Posts Tagged ‘switching’

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.

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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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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.


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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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. 


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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