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Posts Tagged ‘mobile phone’

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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