Castells et al, Mobile Communication & Society

Castells. Mobile communication and society: A global perspective (352 pages)

Castells, Fernández-Ardèvol, Qiu, and Sey offer a survey of trends in mobile communication grounded in global research projects. Taken together, their book constructs, “an empirically grounded argument on the social logical embedded in wireless communication” (5).

 

  1. The Diffusion of Wireless Communication in the World

Castells et al look at the dispersion of mobile technology around the world. They make a distinction between mobile subscription (referring to the number of subscriptions within particular regions) and penetration (referring to the use of mobile technology per 100 people). The authors focus their attention primarily on differences in penetration rates—they point to a few factors including the integration or infrastructure of other communication media such as fixed phone lines. Geographic factors also may contribute to penetration rates: certain regions may be more suitable for wireless infrastructure (such as rural areas); however, urban areas may have more motivation and collaboration to develop such infrastructure. They also point not only to price, but pricing systems (such as whether the calling party pays or the receiving party pays). In other words, the penetration of mobile telephony is not simply attributed to mobile device’s general affordability, but the structure of payment.

The authors also note that certain cultural and material factors also take hold when considering penetration; for example, mobile devices seem less tenable in societies that support individual car ownership (such as the U.S.): it’s difficult to maintain a presence on a mobile device when preoccupied with motor travel. However, in the U.K. where public transportation is emphasized, “people have a greater ability to use wireless technologies on-the-go and consequently develop expertise faster” (37).

 

  1. The Social Differentiation of Wireless Communication Users: Age, Gender, Ethnicity, and Socioeconomic Status

            To preface, I thought the author’s treatment of gender and ethnicity were remarkably uncritical and did not take into account the ways that the mobile device—and the usages we attach to those devices—enact the culture’s gendered or racial attitudes. In other words, the authors cite research that often essentializes gender and race without much awareness of doing so (this is emphasized more when referring to women as “females” as if their sexual organs pre-determines their gender roles). As such, I’ll frame their key points with the constructive nature of gender in mind.

The fixed, land-line phone has often been a symbol of domesticity: “using the telephone enabled women to deal with isolation and to fulfill their socially prescribed role of network maintenance” from within the home. The mobile device, then, plays a similar role in supporting and maintain social networks, often the role often taken by women. Furthermore, the mobile device have become tools of control or surveillance: it is associated with “protecting ‘vulnerable’ groups such as women, children, and elderly people” (45). Similarly, the mobile device is associated with “remote mothering.” However, the authors point out that “the mobile phone is ‘likely to reproduce gender inequalities, albeit with some shifting of public and private ground, under the guise of solving those very inequalities’” (Rakow and Navarro 145 qtd in Castells et al 46). In other words, mobile devices—while seemingly offering ‘liberation’ of domesticity by allowing more mobility beyond the home—they reinforce gender roles.

Moving toward class differences, the authors note that many technological features of mobile communication is often a way to give access to groups with lower income; for example, text messaging (or short message systems, SMS) was priced low to allow more communication. Also, practices such as collective phone sharing has also emerged as both a means of keeping prices low as well as emphasizing the communal activities of communication. In some cultures, phones are often passed around among family members in a given phone call. In other communities, users use one device and switch out the SIM card when their device’s battery has died. In Africa, the author’s make a distinction between owners of mobile devices, users (who don’t own yet use mobile devices), and non-users.

 

  1. Communication and Mobility in Everyday Life

Mobile devices are uniquely tied to the everyday life of users because they are personal, portable, and pedestrian—users attach them to their bodies like watches. Referencing Ito, the connectivity established by mobile devices is different than fixed computers because it allows a “portal of high-fidelity connectivity that demands full and sustained engagement” (92). Such attachment to moving bodies allows us to make some observations about mobility’s impact on everyday life.

The authors begin with mobility at the workplace. Although such technology allows staff to work remotely from their work network, we must also contend with the unpredictable contextual constraints of the remote worker’s environment; however, as the authors write, “the use of mobile technology connects the different contexts into an extensive work environment which shares a common network logic” (79). Users are able to, then, remain connected as they are working in and out of various environments. However, mobility also blurs the line between contexts of work and leisure: staff often both user their mobile device to conduct work-related activities on the ground as well as coordinate and develop social events with other co-workers. But, as a consequence, the blurring of contexts also allows for a new channel of surveillance: “supervisors are now not only able to monitor mobile workers constantly during work hours but can also exert control outside the clock” (80).

The authors also look to migrant workers’ use of mobile devices. They point to a different kid of digital divide with migrant workers that is not necessarily focused on mere access to these devices: rather, the social infrastructure for migrant workers is not well established: “those migrant workers…still have only limited power to control when, where, and how they communicate with others” (86).

Turning to family life, the authors discuss the way that new mobile technologies allow for coordinator and familiar support. The authors point to micro-coordination, among family and friends: users can create new means of navigation and create new social bonds. Because of these navigational and coordinating capabilities, mobile users are more likely to have highly intimate face-to-face relationships in addition to digitally mediated ones.

Along these lines, users also find that mobile technologies—because the streams of communication constitute a backchannel or meta-space of communication—users are able to operate intimate relationships under the radar of more traditional relationships defined by institutional values: “wireless communication facilitated the formation of flexible networks and enabled users to bypass formal or hierarchical channels…[on the other hand] social and institutional environments can inhibit people’s ability to bypass hierarchy even when the technology to do so is available” (98). In other words, while mobile technology allows users to break from traditional institutional contexts and operate within a virtual space, we cannot discount the impact of the those institutional spaces.

Moving to disability studies, the authors point to a disabilities divide whereby the unique functions needed for people with disabilities are not always available on mobile devices.

 

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