ESA Helsinki Conference
New Technologies and New Visions ...
Session D Thursday 31. August 9-10.30
Postmodernity and Mobile Communications
Mobilezation – for and against
Against: the bad side
Mobile phones are a very strange phenomenon: ubiquitous
in many countries, still encountering some resistance, especially among
upper cultural capital segments, older people, women. Reasons vary
from fear for gadgets to fear for control or radiation.
BUT on the other hand they have spread like wildfire among the young
(reaching younger and younger age groups), but also among the ordinary
people who have no special reasons to refuse a useful device.
Following negative arguments have been used, until recently.
Mobile telephones, because of constant availability mean increased exercise
of control, by the employers, by spouses, by parents, by clients etc. This
argument is partly true, but the telephone can always be switched off (dead
battery syndrome), Also the caller cannot know where the mobile telephone
is. Experience shows that outside certain addicted or neurotic people
the constant availability is not a problem. For clients mobile phones are
wonderful, as well as for private entrepreneurs who cannot afford secretaries.
The use of mobile phones have also meant increased telephone costs.
In some cases these costs have become an economic burden, leading to bad
debts, credit restrictions etc. (the consequences for young people may
be serious) . In families, the children’s telephone costs have skyrocketed.
This has meant a new distribution of consumers expenditure, from material
to non-material services. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But still
the mobile phones are a heavy expense which may adversely affect one’s
The mobile telephones have the same problem as computers or VCR’s.
They have many more features than anybody really can ever learn to use
(except some gadget nerds) They are needlessly complicated for older people,
less educated, those who are generally handicapped with machines (an astoundingly
large share of the population). Even though these people learn to use the
elementary functions, they get lost immediately when some problem occurs
and e.g. tend to shout when speaking in the phone in a truly insupportable
This machine idiocy is often connected with a more serious, social
handicap. A mobile telephone is a good test for a person’s social intelligence.
Those people who speak loudly in public, reply during a meeting or at cinema
and persist to talk in such situations used to be more invisible before
mobile telephones. Now it is enough to observe a person for a while and
see how he or she handles the mobile telephone. This can be extended to
cultural or class differences in various countries: for instance in Russia
it is still OK to talk business in telephone while being in a restaurant
with friends. In France and in the US the “quiet zones” are spreading like
wildfire (“Cell phone backlash growing”, US News & World Report Aug
Thus it has been necessary to develop a mobile etiquette. This has
to be taught to the young, to socially handicapped etc. Of course the worst
cases will never learn, but most of the problems connected with public
use of mobile telephones will slowly disappear as people develop functioning
rules and the handsets become more intelligent. I belong to a generation
who remembers well how the first transistor radios made their entrance
to public places (rather noisy).
Here is a recent listing taken from an article on the development of
Remember that the person you're with should take precedence over
a phone call.
Utilize the phone's caller ID feature to screen incoming calls and
let voice mail take them if they're not urgent.
Use silent or vibrating options when indoors or in a close
Or just turn off the phone.
Don't engage in "cell yell." Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone
manufacturer, says there's no need to speak louder on your cell phone than
you would on any other phone.
Use text messaging if available
Keep your phone close at hand for first-ring answering.
If you're in a noisy place, call back from somewhere quieter.
Call other cell phone users during business hours, and not during
If you have to keep your cell phone on during a meeting, explain
Don't give out your cell phone number freely or leave it on your
Don't use a cell phone while driving. Pull over if you must
take a call.
Don't use it on a date – ever. It may be your last.
(Nokia, San Diego mayor's office, GetConnected.com, etiquette
experts © Copyright 2000 The Associated Press)
Lastly there is the question of “addiction”, extreme dependence of the
mobile phones. There are people who really must have the telephone always
switched on, must use it at all times, get into economic and social difficulties
because of their excessive telephone use. Mobile telephones offer them
a completely new environment and very few restrictions. But this is not
an argument for prohibiting the use of mobile phones, just as alcoholism
is not an argument for general prohibition.
Also, there is the problem of accidents connected to mobile phones.
Talking to somebody while driving causes probably nowadays many accidents
as there may be emotionally stressful moments, lack of alertness due to
technical problems etc. Compared to listening to the radio and music recordings,
the main problem of mobile phones is that they must be handled while driving.
But even emotionally they may have much stronger effects than listening
to an ordinary radio program. Consequently, both the hands-off techniques
and prohibitions are spreading rapidly. Still it is strange that
precisely in the US, where traffic is calm and most of the drivers don’t
even use stick shifts, and people use most time in their cars, the agitation
against mobile phones in cars is most intense (“drive now, talk later”)
Perhaps driving is already sort of sacred activity?
The Good Side
There are several positive arguments for the use of mobile phones (much
more than negative ones): Mobile phones may be decisive in emergencies
of different kinds. For example, the First aid rules of the Red Cross in
Finland have been changed because of the widespread availability of mobile
phones. Now you can call the emergency number (112 in Finland) simultaneously
as you check the accident victim’s situation and begin the first aid. Stories
about how mobile phones have helped people in different emergencies, abound.
To pick the most recent, somebody lost in the Australian desert, called
his father in England who alarmed the Australian Rescue service! Another,
sad case is that of the Finnish couple murdered by a group of youths recently:
there the woman succeeded in calling the alarm number, telling that her
husband had been killed and explaining where it had happened, before the
call was cut in mid-sentence, as she herself was killed (The horrible events
of Tuesday, September 12th, will create a completely new category of mobile
phone use in emergency. And what were the effects of phone calls from the
The major argument (after life-saving) for mobile phones is certainly
convenience. No need of phone booths, looking for a telephone, being somewhere
to take the call etc. Ability to use otherwise inactive periods for useful
or communicative activities. Especially driving in cars is such an activity
which has been difficult to combine with anything else except passive listening
(but see above, the American resistance for doing anything else in the
The mobile phones make many everyday life activities easer and more
problem free. It facilitates the finding of places, tackling of problems
immediately, getting answers when you need it, selecting your communication
partners in a hierarchical manner (you know who is calling, you have given
the number only to a selected group of people etc.). The mobile phones
can be used for making payments, directing your home appliances etc. In
fact, he idea of having a personal communications centre permanently with
you is quite true (see Myerson 2001, who criticizes this as hype).
Those who like this kind of technical ease, are normally more “modern”
than those who do not see any advantage in it. And especially the latter
don’t see the advantage in being constantly available (when you need to
be). This is slavery for them. But for parents, small entrepreneurs, distance
workers etc this is the main advantage: to be always able to reach you
child, be available for your client, be connected to your head office etc.
Again if you are keen to get certain sorts of information immediately,
the mobile phone becomes very handy. Myself I normally do not use such
services, but I can understand their use (text messages telling you of
latest stock exchange movements, weather changes etc.) But I appreciate
highly the possibility to surf the internet when and where you need. I
expect that here major developments will occur, but even the present appliances
make it possible to bypass all the time-consuming elements in the web pages,
and if you know to avoid the worst cluttered pages (i.e. commercial sites
such as Yahoo or Microsoft) you can move relatively fast.
AND of course mobile phones are absolutely essential if you nowadays
wish to organize any kinds of protest actions or coordinate movements or
roadblocks or check whether your child is safe in Göteborg, surrounded
by a massive police force. I.e. mobile phones offer an effective
remedy against police violence or even simple control. A violent police
force can never “feel safe” in engaging in illegal activities, as it used
to be, when protesters could be isolated and kept out of reach long enough
so that media effects were small. Thanks to mobile phones, this is not
possible any more (but the net still collapses if too many people are too
close each other and try to call simultaneously). But of course there is
the downside to this: mobile phone calls leave traces, so that the Swedish
police is now accusing a group of people of organizing the Göteborg
demonstrations, based on their mobile phone activity.
And in a recent case dramatic case of a group of youth killing a couple
in Finland, they were immediately caught because they had been using their
mobile phones to set up the trap for the couple!
One interesting micro change with macro effects is the communication
between parents and children (or for that matter between children themselves).
Previously one might have been somewhere and then called parents to ask
for permission to stay longer, overnight etc. The answer was either yes
or no, and that was that. The mobile phone enables a much more flexible
negotiation process and creates new kinds of exchanges between children
Another change just reported in the papers is the disappearance of
the public announcement in the radio of the type “Person so and so, travelling
in Northern Finland in a red automobile ..., please contact immediately
your relatives in the number ...” This was extremely common just a few
years ago, but nowadays very rare. The change is simply due to mobile telephones:
all those people who previously were absolutely unreachable, roaming freely
all over Europe (or the world of GSM) can now easily be reached on
their mobile telephones.
As the messages conveyed via the broadcasts were usually of the very
serious kind, it is safe to assume that there is now much more contact
between those vacationing on the move and their significant others.
Also, the telephone becomes a small personal telephone book, and as
such becomes quite indispensable. Losing the telephone is thus a small
catastrophe in your personal contacts.
Personally I have noticed that my ability to memorize numbers has dramatically
worsened. To forget one’s own telephone number was earlier a sign of beginning
dementia. Nowadays it is quite normal. I wonder what has replaced
it in the test battery?
Another thing is that there is already a strong social pressure to carry
a mobile phone (and therefore even strong opposition among some marginal
groups, such as certain academic intellectuals). This is very much generational:
the youngest generation could almost be identified with the thelp of the
mobile phone so important it has become to their lifestyle. The use
of textons (text messages or SMS; this French innovation should become
universal) is one of such generational dividing lines, especially their
use for serious messages (such as “I am leaving you, sorry”). But as any
such phenomena, they tend to spread to other generations once the pioneer
generation has showed the way. (On the use of mobile telephones by the
young people, Kopomaa 2000, Coogan-Kangas 2001) )
When sufficient number of people have a mobile phone (as in Finland)
you will actually be required to carry a mobile phone as otherwise you
be regarded as disabled or queer (not in the sexual sense). And vice versa:
when almost everybody has a mobile phone, the utility of one for yourself
is larger and the social obstacle of getting one (i.e to stand out in the
crowd) becomes zero.
Now all this is already old hat for many if most of you. And my list
is very much incomplete (see Kopomaa 2000, Mäenpää 2000)
But it still needs to be reiterated, especially if we look at some recent
writings about the role of mobile telephones.
The uneven spread of mobile phones
It is nowadays relatively well known that mobile phones first
became common objects in the Nordic countries (but it tends to be forgotten
already: Myerson’s recent book on mobile phones and postmodernity completely
bypasses this, see below). The development of a common standard (first
NMT then GSM) was mainly a Nordic achievement. In fact, mobile phones developed
not because of private enterprise or high level of technology but because
of dynamic profitable state monopolies who needed to plough their profits
back in technological development. (See Roos 1993 ) That there were
national private enterprises (such as Nokia or Ericsson) ready to get into
commercial product development was not decisive, but necessary. Here Manuel
Castells is clearly wrong, as he does not even mention the state and tells
us that only the “cutting edge knowhow” companies such as Alcatel, Siemens
and Ericson created the difference (Castells 1998, 320-321) in Europe.
However, they took over as engines of development only after they saw that
here was a lucrative business opportunity, for which the states had created
all necessary prerequisites. The second center of mobile explosion were
the small highly developed Asian states such as Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan,
South Korea, largely for same reasons as the Nordic countries, but there
the market was more clearly divided.
Castells does not even discuss the fact that both major European countries
as well as the US and Japan were badly lagging behind - and still are.
Especially the cases of the US (and Japan) are instructive. Just now in
August, the Finnish newspapers (HS 15.8.2001) reported that China had bypassed
US in the number of mobile phones ( 120.6 million vs 120.1 million connections)!
In the US, “competition” has served to hinder the development of mobile
phones; in the form of bad local standards, restricted and expensive “roaming”
(whereas in the Nordic countries it was immediately understood that the
larger the area you could use your mobile phones, the better), stupid pricing
(to make mobile phones available only to the rich and to the criminals)
etc. Pricing systems are still a major obstacle in many countries, where
the mobile phones were thought to be a business to business device and
the private users were just seen as glogging the networks. An additional
lesson of the advantages of the role of state for equality and democracy:
in countries where there are “enough” rich consumers and the market forces
prevail, the ordinary people can be ignored for too long. Not so
in the Nordic countries where very few products can be marketed only to
the local rich segment (many of whom resent such distinctive items that
would reveal their wealth).
In big European countries, the numbers may be impressive, but the penetration
is (was) not. There are still important groups of population who do not
have access to mobile phones or the internet. And the prizing systems
are simply not from this world.
But it must also be realized that wireless communications have really
revolutionized the telephone systems in developing countries, where the
fixed networks were practically onon-existent and heavily glogged.
In India, for example, only ten years ago, it was very difficult to
telephone from the countryside, not to speak of reaching a person there.
Nowadays, cheap satellite telephone booths are everywhere. It must be remembered
that the solution in a developing country need not be individual as it
is in our countries. Thus access to Internet is based on availability of
Internet shops, not personal computers. The statistics are therefore highly
misleading if we think of the actual impact. An old friend of mine,
whom I met fifteen years ago in a small town in Kerala, where then telephones
were practically non-existent, sends me now messages via Internet and reads
mine at a local Internet shop. And he belongs definitely to an aspiring
working class, not educated middle class.
THIS is the real mobilezation in the world, which also makes globalization
a two way phenomenon. To be able to reach people in the third world, as
well as their ability to reach us, has increased dramatically!
Postmodernity and the mobile phone
And this is therefore a good point to begin the discussion of the mobilezation
and postmodernity. One assumes quite naturally that this is a subject which
gives tens of thousands of hits of an Internet search, but no. When I made
such a search two years ago, the only serious work I found was my own,
written in the early 90's (no joke)! A recent search (Aug 15, using the
words “mobile phone sociology”)) gave over 7000 hits, most of them
irrelevant (of the type Professor of Sociology, Mobile phone nr ...).
When I added the word postmodern, there were 200 hits in all but again
only a few relevant hits ( such as Urry 2000, Ling 1997). Still it is correct
to claim that all those postmodernist authors who wrote one
book after another of postmodernity never discovered the mobile phone and
its effects on social interaction and individual life (by the way, Zygmunt
Bauman got an e-mail/internet connection only in June this year!). But
note that even the “heavy” modern authors, the prime example here being
Manuel Castells (1996, 1998) does not discuss mobile phones, at least not
in the 1st edition of the Information Age. For Castells Internet is the
big thing, whereas mobile communications do not seem to count, not even
when he discusses telecommunications. I believe (hope) that the second
edition corrects this somewhat (it does not: the volume I
contains only one (!) reference to mobile phones, at least according to
the index. Castells mentions that internet will soon be connected to mobility
because of the new 3rd generation mobile phones, and volume III contains
two or three mentions, none of them significant).
This is perhaps the most fascinating postmodern paradox of all,
the blind spot accorded to mobile phones. Luckily this is not true
in this conference, where “new technologies” were clearly the most popular
subject of all, and mobile phones come up very prominently as a specific
topic. In fact this should become the turning point in the history of mobile
phones and postmodernity (unfortunately this is not so, and it should be
noted that all those presenting papers about mobile phones were Finns)!
So I was very excited when I saw an announcement of George Myerson’s
book “Heidegger, Habermas and the mobile phone” (2001), and ordered
This is to my knowledge the first and only book (!) which explicitly
takes up postmodernity and the mobile phone. Unfortunately there is not
much concrete discussion about mobile phones in the book. There is a very
general and superficial discussion about mobile phones in mainly UK and
the United States, without any regard of HOW the mobile phones have come
about and what has actually happened when the mobile phones have spread
in the world. This is perhaps understandable because Myerson is Reader
in English, not even in sociology. It does not appear from the text, whether
Myerson is himself an user of a mobile phone (He seems to be “unbiased
by experience” as my teetotaller Professor, who was the head of The Finnish
Alcohol research foundation used to brag).
Myerson finds one (only one!) postmodern paradox in the mobile phone:
that the act of communication becomes solitary, individual, that the person
communicating is, according to the advertisement blurbs, involved in a
one person communications centre. While sending textons you don’t have
to know whether the person you are communicating with is available. Otherwise
the telephone communication is quite ordinary: you ARE talking to somebody.
Only when the mobile phone gets new capabilities, such as sending textons,
faxes (already completely out) or connection to the internet (WAP is a
flop but the Nokia Communicator works!) can we speak of individuals communicating
separately, and communication centres
Now there are actually many more interesting Postmodern paradoxes
in connection with mobile phones. The most essential of them are, in my
view (here I am loosely paraphrasing all kinds of postmodern theorists
and critics, Baudrillard (see Baudrillard on the Web, compiled by Alan
Taylor) Bauman 1993, Bauman 2001, Harvey 1989, Norris 1990, Tester1993:
Virilio (see www.chez.com/freecyb/virilio): It should be admitted
that some references are so old that they cannot be faulted for not mentioning
mobile phones, but in the next wave this is already unpardonable ...)
The mobile telephone becomes a private, individual device instead
of a machine used by several people at a fixed place, It gives a dramatically
new feeling of privacy.
This private device is often used at places where a large number
of people may listen to the discussion.
The mobile telephone allows for almost complete mobility with simultaneous
availability. I.e. the person is in actual reality highly mobile and virtually
fixed. This allows for the simultaneous existence in the same person both
modern, dynamic being-on-the-move person and a very traditional, fixed,
non-dynamic open communication which used to be completely incompatible.
When this is combined with constant connectedness to the internet (until
now, mainly e-mail, and slow internet) one can really talk of being in
the center of a web, operating a communications center wherever one is....
So, we are, with mobile phones, in the centre of postmodernity: here
and now vs independence of time and place, fragmentation of life
with virtual totality, absolute individuality with absolute communication,
authenticity of presence vs theatrical forms and rules of communication,
proximity and distance, total control (panopticon) vs. individual freedom
So how come the mobile phone has not been associated to postmodernity?
My answer is simple: the postmodern authors are usually so much out
of touch with reality, with what is actually happening that they
are just bound to miss especially the most evident real world changes.
And there is nothing textual about the mobile phone (except the famous
textons) so it is difficult to discuss it on the level of second-order
narrativity. But of course there are already a remarkable number of cultural
artifacts (movies, books etc) which at least mention the mobile phone,
so even there our postmodern authors have left things unexplored. I
for one, would be quite interested to see the results, but this is what
I can report to you so far. Perhaps mobile phones will be connected to
post-postmodernity, as they should.
For this is for me the essential thing about mobile phones: they
enable the type of (virtual) communication and interaction which characterizes
premodernity: people who never move far, live in small towns and villages
near each other, everybody knows where everybody is etc. But being virtual,
this kind of communication is not any more bound to any single locality,
as it was in the premodern times. And this makes it a very postmodern phenomenon.
Or to clear the mystery: mobile telephones would make it possible to empirically
test some of the claims made by postmodern authors. And that is certainly
why the subject has been so meticulously avoided.
Zygmunt Bauman: Postmodern Ethics Blackwell 1993
Zygmunt Bauman: Chasing Elusive Society, Plenary Paper in the ESA Congress,
Manuel Castells: The Information Age I. The Rise of Network Society
Manuel Castells: The Information Age III End of Millennium Blackwell
Kaisa Coogan-Sonja Kangas: Nuoret ja kommunikaatioakrobatia. 16-18-vuotiaiden
kännykkä- ja internet-kulttuurit. Elisa Tutkimuskeskus. Raportti
David Harvey: The Condition of Postmodernity. Blackwell 1989
Mike Featherstone: Consumer culture and Postmodernism Sage 1991
K.Koivunen - T. Kuosa: Premodern people using postmodern technology.
ESA Conference paper 2001
Timo Kopomaa: City in Your Pocket. Gaudeamus 2000
Rich Ling: The use of mobile telephones in inappropriate situations,
in Themes in Mobile telephony L Haddon ed) 1997
George Myerson: Heidegger, Habermas and the Mobile Phone. Icon Books
Pasi Mäenpää: Kännykkä ja urbaani elämäntapa.
In Hoikkala-Roos (toim) 2000-luvun elämä. Gaudeamus 2000
Pasi Mäenpää: Mobile Communication as a way of urban
life ESA Conference Paper 2001
Christopher Norris: What’s wrong with postmodernism. Johns Hopkins,
000 yuppies? Mobile phones in Finland. Telecommunications Policy, August
Le Sexe du Telephone Reseaux 103/2000
Dan Steinbock: The Nokia Revolution: The Story of an extraordinary
company that transformed an industry. American management association New
Keith Tester: The life and times of Post-Modernity Routledge 1993
John Urry 2000 The global media and cosmopolitanism
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