Does Mobile Telephony Disconnect People from City Life?
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Jan 05 11:15:00 GMT 2004

How are mobile phones changing the cultural experience of being in a city? The very experience of urbanity that is supposedly changing under the pressure of thumb-tribes is itself a sense of social place as old as civilization (the city as agora, part market, part information-exchanging machine) that was changed irrevocably by rapid mass adoption of place-altering technologies such as skyscrapers, railroads, automobiles, and wireline telephones. Now what?

Use of mobile telephony has spread through urban populations so quickly, across so many cultures and in such numbers, that it is possible to identify the early signs some the most important social questions about ubiquitous, untethered, interconnection - even if the answers remain elusive or arguable. The sense of social place associated with cities is one of the most important phenomena we need to understand.

I recently encountered two new approaches to this questions. Distinguished NY Times art and architecture critic Paul Goldberger, recently bemoaned "Disconnected Urbanism" in a recent issue of Metropolis. After watching the transformation of Tokyo, Helsinki, London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, and other cities that I've known fairly well for years, I am personally sympathetic to many of the points Goldberger makes when he says

Places are unique--or at least we like to believe they are - and we strive to experience them as a kind of engagement with particulars. Cell phones are precisely the opposite. When a piece of geography is doing what it is supposed to do, it encourages you to feel a connection to it that, as in marriage, forsakes all others. When you are in Paris you expect to wallow in its Parisness, to feel that everyone walking up the Boulevard Montparnasse is as totally and completely there as the lampposts, the kiosks, the facade of the Brasserie Lipp--and that they could be no place else. So we want it to be in every city, in every kind of place. When you are in a forest, you want to experience its woodsiness; when you are on the beach, you want to feel connected to sand and surf.

This is getting harder to do, not because these special places don't exist or because urban places have come to look increasingly alike. They have, but this is not another rant about the monoculture and sameness of cities and the suburban landscape. Even when you are in a place that retains its intensity, its specialness, and its ability to confer a defining context on your life, it doesn't have the all-consuming effect these places used to. You no longer feel that being in one place cuts you off from other places. Technology has been doing this for a long time, of course -- remember when people communicated with Europe by letter and it took a couple of weeks to get a reply? Now we're upset if we have to send a fax because it takes so much longer than e-mail.

But the cell phone has changed our sense of place more than faxes and computers and e-mail because of its ability to intrude into every moment in every possible place. When you walk along the street and talk on a cell phone, you are not on the street sharing the communal experience of urban life. You are in some other place--someplace at the other end of your phone conversation. You are there, but you are not there.

Who would dispute that the Montparnasse of even ten years ago is a different place today, in part because more and more of the boulevardiers are in SMS or MP3 land or talking to someone whose body is elsewhere? I'm not as convinced as Goldberger that this represents an unalloyed tragedy, an irreversible breakdown of civilized norms. Don't we change our norms all the time? Which brings me to another point of view. Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist of contemporary cyber-tribes, recently published (with colleague Daisuke Okabe), "Mobile Phones, Japanese Youth, and the Re-Placement of Social Contact," based on careful observation of what people are really doing. Of course, it is Ito's job to make ethnographic observations of the communication behavior of urban youth, and Goldberger's job to offer opinions about the value of changes in public places. Nevertheless, my sympathy for Goldberger's fears are somewhat tempered by Ito's conclusions:

Even when traveling through urban space solo, mobile messengers make lightweight contact with others, updating friends about their whereabouts, beaming some news about a hot sale, transmitting a photo of a celebrity sighting. Urban space has become a socially networked space criss-crossed with the flow of messages.

Our general conclusion is that mobile phones do undermine prior definitions of social situations, but they also define new technosocial situations and new boundaries of identity and place. To say that mobile phones univocally cross boundaries, heighten accessibility, and fragment social life is to see only one side of the dynamic social reconfigurations heralded by mobile communications. Mobile phones create new kinds of bounded places that merge the infrastructures of geography and technology, as well as technosocial practices that merge technical standards and social norms.

Ito and Okabe seem to be saying "it's not that simple," in contrast to Goldberger's alarm. When investigating the questions that Ito and Okabe raise -- What do we know about these new situations and boundaries? - Phil Agre's observation, now a couple years old, comes to mind:

The opposite extreme from an always-on world is feudalism, in which everyone assumes that all relationships are fixed, static, permanent, and God-given, so that everyone knows their place and fully expects to spend their lives maneuvering within a specific, small, stable repertoire of relationships.

Feudalism has its virtues: if the relationships are good ones, then they can acquire a depth and comfort that comes from the confidence that they will always be around. The problem with feudalism, of course, is that most of the relationships aren't good ones, so that everyone is trapped in the relational world they were born with.

The always-on world has the opposite problem. It is a world of freedom, but it is also a world of anonymous global forces that ceaselessly rearrange all relationships to their liking. We don't understand this world very well, but we will soon have plenty of opportunity to study it first-hand.

What do you think? What are you observing first-hand? Is Goldberger unduly alarmed, or is he onto something? If it's not that simple, what do our observations hint about the nature of the complexities? Is your experience of Montparnasse or Shibuya or Times Square or Lasipalatsi radically different from a few years ago because of the way people use mobile phones?