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Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance

Editor: James E. Katz, Mark Aakhus
Publisher: Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review Published: January 2003

 REVIEW 1: Tim Detwiler
 REVIEW 2: Scott Campbell
 REVIEW 3: Wendy Robinson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Mark Aakhus and James E. Katz

In what is likely the "first international attempt aimed at codifying what is known about the social aspects of mobile communication on national culture or comparative bases" (xxii), this book is an anthology comprised primarily of the research presented at a workshop held at Rutgers University in 1999. Representing twelve different countries (USA, Ireland, Italy, France, Korea, Norway, Netherlands, UK, Findland, Israel, Denmark, Bulgaria) and a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and marketplace perspectives (communications, sociology, political science, popular culture, science and technology, anthropology, business, engineering, psychology, and library studies), the two editors (both from Rutgers) are able to take the work of twenty-six people and systematize the pastiche of research into a meaningful work of nineteen articles and two essays in an appendix. The editors capture, in their own words, the "first steps towards building a multidimensional conceptual framework and outlining what is known and what needs to be learned about the social aspects of mobile communication" (xxii). More about the conceptual nature of this work appears later in this review.

The overall structure of the book includes three distinct parts with an appendix. Part 1 focuses upon national and comparative perspectives. Part II centers on the interpersonal and micro-behavioral aspects of relating to others using mobile technology. Part III discusses the macro-behavioral functioning of public groups and a variety of social structures which provide a foundation for the possibility of perpetual contact between individuals in isolation and in public spheres. Finally, the Appendix highlights the theoretical work of Emanuel A. Schegloff as a foundation by which the technological might be better understood within the deeper context of human symbolic interaction.

Each article is well written and each adds a dimension to the overall structure, flow, and development of the text. As one would expect, a good source list is provided for each article allowing the reader a wonderful resource for further reading and investigation. The coverage of topics is broad, it is rich in information providing a depth of understanding, and it is an interesting read. Editors Katz and Aakhus weave together a number of variables into a grid for grasping and understanding the topic of mobile telephonic communication in a multiple number of contexts on a number of different levels. This work provides a wonderful hybrid definition of the issues all planned to move forward the state of communication theory concerning the personal/social use of this technology.

Katz and Aakhus frame this discussion of mobile personal technology by signifying the nature of the issues circling the integration of this technology into the fabric of an individual's life and of single and multiple communities. Those issues include the following items: symbols, power, order, command, negotiation, maintenance of the social order, and self conceptual identity. In general, a social scientific perspective guides the investigation of a technology which allows humans to transpose space and time for the conducting of personal and professional individual and social activities. Allowed in that general framework are multiple methods of coming to know, including both quantitative and qualitative research techniques.

Allow me a short space to identify the contents of each section of the book. Part I deals with national and comparative perspectives of using mobile phones for instrumental and expressive purposes such as: work, safety, social interaction, information, mobility, coordination of daily life, both public and private uses, issues of continuity and change, concerns of transportation and connection, practices in developing the human concept of time, the development of regulatory schemes, and basic access for all segments of the population. All of these socio-cultural themes aid us in understanding how a society is reproduced, reinforced and extended by the symbolic and social dimensions of the mobile telephone.

Part II focuses upon interpersonal relationships and other forms of microbehavior. Of special interest is the production of individuality and personhood brought on by the spread of asynchronous telephonic discourse. As this technology is seen as an important factor for the social construction of reality, the development of new cultural artifacts by the use of mobile telephones is linked to many demographic and psychographic variables. This section of the book unpacks a lot about the use of mobile phones in practical, theoretical, and philosophical perspectives. In fact, Chantel de Gournay provides an apt summary of this ninety page section of the overall work by stating in her article that the blending of both the public and the private spheres is "an ideological phenomenon, which is not reducible to technological developments but more profoundly, challenges the legitimacy of social norms and institutions" (198). It is that sort of intriguing investigatory mindset which makes this a must read book for those interested in the impact of not just mobile telephonic interaction but of technology in general on individuals, groups, societies, and cultures.

Part III concerns itself with public performance for both groups and social structures. Among some of the stimulating ideas presented include: a redefining of mass society, the pragmatics of everyday life, the negotiation of new interaction strategies, the notion of what it means to be both absent and present at the same time, and the general concept of a "floating world" where the epistemology of knowing one's world is able to be withdrawn from daily living. This section, as did the other two, provides a wonderfully rich perspective from which to view, comprehend, and speculate about the current uses and future potential of mobile communications technology.

In a very interesting move, the editors provide bookend chapters (first and last) for all of the other research reports. The first chapter sets the stage for the questions at play and the final chapter summarizes the knowledge of mobile communications by postulating a new theory for a deeper grounding for their work. The theory of "Apparatgeist" will be given more attention shortly. However, the machine-mind/spirit acknowledges how mobile communication technology alters the nature of public space and the commonly received notion of private relationships. As a special feature, the appendix contains two articles by Emanual Schegloff (and he also authors one of the chapters) which position the entire project into the theoretical work of conversation analysis. This framework provides for an accepted analytical stance to render judgments of the importance and the impact of mobile technology as to how people manage access to each other and form appropriate identities through technological interaction. In essence, the rules of communication we take for granted provide not only a starting point for understanding this technology, but a context for fully understanding how this new technology is becoming an increasingly important apparatus of how people are now negotiating their way through the human condition.

One of the important considerations of a text like this is the general orientation to technology taken by the authors. It is safe to conclude that this is not a technological determinist treatise. This tool of business, of culture, and personal identity is viewed from the already entrenched cultural codes and stabilized rituals of a society and thus not capable of singular revolutionary change of the basic social system. As a consequence, this book takes an evolutionary change model as its primary focal point and that, I argue, is the best position to hold. Technology seldom dictates cultural activity, but usually the culture provides a context for the opportunity for the technology to flourish. There is no na´vetÚ of any of the authors on this point; this is especially true of Katz and Aakhus. However, the first and last chapters provide a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of the issues involved with a more pedestrian sense of perspective from other contributing authors. In essence, the editors provide the theoretical threads that hold the entire work together.

The new theory which the authors postulate in this book is called "apparatgeist" meaning machine/spirit. I think that this sort of framework not only fits the mobile telephone technology well, but it provides a broader framework for understanding the relationship between technology and humanity. Katz and Aakhus spend the final chapter of the book seeking to make meaning of mobile technology and the many ideas offered by the other contributors. As they state, "our purpose is not only to make sense of the myriad social and thematic issues raised but also to suggest a novel theoretical approach" (301). Their definitional theory allows for both sides of the equation (technology - humanity) to be given each its due attention. At times the technology is emphasized and other times the humanness of it all is able to take precedence. Simply, multiple options to the two common variables are allowed interplay with all of the myriad of social and psychological variables mixing in infinite fashion to allow for a variety of situational applications of the new technology. One aspect of the geist (spirit) which could be further developed by the theory and made practical in the use of the technology is the actual ontological decisions made and encountered by the individuals using mobile telephony. For example, the notions of the "spiritual" sense of humanity might yield interestingly rich results. However, the bottom-line purpose of the theoretical approach is to "understand still better how people fit these new devices into their lives and to what effect" (316) and this the book does well.

At points, it seems as though a few of the researchers are unaware of the "diffusion of technology" literature which would provide a rich and an accepted context in which to situate mobile telephonic technology. Also, I find it interesting that no mention is made of Brian Winston's 1986 book, Misunderstanding Media, and some of his ideas; namely, the concept of the radical suppression of potential prescribed by existing and dominant modes of technology and human practice. It might prove interesting to use such a notion to explain the social conditions which limit the penetration of mobile telephony into any country's social order.

I advocate that there is enough practical, theoretical, and philosophical information available to appeal to a wide range of readers. However, a more purposeful and sensitive addressing of Post-Modernity and its relationship to technological diffusion would give a broader perspective to not only view this particular form of apparatgeist, but for the whole set of issues raised when one studies technology and culture. An entrenchment of Modernity is mentioned, but the topics of the absent/present, a de-centered sense of self, the axiological concern of the loss of moral bearings, the nature of relationships, and the uprooting of meaning from a material context all beg to be defined in the context of Post-Modernity and not solely Modernity. This certainly would provide a rich vein of potential research activity -- especially for those interested in the philosophical moorings of technology.

Perhaps a sign of a good book is the number and the sort of questions which arise after reading it. This must be a good book because it certainly sets the context for the asking of a lot of questions. So, where might future research take us? The text itself is full of possible suggestions and questions for further investigation; specifically, there are good sets of questions asked by a number of authors and for quick reference such lists exist on pages 89, 189, and 297. Additionally, I offer the following thoughts as to a few research areas and specific questions:
  • Perhaps additional research on the axiological concerns related to the multiplicity of individual and groups issues involved would be of benefit.
  • Much is left to be done in regard to the social aspects of mobile phone technology.
  • Understanding how this technology is impacting the manner by which we encounter and negotiate the human condition is only beginning to be understood.
  • What are the forces and their impact of cyber-mediated relationships? How do such forces shape (and are shaped by) social arrangements?
  • One variable which was missing from any of the studies (except by the editors notion of apparatgeist) is that of the spiritual nature of human existence. I am wondering how technology interacts with notions of human spirituality?
  • How does technology grow from general cultural philosophical milieus, such as Post-Modernity?
  • An interesting project might look at the convergence of mobile phone technology with other telecommunications devices. In that sense, what sorts of universal information technologies are developing?
  • What about studying the development of new uses for the phone in a language arts sequence represented by: thought, symbol, message, meaning, and cultural memory?
  • Globalization . . . how does mobile telephony assist in this aspect of human development?
  • How do we deal with the regulation of such technologies which connect people in new definitions of time and space?
Simply, this book is a good read and I recommend it highly. It will not only provide a lot of good information, but it will cause readers to consider the topic and to ask a lot of questions.

Tim Detwiler:
Tim Detwiler is a Professor of Communication Arts at Cornerstone University of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research interests include the integration of technology into culture, the self-conceptual impact of technology on organizational behavior, and a rhetorical understanding of the spiritual nature of technology.  <Timothy_J_Detwiler@cornerstone.edu>

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