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Archive for the ‘mobility’ Category

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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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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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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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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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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