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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).

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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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