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Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective

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

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

Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective by Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey, continues Manuel Castells' interrogation of aspects and impact of our globalized network society, couching the inquiry as an examination of "the mobile network society." Mobile Communication and Society provides the most thorough sociological treatment to date of the history and emerging consequences of mobile communication and the individuals, groups, and cultures that become intertwined due to emergent communication technologies and practices of mobile communication. It relies heavily on empirical data and is a seemingly exhaustive resource for anyone doing serious research on the subject of wireless technologies and users of wireless technologies. Castells et al weave a textual tapestry that includes what seems to be every major research initiative undertaken, at least up to the time of publication, focusing on mobile communication technologies and practices. With its emphasis on empirical analysis and balanced description, this book is well suited to serve as an essential foundation for knowledge in the area of mobile communication technologies and practices -- and a clarion call for attention from researchers to emerging phenomena and questions.

The authors set out to "use social research to answer the questions surrounding the transformation of human communication by the rise and diffusion of wireless digital communication technologies" (3). The structure of their inquiry is solid and feels quite sociological, and for those in less quantitatively inclined areas such as the humanities the project may strike one as heavily quantitative from the start. Yet the efforts put toward synthesis of quantitative data are well worth it. The exposure to usable research methodologies and resources is an added quality of the book as well. While the authors aim to set forth an analysis of the social logic behind the mobile network society, the first four chapters spend a lot of effort toward laying a foundation and surveying our global landscape vis-à-vis chapters dense with statistics and data that profile a multitude of global locales. A useful ontology for readers to adopt might be one that scrutinizes geography, both physical and cultural, with a quest for specific characteristics of mobile technology diffusion. If one is familiar with Castells' work, it could prove useful to turn to his discussion of space of flows and timeless time as introduced in his book The Rise of the Network Society (2000); for neophyte readers of Castells, chapter five in Mobile Communication and Society introduces and applies these terms to the project at hand. While I do not advocate such an approach, it is conceivable that one could read the chapters "out of order," in a way practicing timeless time, starting with chapters five through seven as a primer and then covering the data presented in the first four chapters.

The first chapter, entitled "The Diffusion of Wireless Communication in the World," is a good primer for grasping the sheer magnitude of the variety and breadth of wireless communication. The chapter focuses on the spread and attendant use of wireless technologies on a global scale, with particular interest paid to the uneven pattern of diffusion of communication technologies that starts with analysis of the impact of disparities in fixed telephone line access. The authors rightly stress that "the most important trend is the extraordinary rate of growth of mobile telephony around the world, particularly in developing countries" (38). The authors profile, country by country, the degree and type of mobile communication for all major regions of the world. At times it is impressively overwhelming, but after reading a few chapters one feels up to speed and in touch with the different geographies of users in the global network society, from regions like Asia where text messaging (SMS) dominates to Western countries where SMS is still largely a province of youth culture. The beauty of the book is that after the deluge of empirical data in each chapter, the authors hash out possible reasons for patterns and practices, highlighting differences and similarities between cultures and groups in different global locales.

Chapter two, "The Social Differentiation of Wireless Communication Users: Age, Gender, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status," continues the interrogation of social and cultural consequences of mobile communication. In this chapter, focus develops toward "the general diffusion of mobile communication within the whole population, with age continuing to specify the type of use rather than the use itself" (41). In this second chapter, I find the attention to "vulnerable groups" like women, children, and elderly people to be the primary value, and it is the first introduction to what I see as fertile ground for much more intensive research. Castells et al highlight the role that youth culture is playing in the development, marketing, and use of technologies. Again, the quantitative focus is heavy in this section but it is necessary so that later chapters may turn to the more popular qualitative treatment of these topics. The authors highlight that technology often does not produce the liberating effects that many proclaim, commenting that mobile communication often reinscribes gender roles, as in the case of "remote mothering," versus dismantling societal strictures that support systems like patriarchy and economic inequality (46).

"Communication and Mobility in Everyday Life," the third chapter, starts with the supposition that "wireless technologies, especially the mobile phone, are perceived as essential instruments of contemporary life" and that without them "users tend to feel lost because of the dependency relationship that has developed" (77). Users find themselves feeling a loss of presence, a loss of their full-time intimate community. The authors profile impact and dependency in the following areas: work and work processes; family; sociability; and personal safety and security. Chapter three concludes with commentary on public service provision, consumption patterns, and social concerns. Time-conscious readers should at least spend time in this chapter with two concepts. The first is the explication of mobile technology's potential and inclination to nuance management of social interactions, introduced as micro-coordination (89). The second is the attention that the authors allot to issues of surveillance and m-government (or mobile government, an extension of e-government) that affords citizens access and interaction with public information and practices in a mobile capacity. Countries such as Korea are highlighted as trendsetters in m-government. Issues of surveillance, particularly surveillance of data traffic, are posited as a translation of existing powers into a new technological sphere (Green and Smith, 2004). Those concerned with liberatory and utopian production of space will find edification here, and in the chapter writ large.

Chapter four, "The Mobile Youth Culture, captures the importance of observing and understanding" various global youth cultures and the way they use mobile communication, as well as how they are socialized by mobile technologies. For the authors, a sea change in adolescence is occurring for the reason that "these new technologies move young people away from the sphere of influence of traditional socialization structures, such as the home, educational system, and broadcast media, while providing an ever-widening range of socializing and identification options" (141). Sociologically, attention should be paid to what Holmes and Russell (1999) call "crisis of boundaries" (75). Beyond the technical literacies acquired and employed by different worldwide communities of youth, there is an emerging "sensibility" being facilitated by the fusion of humanity, nature, and culture. The authors believe this is a site for further inquiry for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to tap into the productive possibilities of this new becoming and to avoid any sort of uninformed moral panic due to fears associated with not understanding such a monumental paradigm shift in youth culture (42). The collective identity of youth culture and the extent to which existing youth cultures and subcultures of different societies are shaping the mobile youth culture are suggested as further trajectories for research in chapter four.

Chapters five and six essentially serve as short theoretical synopses detailing theories of communication and practice from previous works, primarily those of Castells. Earlier in this review, I suggested that neophyte readers of Castells and his contemporaries might want to consider perusing these particular chapters in order to acquire a frame with which to approach this book. Understanding the space of flows and timeless time helps readers fully apprehend the authors' argument for a rethinking of our relations with the corporeal and materiality in general, a rethinking that stresses that "places do exist, including homes and workplaces, but they exist as points of convergence in communication networks created and recreated by people's purposes" (172). Access to the space of flows, the material organization of simultaneous social interaction at a distance vis-à-vis networked communication, increasingly serves as the decisive feature of social organization. Chapter six, "The Language of Wireless Communication," highlights the new languages and literacies, from mobile hypertext to new orality and new forms of meaning, that are emerging due to our use and relationship with mobile communication networks. This is an area of great import to those who have traditionally been concerned with language, "texts," and culture, as the inextricable and important link between language and culture is one whose characteristics are radically changing.

Chapters seven and eight profile, through the lens of social theory, the drivers and emerging nature of the linkages between mobile communication and globalized discursive practices and acts. These later sections are much more qualitative and anecdotal than the earlier chapters in Mobile Communication and Society, and after being primed with so much rich quantitative analysis I found myself wanting more of it in these sections as opposed to traveling the more familiar ground of humanist inquiry. I assert this not as a criticism of the authors or of the book, but rather as a testament to their research and rhetorical versatility to reach large, heterogeneous audiences. Chapter seven, "The Mobile Civil Society: Social Movements, Political Power, and Communication Networks," attends to the change in media ecology that is taking place and how "autonomous communication oriented toward political change" might impact the "dialectics between power and counter-power" (213). I hope that readers of this work will pick up some of the threads that are introduced in these chapters and conduct empirical studies of emergence and influence so that further inquiry, similar to that in the earlier chapters, can add a deeper hue to our awareness of communication and socio-political change. Chapter eight, "Wireless Communication and Global Development: New Issues, New Strategies," stresses that connectivity through telecommunications is an essential prerequisite for development in our globalized world. In this chapter, the authors set a precedent for what the continued analysis looks like and what areas should be considered, at least at the time of publication. Case studies of mobile phone use in Asia, Africa, India, and Latin America show the vigilance that researchers must foster if meaningful studies are to be conducted. Too often, research on communication and technology is myopic, focusing on Western positionality and privilege.

The changes in our networked world will just as likely be shaped by and epitomize the practices of non-hegemonic groups in "developing" nations and locales. In this, one might hope for technology's empowering potential to manifest in a sort of "globalization from below" that refers to "the ways in which marginalized individuals and social movements resist globalization and/or use its institutions and instruments to further democratization and social justice" (Kellner, 2002, 293). In their conclusion, "The Mobile Network Society," the authors state that "every sociotechnical context raises a set of specific social problems" and that future inquiries into realms of so-called global culture and society must accommodate this relationship (256). Understanding the ways in which the mobile communication society deepens and diffuses the network society is essential for anyone endeavoring to make sense of our world, its challenges, and opportunities. Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective makes such a consciousness-raising project possible.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Green, N. and Smith, S. "A Spy in Your Pocket": The Regulation of Mobile Data in the UK. Surveillance and Society 1.4 (2004): 573-587.

Holmes, D. and Russell, G. Adolescent CIT Use: Paradigm Shifts for Education and Cultural Practices? British Journal of Sociology of Education 20.1 (1999): 69-78.

Kellner, Douglas. "Theorizing Globalization," Sociological Theory 20.3 (Nov., 2002): 285-305.

Hill Taylor:
Hill Taylor is a Carnegie Fellow at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, and also teaches courses in New Media and Writing in UNC's English Department. Dr. Taylor's research focuses on Human Information Interaction, Network Science, and Social Media.  <hilltaylor@unc.edu>

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