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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

Like the personal computer, the mobile phone has rapidly spread into our daily lives, affecting work, play, and everything in between. In fact, the mobile phone is the only technology with a growth rate higher than the Internet. Through the 1990s, the number of mobile phone subscribers went from almost none to a half billion people around the globe. Despite the growing number of people using mobile phones, the community of researchers investigating the social implications and communication processes of mobile telephony is notably small. As Palen, Salzman, and Youngs (2000) point out, "[p]ublished empirical research on mobile telephony practice has emerged only recently" and comprises a "small corpus of work" (202). Rice and Katz (2002) echo this comment, noting the mobile phone "has not attracted the attention of the scholarly community or policy-makers to a significant degree, unlike the Internet" (10).

James E. Katz and Mark Aakhus' book, Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, helps fill a giant void in the world of mobile communication research. Perpetual Contact fills this void by providing an edited collection of papers reflecting current research on mobile communication from around the globe. The book explores how people's lives are different as a result of un-tethered telecommunication, while also giving attention to the way social structures have become transformed by the explosion of related technologies and social behaviors. Most of the chapters in Perpetual Contact are papers originally presented in December of 1999 at a workshop at Rutgers University addressing the social aspects of mobile communication.

Perpetual Contact is divided into three parts: Mobile Communication: National and Comparative Perspectives; Private Talk: Interpersonal Relations and Micro-behavior; and Public Performance: Social Groups and Structures. The first part consists of a collection of chapters presenting research on how the mobile phone affects people's lives and the significance of these effects. Part One contains eight chapters with studies conducted in ten cultures from around the world. In addition to a wide range of cultures, the research in Part One includes a wide range of demographic levels, giving the reader a number of perspectives from which he/she can examine the social implications of mobile telephony.

"Finland: A Mobile Culture" by Jukka-Pekka Puro explores cultural considerations surrounding the vastly popular mobile phone in that country. The chapter focuses on demographic trends in mobile phone usage and illuminates unexpected patterns of use by men and women. The next chapter, Amit Schejter and Akiba Cohen's "Israel: Chutzpah and Chatter in the Holy Land," explores how Israeli culture and the explosive growth of the mobile phone market reinforce each other. This study examines functions and uses; ethics, etiquette, and values; and questions of policy related to mobile phone usage in Israel.

In "Italy: Stereotypes, True and False," Leopoldina Fortunati examines the cultural location and identity of the mobile phone in Italy compared to other European countries. Included in the analyses are discussions of basic characteristics of the mobile phone, reasons for its success in Italy, and issues associated with its connection to the human body.

Another chapter, Shin Dong Kim's "Korea: Personal Meanings," examines the rapid penetration of the mobile phone in South Korea, with a focus on cultural impacts on the diffusion and use of the technology. The author contrasts the seemingly informal nature of mobile communication with the traditions of hierarchy and collectivism in Korean culture and draws attention to broader implications for communication competence in South Korea as a result of mobile phone adoption and usage.

"United States: Popular, Pragmatic and Problematic," a chapter by Kathleen A. Robbins and Martha A. Turner, highlights the fact that the U.S. lags behind many European and Asian countries in terms of mobile telephony penetration and usage. The authors of this chapter acknowledge regulation as a factor, but place emphasis on the demographics of mobile phone users and non-users in the U.S. as key factors in adoption and usage rates.

Christian Licoppe and Jean-Philippe Heurtin's "France: Preserving the Image" investigates how trust and bonding are negotiated through mobile communication. The way mobile phone users reveal their local contexts to each other during mobile communication is of particular interest in the examination of trust and bonding. In "The Netherlands and the USA Compared," Enid Mante examines the way communication technologies, such as the mobile phone, soften boundaries between countries, time zones, work, and leisure. The chapter also addresses similarities in perceptions and meanings for mobile telephony among individuals in the Netherlands and the United States.

Part One of Perpetual Contact also includes Valentin Varbanov's "Bulgaria: Mobile Phones as Post-communist Cultural Icons," a chapter on mobile telephony in Bulgaria, a poor post-communist country where mobile telephony has not penetrated nearly to the degree as the other countries included in the body of work. This chapter examines how mobile telephony reflects images of culture in Bulgaria. The author discusses how the symbolic meaning of the mobile phone illuminates the nature of culture and hierarchy in Bulgarian society.

While Part One of Perpetual Contact deals with effects of mobile telephony on people's lives, Part Two shifts attention to factors of communication that can be uniquely observed through the lens of mobile telephony. Katz and Aakhus explain, "[t]he novelty of mobile phone technology, and its intrusive power into people's lives, allow us to observe aspects of the human communication process that would otherwise escape our attention, or at least be extremely difficult to discern" (3). As is the case for Part One, the chapters in Part Two offer a multi-cultural perspective.

Drawing from research in Norway, Richard Ling and Birgitte Yttri's "Hyper-coordination via Mobile Phones in Norway" addresses instrumental and expressive forms of mobile phone usage. The instrumental use of mobile phones is referred to as "micro-coordination," while expressive mobile phone use is termed "hyper-coordination." Micro-coordination involves using a mobile phone for logistical purposes, such as firming up the place and time for a meeting or asking a family member to stop by the store on their way home. Hyper-coordination involves using a mobile phone to communicate emotion, chat, tell a joke, or generally maintain social relations. The authors found these forms of mobile phone use to be associated with demographic factors. Micro-coordination was common among two-career parents, while hyper-coordination was primarily exhibited by teens.

The second chapter in Part Two, Eija-Liisa Kasesniemi and Pirjo Rautiainen's "Mobile Culture of Children and Teenagers in Finland," examines the practice of text messaging among teenagers in Finland. The authors found that Finnish teens use text messaging as often, if not more often, than voice calling with their mobile phones. In fact, teens included in the study have developed a distinct culture through the use of text messaging. The study examines key aspects of text messaging culture, including relationships, language, and artifacts.

A subsequent chapter, "Pretense of Intimacy in France" by Chantel De Gournay, offers a critique of mobile communication as a form of social expression. Drawing from research in France, this chapter describes the evolution of telephone norms that guide mobile communication and discusses how increasing informality in talk, at the expense of formality, poses a challenge to interpersonal relations in modern times. The author poses the question, "How can one talk of oneself -- and, above all, how can personal drama have meaning -- if one is unable to use the language resources required for a narrative?" (201).

The final chapter in Part Two, Dawn Nafus and Karina Tracey's "Mobile Phone Consumption and Concepts of Personhood," explores the social construction of individuality through mobile phone consumption. Through a study of information technologies in British households, the authors examine the dialectical tension between individuality and connectedness, and how this tension is negotiated through the use of material objects, such as the mobile phone.

Part Three shifts focus from human interaction through mobile technology to the relationship between mobile technology and social structural processes. Chapters in this section of the book address large-scale issues surrounding mobile communication and social order. For example, one chapter, Kenneth J. Gergen's "The Challenge of Absent Presence," explores the cultural consequences of being physically present, yet mentally elsewhere via mobile communication, while another chapter, "From Mass Society to Perpetual Contact: Models of Communication Technologies in Social Context" by James B. Rule, juxtaposes the 20th century development of "mass" society with the "particularizing communications" made possible with personal communication technologies (PCTs), such as the mobile phone.

The last chapter in Part Three, James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus' "Conclusion: Making Meaning of Mobiles -- A Theory of Apparatgeist," is perhaps the most compelling, since it offers something desperately needed in the study of mobile telephony -- a theory. In this chapter, Katz and Aakhus advance a novel theory of adoption and usage of mobile phones and other PCTs, such as video-cassette recorders, beepers, and e-mail. The name of this theory, Aparatgeist, literally means "machine spirit." The neologism Aparatgeist serves as a rhetorical tactic "to suggest the spirit of the machine that influences both the designs of the technology as well as the initial and subsequent significance accorded by users, non-users, and anti-users" (305).

According to Aparatgeist theory, mobile phones and other PCTs have a spirit that cuts through demographic, national, and cultural differences. This spirit contributes to universal movement toward consistencies in the way PCTs are used in various nations and cultural settings. Katz and Aakhus explain, "universal features exist among all cultures regarding PCT; technology itself tends to assume certain standard features independent of place or time" (310). Drawing from the chapters in the book, Katz and Aakhus point to consistent patterns of use in the way teens integrate mobile telephony into their lives for collective behavior, gender differences in mobile phone use, and new behaviors and unanticipated effects associated with mobile phone use. The authors note that despite the differing national and cultural contexts, patterns emerged in these areas of use.

Although the name Aparatgeist sounds like technological determinism, the authors are careful to include human as well as technological factors in explaining the patterns of mobile phone use. Katz and Aakhus attribute these patterns to a certain "logic, or nascent philosophy, about personal communication technology" (307). This logic, coined by the authors as the logic of "perpetual contact," is the result of collective sense-making and "underwrites how we judge, invent, and use communication technologies" (307). Katz and Aakhus argue that the logic of perpetual contact is fed by the desire for pure communication. Pure communication refers to a complete social connection, an idealization in which one is able to share one's mind with another (Peters, 1999). Katz and Aakhus contend that people think about and use mobile phones in ways driven by the desire for perpetual contact, and this helps explain and predict patterns of mobile phone adoption and use.

According to Katz and Aakhus, the theoretical framework of Aparatgeist involves recognition of both explicit and implicit factors pertaining to social processes and technology. Some of the explicit or manifest social factors playing into mobile phone use include social roles, personal needs, and norms. Some of the implicit or latent social factors reflected in mobile phone use include reference group attraction/avoidance, network of social ties, and synergies of additional participants in the network. Some of the manifest technological factors include the phone's size, speed, and ease of use. Latent technological factors include symbolic values, social appropriateness for use, and exploitation to loosen self-monitoring and increase monitoring over others. Aparatgeist theory posits that these factors and others like them help drive the decisions about adoption and use of mobile phones and other PCTs.

Perpetual Contact is a landmark body of work, a valuable resource for teachers and researchers trying to grasp where we stand today with mobile communication research. If there is a criticism this reviewer has for the book, it is that Katz and Aakhus could have even further explicated their theory of Aparatgeist. For example, they assert that patterns in the way mobile phones are conceptualized and used around the globe can be traced to the desire for pure communication. One question to be answered is whether pure communication is at the heart of these patterns or perhaps pure accessibility. In other words, are consistent patterns in PCT use attributable to the desire to mind-meld with others, or are they perhaps a function of the convenience of being able to reach others and be reached by others in spite of physical location? This is a question for Katz, Aakhus, and others studying mobile telephony to address in future research. At any rate, the research and analyses offered in Perpetual Contact are highly illuminating, and the theory of Aparatgeist offers both heuristic and analytical value.

Palen, L., Salzman, M., & Youngs, E. (2000). Going wireless: Behavior and practice of new mobile phone users. Proceedings of the ACM CSCW 2000 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, Philadelphia, PA, 201-210.

Peters, J. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rice, R.E., & Katz, J.E. (2002). Comparing internet and mobile phone usage: Digital divides of usage, adoption, and dropouts. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Scott Campbell:
Scott Campbell is an assistant professor in the College of Communication, Hawaii Pacific University. He is currently investigating how perceptions and uses of mobile telephony are socially constructed in personal networks. He is also researching how "voice" is enacted online and has recently received a Pew Writing Fellowship to support a study of politeness accommodation in email messages.  <SCamp10343@aol.com>

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