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Moving Cultures: Mobile Communications in Everyday Life

Author: André H. Caron, Letizia Caronia
Publisher: Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Erin Jonasson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Letizia Caronia and André H. Caron

Moving Cultures examines the social dimensions of the adoption and integration of communication technologies, specifically mobile or cellular telephones and text messaging (SMS), into everyday life. Focusing their research on mobile users in Canada (Quebec) and Italy, the authors, André Caron and Letizia Caronia, explore the mutual construction of technology and culture, or how advancements in communication technologies trigger cultural transformations and the ways of life that these technologies help to create. Their view is not one of technological determinism -- they recognize that culture is shaped by the use of technologies while simultaneously shaping technologies through usage.

The authors begin with an overview of the adoption of communication technologies, drawing parallels between cellular telephones and the Internet and previous waves of technological adoption occurring with the introduction of television sets, radios, and telephones in the home. Recognizing that the integration of communication technologies has developed at an unprecedented speed in recent years, the authors focus their research gaze on adolescents and young adults. By choosing a segment of technology users who have grown up with mobile phones and the Internet, the authors seek to dissect the processes of technology adoption and cultural transformation. Viewing young peoples' use of technology as extreme or excessive in its thorough integration into their lives and culture, Caron and Caronia assert that a critical analysis of this excess reveals the hidden dimensions of technology use that would remain less visible in an analysis of more moderate usage among older mobile users.

While the adoption of communication technologies has been the focus of much social scientific research in the last decade, the authors of Moving Cultures have attempted to carve out a niche by adopting ethnography and its techniques as the key elements of their research methodology. By using ethnographic methods rather than large-scale statistical analysis, their purpose is to capture the processes involved in the construction of meaning for the social actors themselves, allowing research participants to voice their own interpretations of their actions and practices. This ethnographic approach is further enhanced by the use of polyphonic writing techniques throughout the book, incorporating participants' voices into the text and providing readers with direct access to social interactions.

Chapter One introduces three key concepts that underpin the analysis and are present throughout the book -- the manner in which mobile technologies affect perceptions of space ("delocalization" and "multilocalization" of self), how notions of time are changed through technology use (the "hybridization of time"), and how silence and noise gain new meanings and new uses for mobile users ("the death of silence"). Moving from the scenarios presented in the first chapter, Chapters Two and Three focus on a more theoretical approach to the ways that communication technologies are both products and producers of culture. The authors discuss how cellular technologies permit users to maintain lines of communication wherever they find themselves, transforming conceptions of private and public spaces and allowing users to perform different social roles in different places at the same time. Conversations on mobile phones begin with the key question: where are you? Time also becomes reconstituted through the use of mobile technologies. Delays in communications are no longer necessary and users are seen as always available. Indeed, not answering a mobile phone becomes a serious breach of etiquette requiring explanation. Similarly, the instantaneity and immediacy of mobile communications mean that silence, often associated with nothingness, can be overcome. Silence becomes a choice or deliberate action, not a necessity, and for teen mobile users especially, moments that once may have been unusable for social interactions -- walking down the street, waiting for the bus, in between classes at school -- become useful through mobile technologies. Although their analysis places emphasis on the new social realities created through mobile usage, the authors recognize that users are constantly negotiating their relationships with technology and are therefore co-creators of technological challenges and solutions.

While the use of ethnographic techniques and polyphony underline the high value that the researchers place on the symbolic aspects of technology use, their observations are further strengthened by a broad holistic approach to the social context of mobile use. In Chapter Four the authors analyze contemporary advertising targeting teen users and would-be users, highlighting how advertising has changed over time and the ways in which mobile telephones are represented as normal in these public discourses. Their analysis reveals how advertising imagery further accentuates the symbolic aspects of mobile technology, removing the technology from ads and focusing on social networks and connections, adopting the language of text messages used by teens, and otherwise speaking directly to the youth audience that has become their target market.

Chapters Five, Six, and Seven examine teens' usage of mobile technology and their own interpretation of how these technologies enhance their identities and allow for the creation of their independence. It is in these chapters that the authors are most successful in their integration of the multiple voices of research participants, reproducing conversations between young friends and lovers and underscoring the use of mobile communications in typical adolescent activities such as making plans for the weekend, telling stories, relaying gossip, and flirting. The majority of the content discussed in these chapters comes from participants in Canada who also use mobile communications to negotiate their multi-ethnic society, flipping from one spoken language to another, and integrating shared societal and technological knowledge into the creation of their personal and social identities. In Chapter Eight the researchers move from mobile phone communications to an analysis of SMS text messaging among Italian youth. Interestingly, they note a marked difference between mobile usage among North American and European teens -- namely, the almost exclusive use of SMS in Italy versus the preference for spoken communications among their Canadian participants. In analyzing text messaging the authors examine the creation and usage of SMS as a "secret language" among teen users, revealing some of the ways that youth set themselves apart from their parents and other adult mobile users.

Although the research participants in the book are mainly youth, the authors repeatedly take an intergenerational view of technology usage that benefits their analysis and sheds further light on the overall transformation of modern cultural practices surrounding communications and information sharing. Beginning with the ways that mobile technologies were introduced as communication tools geared toward professional (adult) users, Caron and Caronia examine the symbolic transformation of these tools into everyday objects accessible to people of all ages. Throughout the book they juxtapose the views of mobile technologies espoused by young people and adults, examining differing notions of what it means to be connected at all times and in all places. Within the broad context of their analysis, the intergenerational character of the data highlights the construction and reconstruction of (youth) identities through mobile usage. In Chapter Nine they concentrate on intergenerational communications, specifically on the ways that family dynamics have been forever restructured through the use of mobile technologies.

Chapter Ten reflects upon some of the least visible consequences of mobile communications -- the negotiation of the ethics and social rules of mobile usage and an examination of the aesthetic dimensions of mobile telephones. The authors discuss mobile phone use as social performance, alluded to in previous chapters, as well as the construction of anecdotes and urban legends surrounding cellular telephones. The authors conclude the book by reiterating the premise upon which the book was based: as objects in contemporary society, cellular telephones, and new communication technologies in general, both create and are the canvas upon which users create their social world.

Moving Cultures is full of rich ethnographic details that draw the reader into the text. The creative use of methodology employed by the authors, including interviews, logbooks, self-reporting, and text and advertising analysis, make the subject matter of the book even more compelling. The authors reflect upon and are cognizant of the limitations of their methodological approach and they harness these limitations by transforming potential weaknesses into strengths. For example, when teen participants reported making telephone calls while they were "doing nothing" or "vegging," the authors were able to use probing techniques to open up new lines of analysis into the creation of teen identities and social interactions. There were countless instances when I recognized elements of my own experience with cell phone technology and this book inspired many conversations about communication technology with my peers, as well as providing me with a new appreciation for overheard mobile conversations in public spaces.

Despite its readability, the volume retains a style and substance that is rigorously academic. To a great degree each of the ten chapters could stand on its own. Taken as a whole however, the volume is a cohesive and comprehensive analysis of the variety of social practices that have been incorporated in many peoples' daily lives. The researchers' simultaneous proximity and distance from the subject matter succeeds in shaking the use of mobile technologies loose of the ordinary and allows the reader to more clearly view the adoption and incorporation of technologies into processes of cultural construction. Moving Cultures is very highly recommended for students and researchers interested in the social dimensions of communication technologies.

Erin Jonasson:
Erin Jonasson has her MA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Manitoba, Canada. Completing her research in a Mexican community with extensive ties to the US, she focused on the expansion of Internet and computer usage in the public sphere, as well as the growth of cellular telephony in creating and recreating community identity in a transnational context.  <erinjonasson@gmail.com>

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