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And now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing.

People are frequently annoyed by all those phone calls going on around them, for instance in public space and public transportation. It is other people’s more or less intimate conversations that one doesn’t want to listen to. But now and then, it is the calls to one’s own mobile that are really disturbing. Here are a couple of observations by a colleague. Thanks!

The first example concerns different perceptions of privacy in the situation:

On the commuter train: A man gets a call. Apparently it is his wife on the phone. She seems to be very angry. “Can we talk about this later”, the man says. But she is angry now and wants to make the most of it. “I don’t think my fellow passengers want to hear this conversation”, he says, trying to calm her down. Finally, the man manages to end the call.

She doesn’t have people around, and in her anger, she is not at all sensitive to her partner’s situation. Had she called in another mood, she might have asked if it was a good time to talk. The phone filters away all those signals that – in full bodily co-presence – stop most of us from quarrelling in the public.

The second example leads to the question: Is the phone-function of the iPhone really a benefit?

On the bus: Two guys are playing games on their iPhones. One of them tells the other about how irritated he was to be interrupted the other day, just when he was about to reach a new high score. It was his girlfriend, calling him on the very same iPhone.

The mobile in your pocket is actually a potential pain in the ass, ready to crush a good mood, a delicate situation. a daydream or a moment of concentration. That is, if you don’t shut it off.

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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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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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I was wondering when they would appear – latitudes and longitudes in advertisements for countryside shops, cafes and other attractions. This year they did. Will we see new patterns of localization of businesses and other attractions evolve, changing the relations between the centre and periphery of urban regions?

In Sweden, just like in many other countries, rural shops and factory outlets are a popular goal for trips by car, and sometimes even organized bus travel. The most popular one is Gekås in Ullared, which attracts 3.9 million visitors a year. Ullared is just a village with around 800 inhabitants but around 1 000 people work at Gekås. How did such a remote countryside store become so popular? How did people find their way to it?

My guess would be mouth-to-mouth information combined with traditional advertising. Today train and bus trips to Ullared – even from quite remote places like Stockholm – are arranged. And on Gekås home page you actually find the coordinates of the parking lot.

Johannesens GPS position

Johannesens close to Båstad publish not only their own geographical coordiantes but also those of neighbouring attractions.

But it was in a slightly more exclusive context I first found the signs of this new geographical practise, that a place anywhere on the Earth can be pinpointed just with a combination of figures and found using the GPS built in your phone. Johannesens, a clothing outlet not far from Båstad, in their summer leaflet not only published their own coordinates. As a service, they also listed the positions of nearby attractions like Nivå 125 and Café Killeröd. For those of you who do not know Sweden, Båstad is one of the most exclusive seaside resorts of the west coast, famous for tennis and related to the “tennis king”, Gustav V,  and infamous for the splashy champagne parties of noveau riche teenagers. So – even if the GPS in mobiles or as a separate gadget – is becoming a frequent phenomenon, Båstad would be one of the first places to find people using GPS – as a function in their phones or as part of their “car environment”.

Conclusions: New mobile technologies now offer opportunities that changes the rules of business and other localization. Distances still matter. Visibility in an attractive urban setting is still important. But remote places, off the most important routes, now benefit from a technology that makes wayfinding easier. Actually, these portable and ever-accessible technologies may lead to significant changes in the economical geography of regions.

So, open a pub in the middle of the forest, publish the coordinates on your web site and the customers will start swarming in.

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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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