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Posts Tagged ‘public behaviour’

Cell phones are certainly nothing new to the village where I like to spend my summers. However this is the first year that I notice them as a sound feature of the rural landscape.

Working in the garden, I hear the loud voice of a woman from afar. It is definitely not a conversation involving two people walking. I distinctly recognize it as one side of a telephone talk. The woman is cycling up the hill, so there is a certain strain in her voice. I don’t really hear the words, but it’s clear she is a local girl. Now she passes on the other side of the hedge. “I’ll be up at the house in a minute”, I hear her panting. Was this a prelude to a conversation later held at home, face to face or over the fixed phone?

Next example, a few days later (this is really a small village and one cannot expect crowds of mobile users): I am burning up old branches and twigs in the very same garden. Another voice, another woman: This one is definitely mid-Swedish, and there is a tinge of public administration and networking in it.  She may be talking to a friend, but it could also be a colleague. Our nice neighbours, the zero-eights1, no more genuine villagers2 than us. Just as she passes behind the hedge, she turns off her mobile and switches3 to F2F-mode: “Hallo, by the way”, she says a bit awkwardly behind the leaves. Talking through hedges is a little uncomfortable even among people that know each other.

“So, what is the point?”, my partner asks, reading the above. “Old village life is long gone and this is how it is now,” she says. “What do you want to prove?”

country road

Uphill, towards the village

I consider the different motives for telling the story. One is my astonishment about this manifestation of change. Perhaps I still see the village through the glasses of my childhood, when Johan and Anna drove by in their two-horse-drawn cart on their way to milk their cows. Or when we were picking potatoes brought up by a sprätt4,  a kind of earth propeller, attached to a grey Ferguson tractor.  I know all that is gone, but obviously there are some rests lurking in my mind. “You’re a sentimental fool”, my partner says.

A second motive was to display two ways in which mobile phone usage appears on a country road. The first woman, who refers to local contexts, may then represent mobility as a parochial phenomenon, whereas the second one stands for a more global mobility. Although this may be correct in the situations described (I admit that even there the evidence is anecdotal), we have no information on how these two people relate to their respective worlds, locally or globally. Still, it is significant if overheard mobile conversations relate to a commonly know context or to the strange regions outside of it.

“What this really is about”, my resident critic continues, “is that you feel uneasy there, behind the hedge, when you do not know whether to say hello or not. There is this unwritten law from the old days that one should always greet passers by and now the use of cell phones has put an end to it.” I guess she has a point there.

1) 08 being the area code of the Stockholm region.

2) Countryside authenticity today, what is it really?

3) Is this a switch in the Harrison White sense, establishing the very spot as a public arena?

4) As a direct translation, ripper is too strong a word, but you get the idea!

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When I reach the bus stop for the trip home, a young woman is already waiting there. “So, there is a bus on its way?”, I ask her. “Yes, it should be here in a few minutes”, she replies. “Good!”, I say, and seat myself on the bench. I hear her calling someone on her mobile phone and talking to him or her, sounding spontaneously happy. I discover that I have missed a call and walk aside to try that number. Obviously it was the wrong number from the very start, so I get an apology and a wish of a nice evening. Turning back towards the bus stop, I discover that the woman has also withdrawn to get some privacy for her call. Suddenly I feel a yearning for a friendly voice and call home, realizing that my woman has returned from the beauty parlour. We talk for a short while, until the bus arrives.

Two people waiting at a bus stop, spending the time by making calls. The bus stop is a good example of those niches, in the form of in-between space/time, that are “activated” by the use of mobile phones. First some kind of public behaviour is going on here, a short conversation on the neutral theme of the time table. Then, by making her call, the woman switches from the public to her personal community, mediated by the mobile phone. Does the risk of having to enter some kind of public conversation embarrass her, or was she going to call anyway? I do the same, starting with that unknown number. There is a certain choreography being enacted, when both of us leave the public space of the bus stop – each creating our privacy in quite a short distance from it. 

In the mid-nineties, with the growth of mobile phone ownership, two phenomena emerged in public space. One was the mobile phone loner, the person who temporarily left the crowd and drifted away to be able to have his or her phone conversation in relative privacy. The other was their opposite, the intruder upon civil culture, those people who didn’t mind letting everyone hear about their intimate matters. In the literature on mobile phone culture, it is the second type who gets most of the attention. It is he or she who creates the embarrassment that is brought forward in writings published the years around 2000. The embarrassment created by private and intimate conversations carried out in public space has been described and discussed in a large number of texts (for overviews, see Kopomaa 2000, Ling 2004). 

Both types of behaviour mentioned illustrate an important quality of public space: the opportunity to switch between contexts and modes of interaction. Transgression is always an option – and always a question of debate. Public space generally includes activities that contest the “rules of public conduct” – for instance by pushing the democratic rights to the limit or by being explicitly intimate. For the understanding of public domain, the dichotomy of private and public is not very helpful. As ideal types, those terms tell more about ideology than about the practises of spaces shared by people of different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. What we normally call public space is characterised by all sorts of interactions from private and intimate to civil and public, and by all levels of engagement from awareness to oblivion. And, Harrison White would add, by the switching between them. According to White, “publics are special social spaces that allow for ‘switching’ between communicative contexts. … Publics, in this formulation, are special moments of or spaces of social opening, that allow actors to switch from one setting to another, and slip from one kind of temporal focus to another” (Sheller 2004). Thus, the constant flickering of mobile phone users, between presence in and absence from concrete space, should not be considered an anomaly but rather an intensification of a fundamental quality of public domain: the tremendous opportunity of switching. 

mobil-pa-gatan.jpg

With this different, non-dualistic, approach, public space can be seen as a domain of conflict, negotiation and creation. What we call public space is continuously produced in cooperation and competition. The often discussed conflicts around the use of mobile phones are just one example of how public environments are reproduced in discourse as well as in action. I would say that the more fluid perspective on public space presented by Mimi Sheller, referring to Harrison White, is inspiring in the sense that it may liberate from too solid conceptions and encourage to observe what is actually happening in public environments. The introduction and spread of mobile telephony has initiated a reconfiguration of the spaces that we share with others. For instance: switching (between communicative contexts) can be enacted by all sorts of choreographies in the material setting and all sorts of conversational manoeuvring. Good or bad? Well, first we must understand what is going on.

Timo Kopomaa (2000): The City in Your Pocket. Birth of the Mobile Information Society. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Rich Ling (2004): The Mobile Connection. The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society. San Francisco: Morgan Kafmann.

Mimi Sheller (2004): Mobile publics: beyond the network perspective. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, volume 22, 39-52.

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