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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

Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance follows from a conference held at Rutgers University in December 1999. Department of Communication professors James E. Katz and Mark Aakhus edited the volume that brings together approximately 20 papers contributed by scholars and commentators on contemporary communication from across the globe. The text is divided into three sections that roughly correspond with the subtitle: national and comparative perspectives; interpersonal relations; and the public performance of cellular telephone use.

Corded Context

The book partially seems to be intended to follow the cord of The Social Impact of the Telephone, edited by Ithiel de Sola Poole, which was published in the mid-1970s to commemorate the birth of the telephone as part of MIT’s celebration of the American bicentennial. It can also be useful to consider Perpetual Contact alongside Howard Rheingold’s latest offering, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, in which Rheingold connects up the accelerating use of mobile devices with hive mind or distributed intelligence, which he argues together have the potential to encourage synergistic virtual communities on the fly, in the moment. Rheingold also takes an international perspective and in contrast with the contributors to Social Impact and Perpetual Contact, his purpose is clearly one of advocacy.

To compare Social Impact with Perpetual Contact and Smart Mobs is to see how far we’ve come in terms of audience analysis. This reader was struck recently when reading Social Impact that the user of telephones, the vast majority of the U.S. population in 1976, was left out and the focus instead was on the technologies and entrepreneurs or robber barons responsible for telephony. That kind of omission would be unlikely to occur a quarter of a century later and fortunately is not the case with Perpetual Contact[1].

Perpetual Contact, then, is not advocacy, nor is it a validation of Great Men with Great Deeds. Moreover, it very much does not leave out those of us chatting away with device in hand. Also, in the words of the editors:
    to avoid confusion and disappointment, it is important to note what this book is not about. It is not an analysis of the technology underlying the mobile phone industry or of its economic and marketing aspects. Nor is it about the safety aspects of mobile phones (such as are entailed in questions of their contribution to highway accidents or brain cancer). (xxii)
Perpetual Contact is not about the economics of telecommunications – which is a considerable topic indeed, particularly in view of the malfeasance that came to light in 2001-02 – nor does it address regulatory resistance, such as the restriction against driving while under the influence of mobile talk in New York State and the ongoing medical research that may link brain tumors with cellular radiation.

Furthermore, because of the date of the papers, which were duly revised for publication, the volume does not cover recent trends in this sector of telephony crossed with consumer electronics and the computer industry – a highly dynamic area of information technology marketing and consumption, signified by the convergence of cellular telephones (cell phones) with personal digital assistants (PDAs). Relatively inexpensive cell phones today include a datebook, camera, personal audio or other functionality, such as short text messaging, which exceed prior conceptualizations of "the telephone."

Among the meanings that can be attached to September 11, 2001 – with many of its events taking place only miles from New Brunswick, New Jersey, across New York Harbor – is how the date may in time serve as an inflection point for the use of mobile and instantaneous telecommunications. With cell phones in lower Manhattan largely ineffective that day, other devices (BlackBerry, walkie-talkies, pagers, air phones, voice and e-mail, instant messaging, and PDAs with wireless access to a lesser extent) substituted for mobile telephony, which suggests that the device itself may be less important than the need for "perpetual contact" in the late twentieth, early twenty-first centuries across much of the world. In the prototypical sense of what would you grab if you had to flee a burning building, many witnesses that day obviously thought that a cell phone or similar device was more important than handbags, briefcases, laptops, photographs and mementoes [2].

Avowals and Metrics

The reason for the preamble is that I would like to persuade cyberculture scholars that mobile communication is an important topic that we should be considering. The Internet is no longer solely tied to the wall socket or telephone jack. With few books yet available on the subject from an American perspective (there is quite a bit on "the mobile" emerging from Great Britain and other parts of Europe and the Pacific Rim), Perpetual Contact is a much needed and valued contribution. Because the text is a few years old, it does not encompass the merging of telecommunications with Internet studies that Smart Mobs touches on, but the research it offers provides a firm grounding in the topic. I’ve already used Perpetual Contact in my writing and teaching and Rheingold drew on its sources when researching Smart Mobs.

That said, however, I come at the topic from a critical cultural studies or technocultural standpoint rather than empirical, which is the thrust of the research in the text. Nevertheless, I found much of the statistical and rhetorical analysis of interest. The fact that the methodology isn’t what I do did not interfere with my appreciation, which is another way of saying that not only did my limitations not subjectively become the book’s blinkered shortcomings, but the book engaged my interest and provided viewpoints to which I perhaps wouldn't ordinarily be exposed. I offer, then, the highest accolade a reviewer can bestow: I learned something new from reading Perpetual Contact.

Moreover, it’s not necessary to be an empirical researcher to appreciate Perpetual Contact. And while we are on the subject of metrics, it may be useful to bring out that according to the Wall Street Journal, J.D. Power and Associates, Scarborough Research and other sources, worldwide more people are talking on cell phones than using the Internet, with wide variances between metropolitan and remote areas and between countries[3]. I learned in Chantal de Gournay’s contribution, "Pretense of Intimacy in France," that some female users of cell phones in Italy have several devices, allowing the user to allocate a particular cell phone to a specific "pre-identified correspondent" (201). She accounts for the growing dependency on the cell phone with fetishism and "fusional relationships" (201). This rings true for what I discovered this semester. One of my students has more than 170 phone contacts and was unable to go more than four hours without using her cell phone; life is just inconceivable without that device in close or perpetual contact.

Public-Private Gardens and "Weediness"

On to my favorite reads: What I found most interesting about Perpetual Contact was not necessarily the growing need that on a societal level we seem to share, that need to be incessantly in touch, making sure that everything is okay, which also may be a legacy of September 11. Most of us probably have noticed people increasingly walking around with cell phones plastered to their ears, listening avidly, semi-oblivious as has been the case since the Walkman of the 1980s. Still new enough to attract scholarly notice in 1999, cell phone use has almost become normalized in parts of the world today.

Instead, what I found thought provoking was the way that several contributors to the volume tried to account for that noisy preoccupation. While personal audio listeners may well be out of it with their bodies given up to the beat, they are quiet for the most part. Cell phone users, on the other hand, are a noisy bunch and whether you mind or not, for the most part you inevitably overhear their private conversations on public streets, on campuses, in the malls, in front of you online at the post office, even in restaurants.

In "From Mass Society to Perpetual Contact: Models of Communication Technologies in Social Context," James B. Rule calls this verbal spillover "weediness," by which he means an ecological choking. Rule correlates the obnoxious yakking away with pernicious American corporatization, such as seen through the McDonald’s and Nike franchises (253) or Starbucks. Weediness is a useful critique, although it is less an American than Western phenomenon. Or the weediness perhaps can be attributed to global capitalism since Ericsson, Nokia, Panasonic, Research in Motion, Sony and similar mobile or handheld corporate entities with an international reach are not based in the U.S. Rule also interestingly discusses mass surveillance society and cell phone users’ willing attachment to the devices.

Keynote speaker Emanuel A. Schegloff contributes several papers to Perpetual Contact, noting the collision of private talk in public spaces and providing a rhetorical analysis of cellular conversations in "Beginnings in the Telephone" (284-300). Leopoldina Fortunati considers intimacy and mobile phone use in "Italy: Stereotypes, True and False" (48-53), bringing out that our notions and norms of private and public behavior have been changing due to how we (or the Europeans she studied) use our cell phones.

Get Mobilized

Perpetual Contact is a highly recommended, highly readable text on mobile technoculture that considers the cell phone from a multicultural perspective, a perspective that does not iron out difference or resistance to the technology in focus. I consider it a useful companion volume to Rheingold’s Smart Mobs. My students prefer Rheingold because of his engaging writing style (not so "dry") and the fact that he discusses users closer, on the whole, to their age group. The tentative analysis of cellular behavior in Perpetual Contact, nevertheless, provides a critical perspective that tempers Rheingold’s characteristic enthusiasm. Together the two books provide a useful foundation for discussing what the Internet is becoming and changing behaviors with telephony-consumer electronics that we see happening before our eyes as well as overhear, but that are not yet well represented in the American scholarly press.

As an academic, I’m glad that Cambridge University Press published Perpetual Contact and I hope there are more conferences on mobile communication in the United States such as the one at Rutgers that was the springboard for this volume. There needs to be more bridge building in communication circles between those who write on the Internet and its culture, consumer electronics and its culture, and telephony and its culture. Along with our devices, we need to converge, perhaps with Rheingold’s hive mind, to try to make sense of the wireless paradigm. We are increasingly free to move about, yet ever more tied to the electronic leash. Above and beyond cell phones, why do we seem to want or are expected to be accessible anytime, anywhere, in perpetual contact?

  1. Interestingly, only one contributor to Social Impact in 1976 looked around at the popularity of citizen’s band (CB) radio, which was then used in ten percent of American motor vehicles (see James B. Murray, Jr., Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001 [23-24]), and guessed correctly that the cell phone might be an improvement on CB radio and was then technically feasible.

    In "The Telephone and the Uses of Time," Martin Meyer went on to note, "I must say, though, that before I would carry that sort of instrument I’d insist on a way to turn it off. The telephone may not have reached saturation yet, but some of us users certainly have" (244-45). The imperfect prognostication on the part of the other contributors is particularly noticeable in light of "Foresight and Hindsight: The Case of the Telephone" (127-57), in which Ithiel de Sola Poole and his collaborators took Daniel Boorstin, Melvin Kranzberg and Lewis Mumford to task for their short-sighted contributions to the history of telephony (in Poole, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone, Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1977).

  2. From the New York Times in the weeks that followed September 11, see, for example, David Pogue, "Thinking about Gadgets for a More Sober World"; and Simon Romero, "The Simple BlackBerry Allowed Contact when Phones Failed" and "Using a Cellphone Signal to Hunt for a Victim in Desperate Need," Circuits, The New York Times, New York, Sept. 20, 2001 (G1 and G6); and Simon Romero, "What Now for Wireless?", The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2001 (C1).

  3. For instance, until late 2002, for the past 18 months to two years in the U.S., it largely had been reported that Internet penetration had remained relatively flat or constant, hovering at around 50 to 56 percent. The Pew Internet and American Life Project regularly publishes reports on various demographic groups but has not yet reported higher penetration overall. On Dec. 10, 2002, however, Ipsos-Reid reported that Internet use in the U.S. exceeds 70 percent in the U.S. Yet during 1999-2002 cell phone adoption in the U.S. has increased from approximately 45 percent overall (Wall Street Journal) and more than 50 to 70 percent in the 25 largest urban markets (J. D. Power and Associates and Scarborough Research) to an average of more than 60 percent nationally (Scarborough Research).

    Therefore, while cell phone penetration has grown faster than the Net over recent years according to most studies, it possibly is used about as much as the Internet in the U.S. at present, or slightly more or less, depending on the survey and its date, or whether cell phone access to the Internet is rolled into Internet metrics. This is likely to be the case moving forward or should be, since limited text messaging and Web functionality increasingly are offered with phone-handsets.

    According to Claire Tristam in "Hand-helds of Tomorrow," in the April 2002 issue of Technology Review, cell phone use "in some European countries such as Iceland and Finland . . . exceeds 75 percent" (36). As reported by Ananova in June 2002, in Taiwan, there are more mobile phones than people or greater than 100 percent penetration. However, it should be brought out that cell phone use in such markets may have plateaued with most everyone who wants a cell phone likely having more or less purchased one. The aggressive findings and forecasts aside, with saturation there are fewer new customers if more upgrades.

    Perpetual Contact provides quite a few charts of cell phone use, such as in comparison with television, between countries, gender and age differences, et al. Obviously there are variances among income groups and in areas where there are fewer cellular towers as well. But whereas Internet use requires a modicum of literacy, using a cell phone, like watching television or using a camera, requires little to no specialized knowledge or learning curve or the written word. With low barriers to adoption, understandably the cell phone quickly has become a device of mass consumption.

Ananova. "Mobiles Now Outnumber People in Taiwan." June 20, 2002.

Fortunati, L. "Italy: Stereotypes, True and False." In Katz, J. E., & Aakhus, M. (Eds.), Perpetual Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (42-62).

Gournay, C. de. "Pretense of Intimacy in France." In Katz, J. E., & Aakhus, M. (Eds.), Perpetual Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (193-205).

Ipsos-Reid. "Internet Use Continues To Climb in Most Markets: Web Access not Just Routine, but Essential, Ipsos-Reid Study Shows." Dec. 10, 2002.

J. D. Power and Associates. "2002 U.S. Mobile Phone Evaluation Study." Westlake Village, CA: Oct. 24, 2002.

Mayer, M. "The Telephone and the Uses of Time." In Poole, I. de S. (Ed.), The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge and London, MIT Press, 1977. (225-45).

Murray, J. B. Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001.

Petersen, A. "Wireless, Yet Aiming To Link Up?" The Wall Street Journal. March 25, 2002: C1.

Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Pogue, D. "Thinking about Gadgets for a More Sober World." The New York Times. Sept. 20, 2001: G1.

Poole, I. de S. The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1977.

Poole, I. de S., Decker, C., Dizard, S., Israel, K., Rubin, P., & Weinstein, B. "Foresight and Hindsight: The Case of the Telephone." In Poole, I. de S. (Ed.), The Social Impact of the Telephone. Cambridge and London, MIT Press., 1977. (127-56).

Rheingold, H. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2002.

Romero, S. "The Simple BlackBerry Allowed Contact when Phones Failed." The New York Times. Sept. 20, 2001: G1.

Romero, S. "Using a Cellphone Signal to Hunt for a Victim in Desperate Need." The New York Times. Sept. 20, 2001: G6.

Romero, S. "What Now for Wireless?" The New York Times. Oct. 8, 2001: C1.

Rule, J. B. "From Mass Society to Perpetual Contact: Models of Communication Technologies in Social Context." In Katz, J. E., & Aakhus, M. (Eds.), Perpetual Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (242-54).

Scarborough Research. "Cell Phone Ownership Grows 29 Percent from 1999-2001 according to New Scarborough Study." New York: March 18, 2002.

Schegloff, E. A. "Beginnings in the Telephone." In Katz, J. E., & Aakhus, M. (Eds.), Perpetual Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (284-300).

Tristam, C. "Hand-Helds of Tomorrow." Technology Review. April 2002: 34-40.

Wendy Robinson:
Wendy Robinson is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the RCCS advisory board. Robinson conducts research on mobile communication, handheld devices and their technoculture. In addition to this review, RCCS has published her review of Nancy Baym's Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community

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