forgotten all the time spent with children that gave you almost no time think your own thoughts or to talk with other grown-ups. My forgetfulness makes it easy for me to judge, rather than being generous. Second, it’s not just about technology. Parents have always been slightly inattentive to their children now and then, absent-minded or busy working or talking with their peers. Communication technology just makes it more conspicuous.

To continue my speculations, what is really interesting here is the presence of two invisible, absent people. Neighbourhood playgrounds are places where one is expected to be friendly to people who probably live in the same area. The kids are supposed to see other children and, hopefully, start playing with them. And then their parents can have superficial conversations about their children, talks that may or may not lead to some kind of deeper experience. Some people even make new friends at the playground, I have heard. But these two women, it seems, prefer to talk to people they already know, friends or maybe family members, people they trust and really know how to talk with. With the mobile, the playground becomes a place where you can enjoy the company of your absent friends. And the women’s leisurely behaviour makes me believe that their calls are within the circle of well-known people.

No matter how long or to whom the women were talking, this episode demonstrates a type of situation that did not exist before the conquest of mobile telephony. Place is different today. Instead of being surrounded just by strange or vaguely recognised faces, the mobile affords the absent presence of those you really enjoy talking to. This also should mean that it is already existing communities – in the sense of personal networks – that flourish with the mobile. But apart from that, a number of questions come up: Do people go out more often just because they have the opportunity of staying in touch? Or do they care less about bringing friends along, because they are connected all the time anyway? Do parents improvise meeting in places like the above to make sure to have F2F company? Do frequent mobile users shut out the opportunities of the public by spending more time within their communities, or are they rather more exposed for strangers due to spending more time in public environments?

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When I reach the bus stop for the trip home, a young woman is already waiting there. “So, there is a bus on its way?”, I ask her. “Yes, it should be here in a few minutes”, she replies. “Good!”, I say, and seat myself on the bench. I hear her calling someone on her mobile phone and talking to him or her, sounding spontaneously happy. I discover that I have missed a call and walk aside to try that number. Obviously it was the wrong number from the very start, so I get an apology and a wish of a nice evening. Turning back towards the bus stop, I discover that the woman has also withdrawn to get some privacy for her call. Suddenly I feel a yearning for a friendly voice and call home, realizing that my woman has returned from the beauty parlour. We talk for a short while, until the bus arrives.

Two people waiting at a bus stop, spending the time by making calls. The bus stop is a good example of those niches, in the form of in-between space/time, that are “activated” by the use of mobile phones. First some kind of public behaviour is going on here, a short conversation on the neutral theme of the time table. Then, by making her call, the woman switches from the public to her personal community, mediated by the mobile phone. Does the risk of having to enter some kind of public conversation embarrass her, or was she going to call anyway? I do the same, starting with that unknown number. There is a certain choreography being enacted, when both of us leave the public space of the bus stop – each creating our privacy in quite a short distance from it. 

In the mid-nineties, with the growth of mobile phone ownership, two phenomena emerged in public space. One was the mobile phone loner, the person who temporarily left the crowd and drifted away to be able to have his or her phone conversation in relative privacy. The other was their opposite, the intruder upon civil culture, those people who didn’t mind letting everyone hear about their intimate matters. In the literature on mobile phone culture, it is the second type who gets most of the attention. It is he or she who creates the embarrassment that is brought forward in writings published the years around 2000. The embarrassment created by private and intimate conversations carried out in public space has been described and discussed in a large number of texts (for overviews, see Kopomaa 2000, Ling 2004). 

Both types of behaviour mentioned illustrate an important quality of public space: the opportunity to switch between contexts and modes of interaction. Transgression is always an option – and always a question of debate. Public space generally includes activities that contest the “rules of public conduct” – for instance by pushing the democratic rights to the limit or by being explicitly intimate. For the understanding of public domain, the dichotomy of private and public is not very helpful. As ideal types, those terms tell more about ideology than about the practises of spaces shared by people of different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. What we normally call public space is characterised by all sorts of interactions from private and intimate to civil and public, and by all levels of engagement from awareness to oblivion. And, Harrison White would add, by the switching between them. According to White, “publics are special social spaces that allow for ‘switching’ between communicative contexts. … Publics, in this formulation, are special moments of or spaces of social opening, that allow actors to switch from one setting to another, and slip from one kind of temporal focus to another” (Sheller 2004). Thus, the constant flickering of mobile phone users, between presence in and absence from concrete space, should not be considered an anomaly but rather an intensification of a fundamental quality of public domain: the tremendous opportunity of switching. 

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With this different, non-dualistic, approach, public space can be seen as a domain of conflict, negotiation and creation. What we call public space is continuously produced in cooperation and competition. The often discussed conflicts around the use of mobile phones are just one example of how public environments are reproduced in discourse as well as in action. I would say that the more fluid perspective on public space presented by Mimi Sheller, referring to Harrison White, is inspiring in the sense that it may liberate from too solid conceptions and encourage to observe what is actually happening in public environments. The introduction and spread of mobile telephony has initiated a reconfiguration of the spaces that we share with others. For instance: switching (between communicative contexts) can be enacted by all sorts of choreographies in the material setting and all sorts of conversational manoeuvring. Good or bad? Well, first we must understand what is going on.

Timo Kopomaa (2000): The City in Your Pocket. Birth of the Mobile Information Society. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Rich Ling (2004): The Mobile Connection. The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society. San Francisco: Morgan Kafmann.

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

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It’s Friday night at the end of December. We are returning from a visit to the Louisiana museum of art north of Copenhagen, and the train has just stopped at the first station after the Öresund bridge. Outside the train, on the platform, arriving passengers are passing. “Look”, my friend says, “almost everybody are talking on their phones!” That’s right; every other or third person has taken out their mobile phones. Most of them are men. Eagerly talking, thumbing or reading text messages they are on their way to the stairs of Svågertorp station.

What is going on here? This seems to be a place and time when many people choose to use their mobiles – but why? It’s impossible to give an accurate answer. Just like in many other everyday occasions, we have to be satisfied with interpretations.

A lot of Swedes have their workplaces in Copenhagen and its surroundings. There are also Danes who, although having their work in Denmark, have chosen to live in Sweden due to the lower housing costs. Therefore, one reasonable interpretation is that what we see are mostly commuters returning home after a workday in Copenhagen.

Now all these people, predominantly men, have arrived to Malmö and their very first action is calling or texting someone. Maybe they just want to tell somebody waiting at home: “I’m on my way, will be home soon!” Or they call someone who is supposed to pick them up. The person who is going to collect them is probably not far away – maybe already waiting outside the station.

But why then have they not called earlier? Quite often people use travelling time for making phone calls or sending text messages. One reason could be that it is cheaper to use the mobile phone in the country of the network provider. But that network is available as soon as one has passed the middle of the bridge. Another possible explanation is that some people prefer not to talk on the phone as long as they are in the crowded train. On the platform, distances between people are longer, which makes the situation less awkward. Many fellow passengers are also busy with their own calls. Another reason for waiting could be that the reception becomes better as soon as you leave the railway wagon. It’s also a well known fact that the Öresund trains are often delayed, and that may be reason enough to wait with the call until one actually has arrived. It could also be the case that the people we notice being busy with their mobiles actually have called the person who is collecting them earlier, and are now just confirming that they have left the train. Or that they now set about to make all those calls that have had to wait until they reach the territory of there own mobile network provider. It could also be the case that the people we notice being busy with their mobiles actually have called the person who is collecting them earlier, and are now just confirming that they have left the train. Or that they now set about to make all those calls that have had to wait until they reach the territory of there own mobile network provider.

As we see, the possible interpretations of the situation observed are abundant. On a general level, what we experience here is a node of intense mobility, maybe a good example of the space of flows, which Manuel Castells as late as 1996 associated with the global elites of power and business. Today, regional mobility – and systems like car traffic, airlines, commuter trains and mobile phone – is necessary for survival in a world where work often is far from home. The elites are still cosmopolitan; however the question is if the people are local, as Castells suggested. Apparently, many of the people passing on the platform are wage-earners, workers of the offices and services of Copenhagen. Under such conditions, the mobile phone is part in constituting a powerful connectivity, which means that people continuously can organize and renegotiate movements and meetings. The platform of Svågertorp station is one of those nodes where people’s social and cultural networks can be glimpsed.

This situation also offers a specific angle of approach on the platform as public space. In the cinema, the platform is emphasized as a scene of people greeting their arriving friends or relatives and saying farewell when they leave, a place where the personal and intimate is demonstrated in the public. But at the commuter train stations of our time you seldom see people eagerly waiting or saying tearful goodbyes. As travelling has become routine, the platform has been discharged of its drama and magic. Or maybe its fascination has become invisible. The drama is perhaps taking place in the waiting car, at the parking lot. The magic is to be found in the phone call, of which we only hear little fragments. Anyway, it is hidden; it is no longer displayed in the public.

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In his article Uses and disuses of urban space, Zygmunt Bauman writes about different sorts of lack of  publicness in what is seen as public space. With emic space he means the kind of inhospitable rooms where urban life is comprised of people rushing by, quickly disappearing. Here, no meetings between strangers occur. Bauman uses la Défense in Paris as an example. At my visits, la Défense was much more diverse than suggested by Bauman. It was not simply a place of transportation and movement; however I do recognize the swarms of stressed people on their way to or from the metro. Characteristic for these busy passers-by was having mobile phones pressed to their ears.  This implies that Bauman’s characteristic of such spaces as emic misses important dimensions. The people rushing by are simultaneously active in communities and contexts that we are not aware of. Similarly, the platform of Svågertorp station may be a dramatic and magic place, in spite of its routinely appearance.

Zygmunt Bauman (2001): Uses and Disuses of Urban Space. In Czarniawska, B & Solli, R (eds), Organizing Metropolitan Space and Discourse. Liber Abstrakt.

Manuel Castells (1996): The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Vol. I. Cambridge, MA; Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

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She is standing in line in front of us at the supermarket, a woman in her 30ies, talking in her mobile phone. Now she smiles at us, apologising, and runs away to get something she has forgotten to put in her trolley. Just when the cashier is done with the customer before her, she returns with a package of cream. While putting her goods on the belt she continues talking in the mike of her handsfree. “Have a look in the wardrobe”, she says to whoever is on the phone. “At the very back!” Now it is time to pay. She ends the call, pays and packs her stuff.

What is going on here, on New Year’s Eve at the supermarket? The woman is doing her shopping, but she seems to be in another place. By what we hear, we get the impression that she is directing someone who is looking for something. Maybe it is a person in her flat, perhaps her husband. What it is that may be found at the very back of the closet we are not told. But the woman has bought ingredients for a dessert, so probably there is a party coming up. And on such occasions, one sometimes has need of things that, most of the time, are stowed away. Perhaps on the top shelf or at the very back of the wardrobe.

In another sense, it is a question of presence and absence. While she, quite mechanically, puts her things to the cashier, she is focused upon the search at home for whatever it might be. We can imagine her mind browsing through mental images of probable locations where it may be stored. But this commitment does not prevent her from – albeit mechanically – being active in the place where she is present in the flesh. And she is definitely here, her bodily presence is undeniable, but still she seems to be far away. No one would dream of trying to make conversation with her – well, perhaps someone who misinterpreted what she says to be directed to him or her.  However, the woman’s absence is not completely opaque for us. We cannot help having ideas, based upon very few facts, of what is going on in her home, if that is where she calls.

What is interesting with this incident? The very possibility of virtual participation in remote places and in real time appeared with the telephone networks more than a hundred years ago. But when the telephone systems become wireless, this possibility is no longer limited to the specific locations of fixed telephones. The place for mediated interaction is to be found more or less anywhere.

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In this weblog, I want to discuss in what ways mobile communication technologies affect people’s everyday life. I am interested in how the use of mobile phones (or cellphones) is changing the use of places and the patterns of movement in cities (or rather: in urban landscapes).

As I see it, new opportunities of coordination and negotiation of meetings by using mobile telephony influence regional travelling (commuting, shopping, recreation etc.). The use of mobile phones also seems to transform the places of the urban landscape, primarily by the increased real time interaction – anywhere – with absent others.

My concern is how public urban space is being transformed. Although a lot has been written on the subject of mobile phones or cellphones, it is hard to get a clear picture of what is going on – culturally and spatially. For me, as an architect interested in the public realm, the ongoing changes are extremely interesting. Do I have opinions? Of course I have, but most of all I am curious!

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