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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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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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Walking outside the sports arena of Hofors, I suddenly hear an unexpected sound. Someone seems to be crying loudly. I look around and see a teenage girl walking towards the arena, talking in her mobile phone and sobbing. Her face is almost hidden inside the hood of her jacket. She passes me, continuing to cry and talk in her phone. A man approaches her, saying something like: Can I help you someway? (A teacher from the nearby school, I figure out.) But she just ignores him and continues to walk; now disappearing into the building. I am baffled. What was that all about?

There are many questions raised here that never will be answered. Nevertheless, there is a lot to say about this incident. First of all, the young girl is crying in public. My guess is that it is the mobile that allows her to do that. Obviously, her mobile phone helps her to take part in an intimate relation via the phone. Not only can she establish a conversation, she also feels free to be emotional because she is in touch with someone that she knows well. She also demonstrates that the conversation represents an intimate space that others should stay out of. The teacher tries to behave as a responsible adult, but does not seem to understand that he should not interfere: Someone is already comforting her.

The girl behaves as if she was in her own room, protected by walls. But they are not real walls, they are “phantom walls”. German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr analyses privacy in “primitive” communities – in his example an Amerindian tribe living in a big communal house – as a social agreement that “prevents” intimate intercourse to be perceived by those not involved. So, following Duerr, the transgression involved here is not simply crying in public but also observing someone crying in public.

The ubiquitous presence of mobile telephones in public space is propelling changes in public behaviour. Some of us – the middle-aged – are provoked by the way young mobile users behave in public environments. What we need to understand is that the new rules of public conduct now developing probably will be quite different from the ones we were brought up to observe. And perhaps it is we that have to learn to abstain from being voyeurs, from observing interactions occurring behind phantom walls.

Reference

Duerr, H P (1994): Nakenhet och skam. Myten om civilisationsprocessen. Stockholm/Stehag: Brutus Östlings bokförlag Symposium. (Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß. Band 1: Nacktheit und Scham. Suhrkamp 1988).

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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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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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We are talking about the features of Flemingsberg, two representatives of a housing cooperative and I. The discussion concerns what parts of this modernist housing area that these two inhabitants are acquainted with and the role of barriers and distances for their movements in the local area. Now I turn to the issue of mobile phones and their use. My interviewees, a middle-aged man and a young woman, are both experienced users of the mobile. We are talking about the usefulness of mobile phones for negotiating meetings in urban contexts when the young woman asks, genuinely curious: “But in the old days, before the mobile phone, when you wanted to meet somewhere, how did you manage?” The man and I look at each other, smile, and start telling about all the difficulties in the old days of arranging meetings when one was downtown.

It is in situations like this, that you get a notion of the crucial import of mobile phones for connecting, not only via the telephone system but also in real life. The mobile has made it easy to improvise meetings, to agree about meeting points and then, if necessary, renegotiate them. The mobile phone system adds a new level of mobility upon the previous ones. The element of planning earlier required for getting together is now becoming less important. Instead there is a great opportunity of improvising encounters, at least when persons involved are not too far from each other. With the mobile phone, it seems that people’s relations to urban landscapes become more fluid and less structured (Urry 2000).

Apart from calling or texting, there are certain features of the mobile phone that are important for moving in the urban environment. Phones that allow their users to access the internet have become average. Thus it is possible to look for addresses or view maps whenever necessary for finding the way. When GPS has become a customary feature, the task of navigation in cities will be much simpler. Not only will you find your actual position, you also get a proposition of the best route to the place where you want to go. The tactics of the walker is now supplemented by the strategies of the voyeur (Certeau 1984).

One question here is whether the connectivity afforded by mobile communication renders the physical form of cities – or urban landscapes – less important. Spontaneous encounters have always been closely related to the presence at places and times where and when a lot of people are staying or passing by. In small towns, Storgatan or Main Street in the evening is a good example of such a setting. The mobile phone enables people getting together even in a fragmented and thin environment, provided they have the means of transportation necessary to move to the place of rendezvous agreed upon. Does the widespread use of mobile telephony contribute to a levelling out of the hierarchy of places? From a commercial point of view, will good locations be found not only on the important streets of the city or in easily accessed external business malls? The new connectivity may prove to have great importance for city form and the development of urban landscapes.

Michel de Certeau (1984): The Practise of Everyday Life. University of California Press.

John Urry (2000): Sociology beyond Societies. Mobilities for the twenty-first century. Routledge. 

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