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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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I have just entered the chemist’s and obtained my queue ticket from the machine when the phone rings. I pick it up to answer – and realize that it is one of my students and that the matter is rather confidential. Instead of suggesting that I call him later, I walk out in the street, trying to make the conversation as short as possible. In the street, people are passing in both directions and there is quite a lot of noise. The student is quite persistent, so the discussion becomes much longer than I intend. After a few minutes, though, we reach an agreement and finish the talk. I return into the pharmacy and get a new queue number.

What is interesting here is not why I chose to accept having the conversation at this time. Probably it is a matter of wanting to be helpful and trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Instead, the crucial question is: What makes me exit the pharmacy and move into the street? Without much reflection, I consider the conditions of talking to a student about his work to be better outside, in the rather noisy pedestrian street, than inside. Apparently, I quickly make a distinction between these two spaces, which both of them could be labelled “public”, in a wide sense of the word. The pharmacy is relatively silent, with people waiting for their turn, some of them maybe a bit bored and perhaps inclined to eavesdropping. The street, on the other hand, is full of noise, with people closely moving by but never stopping. No one seems to observe me here, whereas in the pharmacy the call would have been noticed. Maybe it seems like a paradox that the most “public” place is chosen for the “private” conversation. But it’s not, and I have several arguments for saying so.

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Architects (yes, I admit, I am one) have always been obsessed by the dichotomy of private – public. As an approach to questions of architecture and urban design, it has never been very fruitful. The introduction of nuances like semi-private and semi-public has not helped very much, because it falsely suggests a continuum between two extremities and conceals the complexity of action going on in diverse spaces. In texts concerning the public use of mobile phones, “privatisation” is a frequent term.

In the spirit of Richard Sennett, German social critic Zygmunt Bauman (2001) pictures how for instance spaces of transition, retail, and waiting appear to be “public yet non-civil spaces” where no actual encounters between their users occur. Bauman makes us aware of what seems to be an erosion of public space where strangers no longer seem to encounter other strangers. According to Bauman’s view, true public space is dissolving. 

As a way of dealing with the public, I rather prefer the term public domain, adapted to the context of urban culture by Marten Hajer and Arnold Reijndorp. In their book In Search of New Public Domain (2001), they define public domain “as those places where an exchange between different social groups is possible and also actually occurs”. This is quite an open and inclusive definition, but it has the strength of not labelling certain places as public per se but instead referring to activities: an exchange between different social groups. Rather than seeing public space disappearing, the authors discover an abundance of new arenas of (potential) social intercourse.

However, in this case their perspective is not very helpful. According to it, the pharmacy as well as the street are spaces that can be considered public domain. But that gives no clue to the distinction between those two spaces in terms of adequate behaviour (that is; the difference that makes me move from one space to the other when having a work-related call). According to Harrison White, it is the possibility of switching between different contexts of communication that is characteristic for public space (Sheller 2004). Therefore, it is not so much the exchanges going on between different social groups, or the maintenance of a certain kind of civil interaction, which is distinctive for public space, but rather the freedom of slipping between different modes of interaction. Subsequently, it is first of all the openness for many kinds of exchanges that is fundamental for those spaces we put forward as public. The pedestrian street affords a wide range of interactions; while the shop (in this case the publicly owned pharmacy) normally allows a more limited scope of communicative opportunities. 

In the context of the ongoing transformations of public space related to new patterns of mediated interaction (like using mobile phones), the ideas of “mobile publics” inspired by White open for new ways of understanding the actions of mobile phone users and their consequences for the spaces we share. It does not make obsolete other perspectives, but responds to phenomena like flickering between presence and absence, between contexts labelled “public” and “private”. 

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

Marten Hajer & Arnold Reijndorp (2001): In Search of New Public Domain. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.

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

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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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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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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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