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Displacing Place: Mobile Communication in the Twenty-First Century

Editor: Sharon Kleinman
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Kevin Douglas Kuswa
 REVIEW 2: Katheryn Wright
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Sharon Kleinman

Sharon Kleinman has assembled a valuable collection of perspectives and descriptions of our increasingly mobile world, detailing the ways new communication devices such as the cell phone are transforming every aspect of our lives -- at work, at home, and everywhere in between. There will undoubtedly be more books on this exploding topic, but Displacing Place should maintain its place in the crowd because of its emphasis on communication practices and its eye toward the long-term future.

The book offers three sections with the last one on the workplace and mobile technologies being the most extensive and informative. The first section covers the notion of "place" in terms of how we govern ourselves, introducing the surge in mobile information and communication technologies (ICTs) as one of the most profound watershed events in the evolution of human interaction. This should not be a new theme to readers, but it cannot be overstated. We are reminded from the very beginning that the notion of communication in the context of place, and the movement across or through place, is perhaps a fundamental characteristic of being human and of the formation of society. Only looking at the legal ramifications, a small subset of the affected landscape, Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker write, "To the extent that the values, norms, and issues of any era are revealed by a society's laws, the threat posed by mobile media to traditional legal concepts is illuminating yet surprisingly neglected" (16). Certainly that makes sense given the ways portability and media influence the types of products that are sold and distributed, but this statement points to a weakness floating throughout the book: its arguments never seem to go far enough, to vigorously push the envelope and proclaim that "ICT-saturation" really is a revolution. Yes, many legal changes are and will be astronomical as they rise to the surface, but these changes are not just "being neglected," they are forcing themselves on us, shattering intellectual property, shrinking some distances between people while widening others, making current international law meaningless as it applies to copyrights, patents, and general innovations in technology. Richard Olsen emphasizes this point in one of the few articles that does push the edge, honing in on the rhetorical strategies for cell phones and the cell phone's potential as a new type of text—a sort of material metaphor, but one that includes risks as well as rewards: "Thus the cell phone becomes a device that potentially cuts users off from reality or community, rather than connecting them more deeply to it" (154).

Moving into section two, it becomes clear that the collection is not a comprehensive account of the ways ICTs change place and reshape our connections to the locations we occupy, but far more of a tasting. Kleinman has provided a small sampling of a few of the avenues opening themselves up to analysis as the communication and technology revolution marches onward. The samples in this middle section, though, come across as either overly personal -- "here is what you might feel" -- or overly abstract -- "we will all experience these shifts." Jilian Kilker does an excellent job of describing POD technologies and practices such as modding, for example, but it is all in the interpersonal frame of hobbies, consumer choice, and the post-industrial lifestyle as it relates to technology. These new options and technologies are exciting, but Kilker's theme becomes one about the rapidity of change taking place in the production side of the industry and a quick gesture to the book title to mention the erasure of space in the production phase.

All meaningful, but somehow not quite enough -- the creativity in the technology and the new innovations we are confronting are not fully mirrored in the writing or analysis offered by our critics. Jarice Hanson and Bryan Baldwin provide one of the best snapshots into the future in the collection, writing about podcasting and the amorphous nature of "public media." After applying some interesting statistical method to the occurrence of certain genres of podcasts, they conclude with an honest recognition that much of this "newness" is no deeper than novelty. The process of public discourse formation may very well be the same, for "as a form of public space for debate they lead us to conclude that the new technology is very much like the old technology" (138). It is refreshing to have a voice or two in a book that has been compiled because of the ICT revolution to remind us that it might not be any different.

The bulk of Displacing Place, about six chapters, is focused on mobile communication in the workplace and how that affects our employment, our place of employment, and our opportunities for future employment. The collection as a whole is tiny relative to the directions that could be pursued under this topic, but the section on the workplace is very informative and well-organized. Under the larger theme of efficiency, a goal that Kleinman reports is not often met, the last section moves through questions of social movement organization, medical treatment, and data exchange as they relate to patient care and mental health treatment, higher education, and the pitfalls of an overreliance on technology, as well as the transformation of the newsroom and what journalism means in light of ICTs. Calvert Jones and Patricia Wallace, for example, show how mobile communication practices can break down hierarchy as traditional status indicators make way for standards based on effectiveness and performance. In short, it is not about where your office is, but about what your office does and what it says. Keith Rushkin points out that "mobile communication technology makes it possible to help colleagues in remote locations to provide safe, efficient care to patients in the operating room and intensive care unit" (187). All of these chapters are well-researched and give a glimpse into the lived realities of mobile communication. It is not just the workplace that is being displaced, but it may be there that the theme of the entire collection begins to materialize. Kleinman concludes appropriately when she says, "the effects are still unfolding" (232), but that we cannot stand back and allow these changes to control our lives when they have such potential for positive change.

Kevin Douglas Kuswa:
Kevin Douglas Kuswa teaches classes in argumentation, culture studies, and the rhetoric of terrorism at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA. Dr. Kuswa also directs the debate team and has published most recently on the biopolitics of slavery as compared to fetal rights discourse in Contemporary Argumentation and Debate.  <kkuswa@richmond.edu>

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