Rethinking Mobility, Communication and Home through the Cell Phone

by Akari Shono

To study the cell phone is to gain insight into the cultural process taking place in the globalised world of today. In comparing various types of telecommunication technological apparatuses and services in terms of portability, affordability, ubiquity, and accessibility, the cell phone seems the most appropriate among them when reflecting upon our postmodern everyday experience. The cell phone, both as a mediation device and practice, uniquely creates a sense of profound relational intimacy between individuals, cultures, and regions in spite of the distance that physically exists. Also, the techno-human relationship between a cell phone and its user is incomparably tighter and pluralistic due to its portability, the frequency of its usage, and the various contextual circumstances under which it is applied. In order to unravel this techno-social phenomenon that is reshaping the international movement of people within a global context I pose the following questions: (1) what is the new definition of ‘mobility’ and ‘communication’? (2) what is the cell phone’s role in the globalization process? (3) how might the actors living in the ecology of globalization benefit from it? (4) lastly, how is ‘home’ re-imagined?

Underneath the surface of the progress in mobile media technology and telecommunication devices, the concept of mobility is going through dramatic changes at a fundamental level. It is changing the way one conceptualizes space and place, identity and identification, diasporas and home; in short, the overall understanding of what constitutes society within the framework of mobility is changing. As Larissa Hjorth states, in Mobile Media in the Asia Pacific: Gender and the Art of Being Mobile, “mobility, and its obverse immobility, have become poignant concepts in an age of global flows in which people, ideas and capital move, some by choice and some by lack of choice” (Hjorth, 49). With her statement in mind about mobility/immobility, one can see that the cell phone establishes a new way to think of the concept of ‘being’, further complicating the condition of presence. For, with the cell phone, one can simultaneously exist in more than one realm. What I mean here is that while he/she is situated in a specific geographical location at the moment a phone call is being made, this person is concurrently embedded in an alternative, imaginative space. One can imagine the co-occupation of this space with another person who is on the opposite end of the line. The word ‘imagined’ is emphasized in regards to the matter of temporality because, in actuality, there is a lag in time during which the transmission of voice/message is in progress. This issue of delay in the technical process of message transmission can be certainly corrected and made more accurate in due course. But what matters here is that the discourse on the cell phone presents the possibility of co-presence. In parallel to a realm governed by certain sets of temporal and physical rules, another one (non-physical) can be occupied by a group of people who are physically located in different places. And within this aforementioned new space, one finds individual sets of principles upon which identity is constituted. These principles, notionally, measure the degree of one’s affiliation with a specific culture, region, nation, religion, ethnicity, etc. In essence, cultural and regional proximity is defined by mobility.

Communication is the fundamental process of human activity. James Lull, in his essay, “The Push and Pull of Global Culture,” affirms this notion: “Individual persons today chase their dream with unprecedented energy and latitude but they still need to connect, communicate, and commune with others” (in Curran and Morley 47). Much has been spoken about how technology has been dissolving organic forms of human social interaction and how it is increasingly supplanting the human presence in social activities, thus significantly diminishing our needs and desires to maintain person-to-person relationship. (This reminds us about the concerns some parents have about their children when their playmates are toys like “Ferbie” and “Tamagochi.”) Yet, the basic human instinct is to maintain ties through interaction with the entities residing in the external world, such as culture, religion, social customs and traditions, and of course, people and community. This is, as Lull points out, for the sake of physical survival and psychological stability. Lull further argues that “the remarkable rise of the individual in globalization has changed but not erased the role of collective Culture as a stable, guiding source of belonging, security, and identity” (in Curran and Morley 44). Communication, in all its modes and obstacles, is still very dear to contemporary subjects. Therefore, the media discourse about the social functionality of cell phones is insufficient without conceptual re-evaluation of communication which operates within specific socio-economic and political paradigms. Surprisingly, one must also remember that communication is governed and fueled by such a force as sentimental values. That said, with all the fanfare of the cell phone’s impressive ornamental aesthetics, hyper-customization of cell phone services and perennial updating of supplementary applications (i.e. camera mode, GPS system, internet service), notwithstanding --all of which appears to reflect the 21st-century subjects’ predilections for iconoclasm and hyper-autonomy --the cell phone ultimately serves to fulfill the transcendental desire to ‘connect’. And surely, the cell phone opens up the possibility of actualizing this desire, extending one’s presence into a new form of spatial dimension of co-presence. In this imagined space, one enjoys a paradoxical experience of individuality and collectivity. The cell phone allows one to enjoy an infinite series of unique and profoundly personal experiences while, at the same time, consistently maintaining a relationship with the society at large.

What sort of condition determines the dimension of spatiality and temporality, referred to as “co-presence,” introduced by the cell phone? This question presents an idea that returns primacy to human agency over technology. The environment of co-presence is constantly recreated and remolded through the repetition of telecommunicative interactions between physical beings. This is not a self-sustaining autonomic space awaiting for its occupation by new inhabitants, existing prior to and independent of society, man and history. In fact, it is not exactly a realm that flourishes somewhere in parallel to ‘reality’ unlike, for example, the virtual reality presented in the famous film, The Matrix, where the electronic space exists as an end in itself, in parallel to the physical one. Thus, the space of co-presence is created moment by moment through human interactions, almost representing one of the phases in the communication process. Moreover, it is important to note that this process produces its own temporal system. This is to say that even though the speakers on both ends of the line are living at different temporal moments, the space of co-presence enables them to standardize, or create a sense of, time as an illusory form of ‘real time’.

Today people can safely assume that --whether or not they have a cell phone with them at a certain moment—the emotional ties to their friends and communities who are based in physically remote locations can be maintained and made to feel tighter to an extremely large degree compared to a time when such mode of telecommunication was less accessible. What sense can one make of such assumptions about the possibility of an easy and effortless communication? Being conscious of this likelihood -- about the supposed technological advantages of the cell phone -- generates a new type of sensitivity. It introduces, in other words, a new mode of intimacy. The projectile force of an individual’s emotion is neither directed to a specific person nor to groups of people. In a way, the question of mutual acknowledgement of any emotional proximity between the specific actors becomes less significant. It is not strange at all for one to be unsure regarding whom or where such emotion is invested. What is certain, in terms of sentiments, is that particular emotions are mediated by this telecommunication device, widely dispersed out into a collective space, which in itself is a void. The fraternal feelings are now for someone, no one and everyone who exists somewhere or no where. In essence, with the cell phone, there is the restructuring of human emotion that is relatively ambiguous, and yet all-embracing.

John Durham Peters, author of Speaking into the Air, reconsiders communication through a different conceptual lens. His introduction of the concept of communication within a historical context reveals the transformation of its meaning over time as technical and theoretical innovations were made in media. This process also encompassed art, philosophy and literature, reorganizing its didactic formula. He points out that the present understanding of communication is relatively a new phenomenon which arose out of industrialization in the late nineteenth century. The emergence of printing technology, and later cinema and photography, demarcate this new era of communication. The modern perception of communication, he succinctly states, “as a person-to-person activity became thinkable only in the shadow of media” (Peters 6). Moreover, the modern consciousness of the communicative process aroused general anxiety among many people; the fear of uncertainty and ambiguity seemed, in a way, to have increased with the knowledge about the possibility of causing misunderstanding and misconstruing of information in its mechanical transmission. (Paradoxically, a version of this fear is currently being replayed in online chat on social networking sites. Participants say they feel at ease chatting online rather than communicating face-to-face because of the finality of words that once spoken, cannot be taken back. Chat, on the other hand, allows them the chance to rethink their responses.) This particular sentiment became, and remains, the dominant force that propels media and communication technology forward on its evolutionary path. In cell phone conversations, there are impediments, such as the occasional breaks and unintelligible noise interruptions during calls, due to lack of reception because of either the environmental or social circumstances that the speaker is in. The general texture of communication is not smooth but rather jagged due to intermittent series of disruptions. But the shortcomings of communication, its mishaps and ironies, is poetically articulated by Peters who acknowledges its nature as dysfunctional and inadequate, or as Bill Schwarz calls “the profanities of communication—its misdirection, anxieties, inhibitions, collapses and disturbances” (Schwarz 27); this intellectual acquiescence to the truth of its fallibility is the significant part of understanding ‘communication’ and the prerequisite of contemporary living. What makes one a modern individual, therefore, is the very awareness about the insufficiency in the available modes of communication. The modern desire, to attain perfect and unsullied communication, to fill the chasm between oneself and the external world, manifests itself in media. In short, as Peters puts it, “communication is a registry of modern longings; the term evokes a utopia where nothing is misunderstood, hearts are open, and expression is uninhibited.” (Peters 2) Utopia is what it is because of its unattainable nature. The utopic vision of pure and smooth communication remains forever a dream.

In regards to Peters’ essay on communication, what does the cell phone re-emphasize? The relevancy of this question increases in the age of globalization and commercialism where people are constantly migrating, and ideologies, images, and capital are being incessantly exchanged. To say that one’s longing to connect has been absorbed into the capitalist system holds some degree of truth. The permeation of television, telephones, computers, cellular phones –and the obsessive/compulsive behavior to constantly update these gadgets—across almost every sector of class, gender and cultural grouping attests to it. Even our very beings may have been commodified. Nevertheless, calling this phenomenon ‘the capitalist exploitation of the organic wholeness of society’ seems too simplistic. Such affirmation misses the point in seeing the potential functionality of telecommunication devices as a cultural index and an integral part of contemporary cultural practice. According to Hjorth, who observed the surging wave of cell-phones in Japan, Korea, and China, the cell phone “can be viewed as an extension of the user’s identity and lifestyle. These practices, in turn, can be viewed as part of localized socio-cultural rituals of the everyday. The mobile phone literally and symbolically connects users to both existing and emerging forms of identity and identification...[It] operates upon multiple levels of mobility and immobility-- both symbolic and material.“ (Hjorth 1) Her study of Japan’s keitai culture suggests the cell phone’s transformative role in society. In Japan, cell phones appeal to certain cultural norms and stereotypes which are appropriated by individuals (Hjorth 79-118).

In the rapidly globalizing world, the cell phone offers a new method to transnational beings/diasporas who seek alternative means to reshape, reaffirm and negotiate their identity and identification within cultural and regional contexts. The everyday experiences of these people are as closely linked to the family and cultures they left in their native countries as they are to diasporic communities in other countries (Georgiou and Silverstone 34). This is one way diasporas can benefit from telecommunication services. Of course, this is not to say that the relationship between telecommunication companies and immigrant communities are symmetrically reciprocal; however, it gives them some power to reconnect and reaffirm their individual and collective identities. Furthermore, by incorporating the practice of cell phone usage into their daily lives, they can preserve established cultural and familial relationships abroad. In this respect, making phone calls for holiday greetings to one’s family back ‘home’, for example, may count as an act of perpetuating cultural traditions in the foreign countries where one has settled for the time being. In such a way, the cell phone partakes in metaphysically connecting to home, or establishing a sense of it. As Hjorth mentions, the cell phone, which once provided service that was closely linked to a specific geographical territory (due to technical issues), is now loosely or remotely associated with it. Although it “physically left home it psychologically still resides and connects users to a sense of place and home.” (Hjorth 59). Psychologically, it may reduce a discomforting sense of placeless-ness, alienation, hopelessness that migrants often suffer from. In a way, home is no longer defined by the space it physically occupies. Home is as mobile as the cell phone, since ties to it can be (re)connected and (re)adjusted.

In response to this international movement of people, new market niches for these communities have emerged, and the telecommunication industries were fast to accommodate these groups of people. For example, Orange, a brand owned by French Telecom, which provides mobile network operating service and broadband service predominantly in Europe, was the first to introduce a cheap international service that specifically catered to foreign workers and immigrants residing in the UK. The “Orange Call Abroad” SIM card, allows its user to make phone calls for less price and higher user quality to more than 34 countries. Other companies follows Orange’s example of international cell phone service: NTT Docomo (Japan), Nokia (Finland), T-Mobile (US), Vodafone (UK) (Steinbock 10).

Obviously, the marketplace is not enough to explain how locality is defined in globalization, as Anandam P. Kavoori, the author of Thinking through Contra-flows, argues. The idea that the global marketplace determines which direction globalization will proceed to advance only reconfirms the old notion about hegemony. As Kavoori claims, there is no dominant, unidirectional force at work in globalization. He illustrates a world that is multi-vocal and multi-layered in which the progressive flow of culture is multidirectional. Thus, just as there is no such thing as a central hub of cultural production, the global imagination is decentralized. The global imagination works at multiple level within “the institutional, cultural and political matrix of a world framed by processes of global cultural power and local negotiation” (Kavoori 49), of which the cell phone is a huge part. The production and framing of locality, he adds, occurs at the “space of contra-flows” in the “semantic and imaginative space of local mediation of global forms” (ibid 53). Every local region in the world functions as its own epicenter of cultural production, of which the cultural fruits it bears, with its distinctive local flavors, are thrown into the global basket to be procured and enjoyed by the rest of the world population. The social phenomenon of the cell phone should be understood, then, as a result of multidirectional exchanges that occurred at both the global and individual/local levels. As Daya Kishan Thussu states, in Media on the Move: “the global offering interacts with the national and the local in ways that produce often hybridised, ‘glocal’ media products, hallmark of a postmodern cultural sensitivity” (3). The cell phone is a ‘glocal’ product and further nourishes ‘glocal’ culture and community.