identity and mobile culture
Nina Wakefield‘s keynote is on “The identity politics of mobility and design culture”, and I took notes straight here. Wakefield’s an ethnographer from Britain who’s basing her theories on identity on queer theory. Her main argument is that rich people are easily mobile, yet don’t really use mobile phones very radically, while poor people may be homeless, but in fact have very little access to mobility.
Capsule version she gave at start:
We need both less and more of the term or trope mobility.
- Less of the type where we assume that movement in time and space are about mobility. What we think of as mobility is really about encountering infrastructure.
- We need more risky theories of mobility, interdisciplinarity in theories. (She didn’t really talk about this)
She’s skeptical to Rheingold’s optimism in Smartmobs. He argues that mobility will cause us to self-organise and use reputation systems everywhere. There’ll be more cooperation, and this will be a good thing.
Other researchers are more worried. Sarah Jain‘s essay Urban Errands (PDF), in Journal of Consumer Culture, 2002 apparently argues that mobile technology will simply cause us to lead even more homogeneous lives, and that class divides will be the same, or increased.
Jain has does extensive ethnographic research on mobility and has a far less optimistic view than Rheingold.
Mobility is an old term in sociology – “social mobility”, ideas of equal opportunity, movement. Newer sociological terms too, and an idea that we’ve moved from a “sedentarist metaphysics” where not having a home was morally suspect, to a “nomadic metaphysics”, where we think not having a fixed home is cool. Some think this has gone too far, including some feminists.
The story of how the A-Z for London was developed – by Phyllis Persall, who started in 1935 after getting lost using the most recent streetmap (20 years old) – she worked 18 hour days, catalogued 23000 streets, lost her husband, was thought to be mad, far beyond eccentric, but started her own firm and of course her work is still very much in use. Men who walk the streets are flaneurs, women are streetwalkers, prostitutes. Or just insane.
Sarah Jain’s study of women’s “Urban errands”. “Tracey”, used cars, drive-throughs and then used her cell phone in the downtime. Easy mobility. “Taz”, on the other hand, has no car, has to constantly trick the mobility providers (taxis) to giving her mobility.
If we all carry around a bottle of water and a mobile phone we don’t need to rely on social, public infrastructures. Add cars and we don’t need to form communities as Rheingold assumes. (Hm, but still depends on how we use them surely?)
She describes an ethnographic study she did on four 17 year old boys in London. They were already very mobile (two had cars, they had enough mobility) and they didn’t use the photo messaging. When they did send them, they wanted to perform their photos – said they’d not often send to friends, would rather share them face to face.
Next case study: homeless mothers in West London. Here: users who are completely uninteresting to commercial entities. Mother and baby shelter, many from Somalia, many thrown out of homes close to the shelter. An 18 months study. “In Limbo: Mobility of Homeless Mothers”.Homeless people are seen as having too much mobility, but they didn’t have much at own. All had mobile phones, access to internet, but didn’t use them to contact each other or authorities – however did use to contact other friends and family.
A man from UC Berkeley (didn’t get his name) stood up and said they had the same findings in a larger study – that kids don’t want to send MMSes – and wondered why she thought that was and what the implications were. Wakefield says that it’s because phone providers assume that the photo is what we want to share, whereas it’s really the photo and the text, or the photo and the talking about it at the pub. It’s the conversations we can get from the photosharing that we want.