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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.

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.

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.

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.

Mobility

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.

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.

Summer of iPhone

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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