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Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective

Author: Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernández-Ardčvol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: November 2007

 REVIEW 1: Hill Taylor
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mireia Fernández-Ardčvol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey

First of all, we would like to thank Dr. Hill Taylor for his detailed and insightful review of our book.

By the end of 2007 there will be one mobile subscription for every two human beings in the world. This moment may well pass unnoticed, because the mobile phone, unlike the computer, does not look so imposing, and using it requires much less knowledge and skill. Hence it is easy to think of the mobile phone as nothing extraordinary, just a tiny device in the pocket. Yet, as we tried to highlight in our book, it is precisely this perceptual modesty of the technology, plus its rapid diffusion throughout the world, that is fundamentally changing the things we do things and the way we do them. For this device offers not only relentless connectivity but also countless opportunities to appropriate, constrain, and transform connectivity under all kinds of circumstances.

To grasp the social fabric of the twenty-first century, one must understand the role of mobile communication. Starting from this basic assumption, we set out to do a synthesis of existing research that reflects the status quo of the burgeoning field. This is why some chapters are longer than others as it reflects the reality of uneven development among different research topics. In order to make this volume as inclusive as possible, we foreground empirical findings from various parts of the world, many of which are unsurprisingly about technology diffusion, social differentiation, mobiles and youth, and in everyday life. Only after this, we turn to the conceptual constructs such as space of flows and timeless time, which are however also informed by the empirical evidence we gathered. These are therefore not exactly theoretical chapters in this sense. From this point on, we drew more heavily from qualitatively-oriented and even some action research projects worldwide regarding such issues as language, politics, and socio-economic development. Although one might find the change of scholarship style a bit too eclectic, this is consistent with our goal to provide as exhaustive an assessment of the field as possible.

The contents of the book are, for the above reasons, varied because each chapter covers different issues, being tackled by researchers from various disciplines in all major regions of the world. We therefore agree with Hill that there is certainly no need for a linear reading of the book. We encourage readers to go straight to the subject of interest.

Some areas of particular interest to us in putting together this global survey of mobile communications were the transforming dynamics of youth within families, the concept of micro-coordination, and expectations of socio-economic development from the use of mobile phones by poor people. We were also fascinated by the ways in which mobile devices plays a crucial role in the dynamics between power and counter-power at the organizational and institutional levels of politics. We now address these pertinent issues one by one.

Wireless technology fits young people's way of life and enables them fulfil their communication needs: interaction with peers as well as with parents. A particularly important process in the development of new family relationships is the management of autonomy vis á vis security. There is a tension between the desires and interests of parents and children, and wireless technology provides a means to resolve this tension in ways that were not possible before. Indeed, the ability to exercise independence does not mean that young people lose their ties with the family. The autonomy they enjoy as a result of owning a mobile phone still operates within a framework of parental rules.

In this sense, "mobile communication creates what one might call an extended umbilical cord between youth and their parents" (United Nations, 2003: 322). Indeed, as described by Fortunati and Manganelli (2002: 62), there is a kind of sham, or "mime," within the family:

    [A]dolescents "mime" with the mobile in a public area and simulate autonomy and responsibility without actually enjoying them. Having often received the mobile as a gift from parents and being financially supported by them for their own use, adolescents are obliged to show continuous gratitude and acknowledgement towards too generous, permissive parents. [...]

    In the same way, their parents "mime" with a respect towards freedom as for the children which, in fact, they are very far from expressing, since they actually often would seem to feel the obligation of closely monitoring them.

All in all, what is clear from the evidence we studied is that the availability of wireless communication technologies modifies but does not eliminate the power relations between parents and children. The mobile phone is, in a paradoxical way, the keeper and breaker of family ties (Lorente, 2002: 6-8).

With regards to the concept of micro-coordination mentioned by Hill, this is possibly one of the most important capabilities that mobile phones provide to families. It is worth to remember its definition: Ling (2004: 70) defined micro-coordination as the "nuanced management of social interactions. [It] can be seen in the redirection of trips that have already started, it can be seen in the iterative agreement as to where and when can meet friends, and it can be seen, for example, in the ability to call ahead when we are late to an appointment." Although in some cases, micro-coordination makes some trips unnecessary; in other cases it may also generate more need to travel. Hence, as demonstrated in a study by Ling and Haddon (2001), mobile telephony is not significantly changing the number of trips a person makes, but it does allow the redirection of journeys that have already begun.

In the months since this book was published, assessments of the promise of mobile communications for socio-economic development have remained strong, and more empirical research is emerging to support or challenge these views. There is also (slowly) increasing acknowledgment of the complex layers of influence that mediate the sometimes revolutionary, but often incremental, impacts of communication technologies in developing countries. The sophistication and breadth of some newly published studies are a welcome trend that may soon make it possible to do the type of quantitative analysis Hill would have liked to see in chapter eight (e.g., Frost and Sullivan, 2006; Galpaya, 2007; Galperin & Mariscal, 2006; Jensen, 2007). While it is exciting to see how mobile telephones are being used in developing countries, it is important to remember that telecommunications technology in its early days performed similar functions for populations in the West, and continues to do so. The tool used to communicate and access information more quickly and efficiently has changed, but the uses are ultimately not so dissimilar.

At the heart of the matter is the central theme of the book -- networked connectivity and its outcomes. The essential contribution of mobile telephony to all the processes we discuss in this book is arguably its facilitation of higher degrees of connectivity, and flexibility in this connectivity. Cumulatively this gives the connected potential access to life-enhancing and life-changing resources, be they market information, political power, or social interaction. And this new connectivity could have favorable and unfavorable outcomes for different actors. But the potential for connection must first exist -- mobile phone technology has made this potential possible for a greater proportion of the world's population than was possible with previous technologies, thus intensifying the growth of the network society.

Finally, mobile communication has continued to penetrate the world of politics since we examined the socio-political uses of wireless device in this volume. Berlusconi's failure in using SMS spam as a political tool has not discouraged politicians elsewhere from appropriating mobile phones in election campaigns, while others, like King Gyanandra of Nepal and the military junta of Myanmar, have cut off mobile connections during periods of popular protests. However, the real fundamental change is the pervasive use of mobiles in counter-power projects, in identity politics armed with high-resolution camera phones, and in the larger process toward "mass self-communication" when past boundaries between the public and the private, between personal media and mass media, are further erased due to the rise of multi-model, interactive, and horizontal networks (Castells, 2007).

The contestation between power and counter-power has resulted in more extreme ways of technology deployment such as explosives activated by cell phones, whose origin can be traced back to the 2004 Madrid bombing but can now be found in all continents. In everyday politics such as those at the workplace, we also see more organized efforts to exert control over and through mobile messaging as a new "wireless leash," for example, in the factories of South China (Qiu, 2007), which, however, only triggers a new round of informational politics. In the book, we treated China as a case of relatively low levels of socio-political mobil-ization despite the size of its wireless market. That is no longer true as Chinese citizens have started to use mobile communication to organize grassroots movements, for example, in a successful demonstration against a chemistry plant in Xiamen, Fujian Province, during May-June 2007 (Cody, 2007). Mobile-equipped environmentalists can be in Xiamen or San Francisco, and they constitute only one part of the new mediascape of mass self-communication now taking a central position in power politics. This is another key outcome of networked connectivity through mobile communication that we are witnessing in societies worldwide.

References

Castells, M. (2007). "Communication, power and counter-power in the network society." International Journal of Communication, 1, 238-266.

Cody, E. (2007). "Text messages giving voice to Chinese." Washington Post, June 28, 2007. A01..

Fortunati L.; Manganelli, A. M. (2002). Young People and the Mobile Telephone. Revista de Estudios de Juventud, 52, 59-78.

Frost and Sullivan (2006). Social impact of mobile telephony in Latin America.

Galpaya H, Samarajiva R, Soysa S. (2007). Taking e-Gov to the Bottom of the Pyramid now: Dial-a-Gov? Accepted for presentation at the 2nd Communication Policy Research South conference, Chennai, India, December 14 - 18 2007.

Galperin, H.; Mariscal, J. (eds.) (2007). Digital Poverty: Latin American and Caribbean Perspectives. Practical Action Publishing/IDRC.

Jensen, R. (2007). The digital provide: Information technology, market performance, and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, CXXII(3), 879-924.

Ling, R. (2004). The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Ling, R.; Haddon, L. (2001). Mobile telephony, mobility and the coordination of everyday life. Paper presented at the Machines that Become Us Conference, Rutgers University, April 18 and 19; 19 pages. Retrieved March 2004 from http://www.telenor.no/fou/program/nomadiske/articles/rich/(2001)Mobile.pdf

Lorente, S. (2002). Youth and Mobile Telephones: More than a Fashion. Revista De Estudios De Juventud, 57, 9-24

Qiu, J.L. (2007). "The wireless leash: Mobile messaging as a mean of control." International Journal of Communication, 1, 74-91.

United Nations (2003). World Youth Report: The Global Situation of Young People. United Nations. Sales no. E.03.IV.7

Mireia Fernández-Ardčvol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey

<mfernandezar@uoc.edu>

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