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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

Displacing Place: Mobile Communication in the Twenty-First Century is a collection of essays by scholars and professionals about how mobile information and communication technologies (ICTs) enable people to communicate in ways that, as editor Sharon Kleinman explains, "transcend spatial and temporal constraints" (2). Together, the contributors ask two primary questions. First, what is displacing place? And second, how has the experience of place been altered by mobile communication technologies? This collection is neither a cross-cultural survey nor an overtly critical inquiry about the notion of place. Instead, it outlines a range of encounters between people and their mobile communication technologies.

Displacing Place opens with Gary Gumpert and Susan J. Drucker's "Mobile Communication in the Twenty-First Century or 'Everybody, Everywhere, at Any Time,'" the theoretical lynchpin of the collection. Gumpert and Drucker focus on how the mobility of communication technologies creates social conditions where space and place lose significance. People no longer interact with each other in their immediate physical surroundings, but create their own private bubbles of acoustic space that prohibit shared interaction: "They operate in a new psychosocial state spanning and linking the physical and mediated environments" (15). The rupture between the physical immediacy of actual places and these mediated environments is the essence of displacing place.

Gene Burd's "Mobility in Mediapolis: Will Cities Be Displaced, Replaced, or Disappear?" offers an alternative reading of displacing place. Instead of thinking about displacement as a rift between a physical place and the mediated experience that transcends space, Burd considers the augmentation of (urban) space via the introduction of a digital infrastructure. In a similar vein, Harvey Jassem's "Municipal Wi-Fi Comes to Town" looks at wireless fidelity or Wi-Fi networks established and maintained by municipalities under the assumption that internet access is central to economic and civic development. Julie Newman in "Displacing Place with Obsolete Information and Communication Technologies" addresses the environmental impact of the manufacturing and disposal of information communication technologies.

Richard Olsen in "Reach Out and Download Something," coincidently my favorite essay in the collection, positions the displacement of place as a discourse used to sell mobile technologies. Olsen looks at how advertisements for cell phones are framed to appeal to the basic needs of safety and security (cell phones make you, the potential victim, safer), belongingness (cell phones maintain your "Circle of Friends"), self-expression (cell phones allow you to choose how to express your social status), and transcendence (cell phones enable you to master time and space). These advertisements sell the idea of a transcendental consumer who can create the world on his or her own terms. The cell phone is "a device to usher in a consumer utopia" or "island of personal stimulation" (152 – 153) that potentially disconnects users from their communities.

Julian Kilker's "Breaking Free: The Shaping and Resisting of Mobility in Personal Information and Communication Technologies" and Jarice Hanson and Bryan Baldwin's "Mobile Culture: Podcasting as Public Media" address how communication technologies alter the experience of place. These essays describe how mobile ICTs and their software packages inscribe "place" into the social practice of mobile technologies. Kilker considers the ability of "modding communities" (112) to re-write the relationship between media and place by, for example, disabling region coding technology and distributing freeware via online collaboration. Hanson and Baldwin argue that though podcasting might provide a forum for public discourse, a majority of podcasts appeal to niche audiences. While Calvert Jones and Patricia Wallace look at the experience of place in networked organizations as opposed to market exchange or hierarchies in "Networks Unleashed," Keith J. Ruskin's "Medical Communication" examines the impact of mobile communication technologies on the practice of medicine. Penny A. Leisring's "Therapy at a Distance" focuses on the role ICTs play as mediators between therapist and client. Gary Pandolfi, an instructional technologist, considers the integration of mobile technologies into higher education in "But You Don't Play with the Mobile Information and Communication Technologies You Already Have." In "Pumping Up the Pace," Andrew Smith looks at changing expectations in regards to news gathering and publishing.

Even though Displacing Place covers a wide range of topics, the editor and a majority of the contributors unfortunately ignore the entire discipline of geography and its theoretical engagements with the notions of space and place. What about Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Edward Soja, Doreen Massey, David Morley, or any of a host of thinkers that would help provide some kind of theoretical grounding that is missing in the collection as a whole? I was especially surprised to find no mention of human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan whose Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977) is a foundational text that should at least be referenced somewhere in a collection about place. While forgetting about geographical thought is a problem, with Burd as an exception to this criticism, the bigger issue is that most of the essays take as a given the problematic binary between physical space and mediated (non-) space.

This blind spot is most evident in Yvonne Houy's "Living and Loving in the Metro/Electro Polis" and Matthew Williams's "Cyber-crime on the Move." Using the psychological concept of attachment, Houy explores the neurobiological effects of displacement where people live in a physical space, but are not engaged psychosocially with it. She concludes that mobile communication technologies cannot replace physical proximity. Physical space and place, however, are not merely givens. They are simultaneously social products and processes, just like mediated spaces. Displacement as described by Houy is taken at face value and never critically evaluated. This oversight is extremely frustrating especially given the neurobiological approach that all too often is deployed in order to circumvent culture. Williams's distinction between crime and cyber-crime is similarly theoretically naive. While crimes often involve the victim (or victim's property) and perpetrator meeting in a shared location, Williams examines cyber-crimes that do not involve the victim and perpetrator coming together in a physical space. I wanted the author to critically examine this claim about displacing place, especially in relation to the use of mobile ICTs, but the issue is left unexamined. Instead, Williams re-reviews hacking, malware, cyber-fraud, and cyber-violence, arguing that the increasing uses of mobile devices like laptops and cell phones merely extend associated risks.

Displacing Place is hard to read given the lack of a consistent vision that any kind of critical engagement might provide. Another flaw is that the collection offers only a limited range of examples focusing on a very narrow segment of (white, middle class) American culture. There is no mention of how the digital divide, essentially a re-inscription of the uneven spatial development of capitalism through the limited access to technology, plays out with the introduction of mobile ICTs. What about radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, a kind of mobile communication device used to track people and products? Where is the discussion about the spatial practices of viral marketing strategies? While I would by no means expect that every book does everything, there should at least be some justification as to why the editor chose to focus on privileged Americans. Failure to do so makes the collection seem dated and politically irrelevant. At its best, Displacing Place is useful for people interested in reading an introduction to the qualitative analysis of mobile technologies from a communication context, but those looking for any kind of prolonged critical engagement with the subject will not find it here.

Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press: 1977.

Katheryn Wright:
Katheryn Wright is a PhD candidate at Florida State University studying media convergence, screen technologies, and critical theories related to the body. Her dissertation entitled "Confrontations between Screens and Bodies in Contemporary Visual Culture" explores how the screen as a cultural interface and perceptual threshold is implicated in the biopolitics of the population (please visit screensandbodies.wordpress.com for more details about this project). Additionally, she has taught courses in new media, television, modern humanities, and multicultural film.  <kwright@fsu.edu>

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