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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.

One way of following the spread and acceptance of mobile telephony is to look for how often and in what ways cell phones appear in movies. As parts of a plot or as attributes of characters, cell phones have become so frequent in movies and television series that rather their absence is noteworthy. Still, mobile phones are often skilfully used to signify something or to construct an intricate story-line. Just as fixed telephones were employed as props in older movies, today cell phones are used to enhance the drama in one way or the other.

In fiction movies, the mobile has become a significant object defining a role – by the way it is turned on or off, held, talked on, carried, worn, placed on the table, dropped, forgotten, and by how it looks and sounds. It is a prop used for self presentation and the interaction between the character and her/his phone is sometimes skilfully framed as a drama within the drama. For instance: how does the character react when the phone rings or blips?

Mobiles have also radically changed the plots of detective stories and thrillers. The hero no longer must be contacted via the wired telephone in the favourite bar or restaurant but can be reached anywhere. Mobile phones are examined (by the police or intelligence agencies) in search of phone numbers and contacts. The phone itself is a source of evidence, circumstantial or not, in the form of text messages, numbers called and calls received, images taken and videos recorded – and also fingerprints and DNA. Thanks to roaming, the user of a cell phone can be tracked through the city. The pursuer, however, can be led astray if the hunted person for instance drops the phone on a passing lorry.

A web search that I made recently gave some interesting results. The combination of “cell phone” and “movie” produced a wide range of hits that went beyond what I was looking for. Many refer to the phenomenon of using mobiles to record video and even make films. Others address the nuisance of phone signals and even conversations in movie theatres. Textually.org, a website dedicated to texting and SMS offers a good introduction to most themes, see SMS and The Movies. A sister site, picurephoning.com, covers cell phone video, a phenomenon that has also developed into an art form. But let’s focus on cell phones portrayed in films.

A good introduction is this transcript of a National Public Radio program, covering a range of aspects. The conversation refers to an article by Zachary Pincus-Roth in Los Angeles Times, which explores the intricacies of using mobiles in movie plots. Among other things, he points out the downsides of ubiquitous communication technology. In the Guardian, with respect to such drawbacks, critic Joe Queenan discusses why (like No Country for Old Men) so many dramas and thrillers today are set in the past.

As soon as I started watching the Coen brothers’ dark shoot-’em-up about a philosophical psychopath on the loose in rural Texas, I realised why the movie was set a full quarter-century in the past. No mobile phones. No internet. No Google. No easy access to phone records, maps, personal histories, criminal records. No way to track the killer merely by pinpointing the last phone tower that handled his call. No easy way in; no easy way out.

So, it is not the way cell phones are utilized as attributes to characterise a person that is important here. In that sense, cell phones are no different from Zippos, Volvo P 1800’s and Patek Philippe’s – or worn out shoes, ill fitting suits and rusty pocket knifes. Instead, Queenan pinpoints the specific contemporaneous connectivity that the Coen brothers manage to avoid.

Current technology has fundamental effects on the ways narratives are put together, as long as they are set in the present. The cinema here provides a mirror displaying the ongoing changes in society and in the ways everyday life is enacted. When watching a movie, somehow the absence or presence of sophisticated communication devices – and their consequences for daily life – become a matter of active observation and reflection.

Long Distance Love

Cell phones appear ever so often in fiction movies these days. Still, it is hard to deny that the vast majority of fiction movies depict but a small segment of the living conditions of our world. So much more interesting, then, when the mobile phone appears in a documentary – in the hands of Alisher, a young migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan trying to make his living in Moscow.

Alisher on the train to Moscow

Alisher on the train to Moscow

Long Distance Love is a beautiful, sad but not entirely pessimistic movie about having to leave ones home and family and go to the big city to look for a job, a reality shared by millions. This quiet drama has a love story in its focus but it is simultaneously about conditions that can be described as “modern slavery and global injustice”.

We estimate that there are today approximately 12–16 million guest workers in Russia who support themselves with low-paid jobs. Most of them come from the Central Asia countries, where unemployment rates are enormous. (Natalja Vlasova, Head of the Russian Department of Migration.)

Alisher is newly married but has to leave his pregnant wife to earn a living for her and the family. As there are no jobs available where he lives, he has look for work in Moscow. He is not paid well, but also tempted to spend the little he earns in bars. Very little money is sent home.

What keeps him from complete disaster, it seems, are the signs of life from Dildora, his young wife. There are several emotional episodes of reading a letter, talking on the phone or receiving text messages. Especially one text message, received on a night downtown, is a strong reminder about his responsibilities for his wife and child. Alisher feels ashamed for not answering texts from Dildora, who worries about him and their future.

I will not disclose how Long Distance Love continues. See it, not for the details of mediated interaction, but for its remarkable take on living conditions in a globalised world.


Goran Bregovic and his orchestra had no problem to fill the Malmö Concert Hall. We were part of an enthusiastic audience that most of the time had difficulties to stay in their chairs. During the show, however, I discovered more and more people who not only used their mobiles to take pictures but also made video recordings. I took their example, and this clip catches some of these video photographers.


Using my phone, I found what many people before me have found, that photographing or recording an event actually detaches you from it. I was no longer part of a great music experience but instead concentrated upon how to catch the best parts, when to start and when to stop etc.

In that way, the mobile not only can bring us intimately close to the people we love, but also distance us from vibrant emotional experiences, transforming us to cold-hearted voyeurs. This is a well known occupational hazard for professional photographers, but what happens when the phenomenon becomes omnipresent?

I am neither referring to the kind of abuse that involves bullying and shaming for instance among youths, nor to the more extreme example of teens deliberately creating “accidents” and making video clips showing mates getting hurt to spread among other buddies. I am talking about a more general tendency to record or take photographs instead of to participate. There are dangers involved with this which may affect personalities and as a worst consequence lead to taking photos or videos instead of acting when people are injured and in need of help.

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

mobilen-i-solen

Saturday in Malmö, by the canal. With the low autumn sun warming his back, this guy has found the perfect spot for a phone call. In a clever way, he makes use of the “street furniture” available.

Perhaps mentally somewhere else, still he has chosen this place for his call.

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!

The Crying Girl

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).

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?

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.

pedestrian-street-malmoe.jpg

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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