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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 economic position.
 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 way.
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 2, 2000)
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 mobile-free zones:

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 environment. 
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 meal times. 
If you have to keep your cell phone on during a meeting, explain in advance. 
Don't give out your cell phone number freely or leave it on your answering machine. 
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 airplanes?)
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 car!).
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 and parents.
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 it immediately.
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, Helsinki 2001
Manuel Castells: The Information Age I. The Rise of Network Society Blackwell 1996
Manuel Castells: The Information Age III End of Millennium Blackwell 1998
Kaisa Coogan-Sonja Kangas: Nuoret ja kommunikaatioakrobatia. 16-18-vuotiaiden kännykkä- ja internet-kulttuurit. Elisa Tutkimuskeskus. Raportti 158, 2001
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 Cambridge 2001
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, Baltimore 1990
J.P.Roos:300 000 yuppies? Mobile phones in Finland. Telecommunications Policy, August 1993, 446-456 
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 York 2001
Keith Tester: The life and times of Post-Modernity Routledge 1993
John Urry 2000 The global media and cosmopolitanism 

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