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Posts Tagged ‘urban choreography’

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 Turning back towards the bus stop, I discover that the woman has also withdrawn to get some privacy for her call.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. 

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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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