Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reading :: Mobile Communication and Society

Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective
By Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Araba Sey

Mobile communication -- specifically mobile phones and pagers -- is impacting work, leisure, and public participation globally. But the implementations are so different in different countries -- due to differences in culture, society, regulatory and legal environments, economic conditions, technologies, infrastructures, and other factors -- that it's hard to summarize the impact of mobile communication or make predictions about new arguments. To better get their arms around these changes, the authors survey mobile communications globally. This book is framed as a strictly analytical account of the current state of mobile communication across the globe: "What we intend to do in this book is to construct an empirically grounded argument on the social logic embedded in wireless communication, and on the shaping of this logic by users and uses in various cultural and institutional contexts -- an argument whose analytical value should stand by itself" (p.4, italics in original).

It's a huge project, but a timely one. As the authors note, "Wireless communication networks are diffusing around the world faster than any other communication technology to date" (p.1). And as they diffuse, they change possibilities across multiple activities. How can these be generalized? The authors approach the task systematically, by analyzing extant empirical studies, but with the caveat that this sector is changing so rapidly that any conclusions are transitional.

First, the authors study the diffusion of wireless communication, looking at factors such as subscriber growth and penetration rate. They note, as others have, than in many ways we in the US are a mobile communications backwater: The US has encountered relatively slow mobile growth, partially because universal service obligations slowed AT&T's efforts in mobile (p.14). In contrast, the Philippines have very high penetration rates, partially because of low prepaid mobile prices (70-90% of phones are prepaid). "The Philippines is reportedly the world's highest texting nation, with the average user sending over 2,000 messages a year" (p.25), while "Japan, on its own, has consistently had wireless-phone Internet access levels exceeding those of North America and all of Europe" (p.25). The US, on the other hand, leads in wifi deployment (p.27) and has the highest penetration of laptop computers (p.28), suggesting that wifi deployment and laptop adoption have retarded adoption of the wireless web here. Surprisingly, two-way pagers were also going strong in the US as late as 2002 (p.60). Elsewhere, such as East Africa, prepaid mobile cards have begun to be used as currency (p.62) -- the gold standard has been replaced by the minute standard.

Interestingly, mobile technologies have increased quotidian, mutual surveillance. One example is caller ID, which was once a security feature but is now used to identify undesirable calls (p.120). Other examples include parents' surveillance of their children by calling them and demanding their whereabouts or by tracking them with GPS (p.120). In Hong Kong, caller ID helps sex workers to separate business and personal lives (p.122), while in South China mobile phones help sex workers to evade police and maintain customers (p.122).

In terms of family, the authors assert that
communication technologies materially allow the post-patriarchal family to survive as a network of bonded individuals, in need of both autonomy and support at the same time. As people rebuild and extend their lives along their networks, they bring with them into these networks, and into their networking devices, their values, perceptions, and fears. (p.126)
The authors are specifically interested in youth culture: their hypothesis is that
there is a youth culture that finds in mobile communication an adequate form of expression and reinforcement. Technologies, all technologies, diffuse only to the extent that they resonate with pre-existing social structures and cultural values. However, once a powerful technology is adopted by a given culture because it fits into its pattern, the technology grows and embraces an ever-greater proportion of its group of reference, in this case young people. (p.127)
Tentatively, the authors assert that a mobile youth culture is emerging with the following characteristics:
  • The management of autonomy vis a vis security. The older population needs the emotional support of the young, while keeping them economically dependent. Youth feel autonomous early (partially because of mobile technologies), but need economic security until relatively late in their development (the parents pay for those mobile technologies). (p.143)
  • The construction of a peer group through networked sociability. These break "the organizational and spatial boundaries of relationships" and are instead "based on choice and affinity" (p.144)
  • The emergence of collective identity. Youth cultures develop codes of social recognition. (p.144)
  • The strengthening of individual identity. Youth culture prizes personalization. (p.144)
  • Consumerism is an important dimension of the culture. Consumption is one avenue of personalization, but patterns of consumption and valuation are "modeled in patterns of signs that constitute a fashion" (p.145)
The authors also note that, as with computer technologies, we are in a transitional phase in which the youth teach their elders about these technologies, something that erodes the patriarchal model and impacts education (p.151).

Moving along, the authors argue that in mobile communication, "the space of the interaction is defined entirely within the flows of communication" (p.172); thus "places are individualized and networked along the specific networks of individual practices" (p.174). One characteristic of the networked society, "timeless time," is enhanced by mobile technologies: "The availability of wireless communication makes it possible to saturate time with social practice by inserting communication into all the moments when other practices cannot be conducted, such as the 'in-between' time during transportation, in a waiting line ... or simply during free time" (p.174). (Timeless time -- though not under that name -- should be familiar to anyone who has read David Allen's Getting Things Done.)

The authors go on to examine several incidents in which mobile technologies enable loose, lightly coordinated political action. (No wonder the Russians, when invading Georgia, bombed cell phone towers.)

Finally, the authors conclude by discussing some of the characteristics of the mobile network society. Just a few of their points are:
  • Relentless connectivity. Connectivity, not mobile communications per se, is "the key feature in the practice of mobile connectivity" (p.248).
  • Instant communities of practice. The authors note "the emergence of unplanned, largely spontaneous communities of practice in instant time, by transforming an initiative to do something together into a message that is responded to from multiple sources by convergent wills in order to share the practice" (p.249). This description reminds me of Engestrom's recent discussions of knotworking and mycorrhizae.
  • Users are the producers of content and services. If you've read Clay Shirky or others in this vein, you have an idea of what the authors mean.
Overall, a terrific book for anyone who is struggling to understand mobile technologies and their impact on work, leisure, and education. I've only scratched the surface in this review. What impresses me is that the authors deliver on what they promised: They stick to a principled, relatively rigorous analysis based on empirical research. I'm going to return to this book often, I think, as I work through the issues of mobile communications.

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