The Mobile Communication Society

A c r o s s - c u l t u r a l a n a l y s i s o f a v a i l a b l e e v i d e n c e o n t h e s o c i a l

u s e s o f wireless communication technology

ANNENBERG RESEARCH NETWORK ON

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION

Manuel Castells

Annenberg Research Network on International Communication

University of Southern California

Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol

Internet Interdisciplinary Institute

Open University of Catalonia

Jack Linchuan Qiu

Chinese University of Hong Kong

and Annenberg Research Network on International Communication

University of Southern California

Araba Sey

Annenberg Research Network on International Communication

University of Southern California

 

 

From: http://arnic.info/workshop04/MCS.pdf

 

Section 8 Making Sense of Observation........................................................................................237

8.1. Autonomy .......................................................................................................................239

8.2. Networks of Choice ........................................................................................................240

8.3. Instant Communities of Practice.....................................................................................240

8.4. The Blurring of the Social Context of Individual Practice .............................................241

8.5. Access to the Wireless Network as Source of Personal Value .......................................242

8.6. Users are Producers of Content and Services .................................................................244

8.7. Consumerism, Fashion, Instrumentality, and Meaning ..................................................245

8.8. The Transformation of Language ...................................................................................246

8.9. Is The Mobile Communication Society Culturally And Institutionally Diverse? ..........247

8.10. The Mobile Communication Society..............................................................................248

 

 

The evidence we have collected and analyzed can be summarized by pointing at a number of

emerging social trends that, together, signal the formation of a mobile communication society as a

key component of the broader social structure that characterizes our world, the network society. We

will not repeat here the empirical observations and analytical commentaries that have been presented

throughout this research report. Rather, we will focus on what seem to be the main social processes

resulting from the observation conducted in a variety of cultural and institutional contexts. The trends

we will present below interact with each other, so that listing them sequentially is tantamount to an

excessively schematic presentation of a highly complex development. Yet, for the sake of simplicity,

we will present separately each one of these distinct trends before elaborating on their relationships.

In general terms, we verify again in this study that technology does not determine society: it is

society, and can only be understood in social terms as a social practice. This means, concretely, that

uses of wireless communication are fundamentally shaped and modified by people and organizations,

on the basis of their interests, values, habits, and projects. However, at the same time, the specific

characteristics of the technology, in this case wireless micro-electronic based communication, enable,

enhance, or even innovate the realm and content of communication, by extending the domain of what

is feasible. Because communication is the fundamental process of human activity, the modification of

communication processes by the interaction between social structure, social practice, and a new range

of communication technologies, constitutes indeed a profound social transformation. Yet, in

summarizing the results of our exploration, we will not yield to the temptation of speculating on the

potential consequences of this development, and will remain as close as possible to our body of

evidence, while trying to make sense of it in analytical terms.

It must be said that several of the trends that seem to be most significant in transforming

communicative practices have been observed primarily among the young users of wireless

communication. But we believe that this is not only a function of the correspondance between the

youth culture and the logic of wireless communication. It is also the expression of the easier

acceptance and greater capacity of the young generation to adopt, adapt, use, and innovate new

communication technologies. Thus, because they use more, better, and faster, these technologies,

they reveal more rapidly their potential uses. Furthermore, because the young generation in all

societies is their future, it is highly likely that today's youth will carry on with them into their mature

years the habits and practices that we have observed, or at least a modified version of their current

patterns of behavior. Thus, we may well consider the youth nowadays as the harbingers of the mobile

communication society, although we are aware that the age group context will indeed somewhat

modify their communication behavior in the future. In sum, by observing current communication

practices among the youth mobile society, we may have a look into the future, however distorted by

the age bias, without venturing in the shaky ground of forecasting the coming society.

With all these caveats in mind, here there are the most salient, empirically observed trends in the

practice of communication enhanced/enabled by wireless microelectronics-based communication

technology

 

8.1. AUTONOMY

The subjects of communication processes considerably enhance their autonomy by using wireless

communication systems. This means autonomy vis a vis spatial location, time constraints, and, to a

large extent, social and cultural norms. This autonomy is both individual and collective. It may refer

to a person or to an organization or to a social group or to a social network or to a social movement.

The key issue is that the subject of communication enhances its control over the communication

process.

To be sure, this autonomy should not be understood in absolute terms. Access to an effective

technological infrastructure, affordability of cost, literacy in the uses of the system, degrees of

freedom of communication vis a vis regulatory authorities, legal environments and the like are

impediments to unrestricted communication that continue to operate within the new technological

environment. Yet, even those limits are often challenged by the new communication technologies,

forcing a redefinition of the public space of communication in institutional and cultural terms.

Mobile communication is seen to facilitate the combination of autonomy and safety by making the

individual free to relate to the world at large, while still relying on her personal support infrastructure.

This has been particularly observed in the case of the family, as children and young people can be by

themselves and with their peer without losing the permanent contact with home. This “safe

autonomy” pattern also characterizes other sets of inter-personal relationships as well as instrumental

practices (eg, the professional worker always on the move, yet in touch with her base office). In other

words, it is not simply the rule of the individual, but the capacity of the individual to be at the same

time in her self and in the net.

 

8.2. NETWORKS OF CHOICE

Mobile communication has greatly enhanced the chances, opportunities, and reach of interpersonal

sociability and shared practices. People, particularly young people but not only, build their own

networks of relationship, usually on the basis of their face to face experience, interests, and projects,

and then keep them constantly open by using wireless communication, more often than the fixed-line

Internet. Thus, peer groups become reinforced in this hybrid space of physical, on-line, and wireless

communication interaction. But the technology also allows for a rapidly changing network, adding

individuals to or deleting individuals from the network, according to the changing projects and moods

of each individual in the network. So that networks expand, overlap, and modify following a

decentralized multiple entry/exit structure of communication. It follows an extremely malleable

pattern of communication, highly sensitive to the evolution of orientations among the participants in

the communication process. Thus, at the same time we observe stepped up communication,

increasing rootedness of electronic communication in face to face experience, and extreme

dependency on the composition of the communication networks vis a vis the desires of the

communication subjects. Social choice, including communication choice, continues to be framed by

institutions and social structure. But within these limits, wireless communication considerably

enhances the choice of interlocutors, and the intensity and density of the interaction.

 

8.3. INSTANT COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE

One of the most important communicative practices we have observed is the emergence of

unplanned, largely spontaneous communities of practice in instant time, by transforming an initiative

to do something together in a message that is responded from multiple sources by convergent wills to

share the practice. This is of course most evident in the flash political mobilizations, some of which

we have analyzed in this report. But it is not limited to socio-political uses. It is manifested as well in

professional projects, in cultural experiences, in countercultural expressions, in party going, in

"raves", in family reunions, in celebrations of sports’ fans, in religious gatherings, and so on. In other

words, the general trend observed in our societies of ad hoc groupings taking precedence over formal

structures of interaction and participation, be it family traditions, civic associations or political

parties, finds its technological platform in this capacity to call for action or for meeting or for sharing,

in instant time. It is important to emphasize that these communities can only be formed if the

message aiming at constituting them resonates in a network of affinity. In other words: communities

of practice, in the mobile society as elsewhere, express the latent existence of common interests

and/or values. But on the basis of this latent structure, communities of practice can be formed

instantly by a message that strikes a cord along a network of receptive subjects. As for the resilience

of these instantly formed communities over time, we lack evidence to evaluate it. However, it is an

important question, particularly for the understanding of new forms of social mobilization, that

should be taken up by researchers.

 

8.4. THE BLURRING OF THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF INDIVIDUAL PRACTICE

Wireless communication does not transcend space and time, as it is often stated in terms of an

apparently common sense observation. It blurs, rather than transcends, spatial contexts and time

frames. This is an observation repeatedly documented in the studies on the social dimensions of

wireless communication. These studies show that there is a new spatial context and a new time

dimension in which the communication takes place. It is the space and time of the communicating

individual, that is a material form, as material as any other space and time, but this is chosen by the

communication subject. Furthermore, since communication is at least bilateral and potentially

multiple (networks of wireless communication), the time/spatial context is formed by the frame

chosen by the initiator of the communication, the frame of the solicited communicator, and the set of

relationships objectively existing between the two or more time/spatial contexts. Besides, not only

time and space are blurred (not eliminated but blurred) but organizational contexts, and social

practices are often mixed. This is the case of communication taking place in airports or stations with

the family, office, and friends. Or the multiple uses of mobile devices from the car. Or the multimedia

use of the mobile device (image taking and sending, audio retrieving and playing, data transmission,

interpersonal communication) blurred in chosen time/space contexts. So, the mobile communication

system enables the blurring, mixing, and recomposition of a variety of social practices in a variety of

time/space contexts. But the blurring process is not undertermined. It is centered on the

communicating individual. So, it is an individually-centered production of the material and social

process of communication. So, doing networks of individual interaction tend to free themselves from

organizations, institutions, norms, and material constraints, on the basis of personal convenience and

adequacy to individual projects. It follows an extraordinary strengthening of the culture of

individualism (meaning, the primacy of individual projects and interests over the norms of society or

reference groups) in material terms. Therefore, individualism rather than mobility is the defining

social trend of the mobile society. Because it does not only allow to communicate on the move, but to

communicate from immobility, as it is shown in a number of studies on the benefits of mobile

communication in enhancing the communicative capacity of disabled persons.

One consequence of this development, is that traditional norms of courtesy and acceptable beahavior

have to be redefined in the new context. Since people build their own privacy space by simply

ignoring the other around them, a new M-etiquette (and its implicit norms of cultural domination) is

struggling to be adopted, stating when it is proper to isolate oneself from the social environment and

when not. When it is acceptable to expose personal life in the middle of an audience of strangers and

when it is not. Or when pupils can talk or email to their friends in the classroom and when it is not.

In sum, the blurring of time, space, and activities into a new frame of chosen time, space, and

multipurpose communication, dematerializes pre-existing social structure and reconstructs it around

individually centered networks of interaction. This is not the fading away of time, but the emergence

of chosen time, and of compressed time, to fit in the multi-tasking of communication. This is not the

end of distance, but the definition of interaction in a space of communication flows structured around

spatial nodes of opportunity. And this is not the confusion of all social practices, but the constitution

of a set of practices around the interests, values, and priorities of each individual. It is the blurring of

the pre-existing social structure of communication, but it is also the relentless definition of new

channels and forms of communication. More important than communication on the move, is the rise

of moving communication patterns.

 

8.5. ACCESS TO THE WIRELESS NETWORK AS SOURCE OF PERSONAL VALUE

We know that the value of a network increases exponentially with its size and with the intensity of

interaction. From the observation of social behavior in wireless communication networks we also

verify this general observation of the network logic. Users become mobile communication-dependent

very soon. They tend to be always on, and find ways to reduce the cost of communication. When

government regulations, technological standards and business pricing systems favor the diffusion of

wireless communication, it becomes explosive. People at large, but particularly the youth, and

workers in their professional environment, find a major source of personal value in wireless

communication. And they go to extraordinarily lengths to make an effort to access the network. Thus,

pre-paid cards have led the diffusion of the use in developing countries and among the low income

segments of the population in advanced countries. In China, the Little Smart phone systems have

made major inroads among the working people, far from the trendy professionals of Shanghai, as our

field work in Sichuan (West China) and the Yangzi River Delta ( East China) shows. In Japan, imode

became a major success by tailoring not only habits and needs, but pricing systems to its youth

user population. And in Europe, the relative affordability and flexibility of mobile phone paying

systems explains to a large extent the fast diffusion of wireless communication. In contrast, the US

example of misled competitive strategies, lack of communicating standards, and misunderstanding of

the pricing needs for the young users and the lower segments of the population has handicapped the

diffusion of the technology, with potential serious consequences down the line, in terms of the

learning curve and services availability, for both companies and the users at large.

In sum, wireless communication technology seems to be the most rapidly adopted technology, and

the one that most users have found quickly indispensable for their lives, particularly among the youth

and the professional workers. As soon as regulatory, technological, and affordability obstacles are

lessened, there is an explosion in usage. This places a serious burden on regulators, because in the

absence of an affirmative policy in favoring diffuse, those countries or areas left behind, will clearly

suffer from hampered connection to a fundamental network. It is also clear that when wireless

communication and the Internet come together, as in the experience of i-mode in Japan, and in new

developments in Korea, the effect of increasing communication is amplified. We can even say that

the blockage of Internet diffusion that Japan and other Asian countries were experiencing is being

solved throught wireless Internet connections. However, given the technical and business difficulties

experienced by WAP and mobile Internet access in Europe and the United States, it becomes

increasingly clear, by looking at patterns of social use, that the true convergence of wireless

communication and the Internet becomes the critical question in the next phase of the Information

Age. A few years ago, unwarranted expectations frustrated the technological and business promise of

this convergence. It is clear that public policy should know inform and guide the choices to be made

in this regards, as they condition the entire development of communication capacity of people and

societies. Under these conditions, it becomes essential that equality of access to the network is

assured as a condition of full citizen participation in the network society. What schooling and access

to public libraries were one century ago is now the right to have affordable, reliable access to the

mobile communication network on which our shared experience is already based.

 

8.6. USERS ARE PRODUCERS OF CONTENT AND SERVICES

The observed experience of wireless communication shows that people adapt the technology to their

needs and interests. They invent new uses, and even a new language (see below), go around

regulations, quickly find better, cheaper available pricing schemes for themselves, and build networks

of communication for purposes and uses that they were never in the cards of technologists and

business strategists. This fully replicates the experience of the Internet, but it is even more significant

because the first users of the Internet were highly sophisticated, while the bulk of innovative users of

wireless communication technology are kids and young people with no special technical skills.

Although, yes, they are already a part of the network society, being fully acquainted with the new

technological paradigm. People find uses, and when they are able to, invent new services and create

new content (eg, massive image swaping, texting etc); and when they do not find the services and

content they need, they vote with their thumbs by not using what is offered. For instance, a common

interpretation of the success of DoCoMo and i-mode is that they rely on a very good service of

content provision, contracted to service providers that cater to the needs of users. This is partly true.

But, in fact, some data show that the use of unofficial web sites on the Internet in i-mode users is

three times more frequent than the user of official web sites contracted by DoCoMo. Yes, ones are

free and the others are for a fee, but the amount of payment, in Japanese terms, is not important

enough to explain the difference of usage. We would hypothesize that the range of services wanted

by DoCoMo users is much broader than the uses imagined by DoCoMo marketing planners, as clever

as they are.

Similarly, it would look like any chance to access public services, and deal with these services in a

new way through wireless communication is met with great interest from the users. But public

bureaucracies are just scratching the surface of their delivery possibilities, and usually reluctant to

alter their routine.

Altogether, it seems that users of wireless communication are indeed the producers of the content, but

their ability is limited, and this may stall the development of the technology in the borders of public

bureaucracy and business as usual. The implication is that both business and the public sector would

find in their interest to follow the innovations of users, not just by surveying them, but by interpreting

signals of their innovative behavior in their uses, and then responding to the latent demand with a full

array of services. In other words, supply should follow demand, which is not the case nowadays,

except if we believe that demand is what pollsters and marketeers think it is.

 

8.7. CONSUMERISM, FASHION, INSTRUMENTALITY, AND MEANING

Too often the use of mobile devices has been perceived and interpreted as a function of consumerism,

oriented by fashion. Evidence seems to indicate that this is a very narrow interpretation of users'

behavior, once wireless communication has diffused broadly in a given social context. Mobile

communication is used for all kind of purposes, many of them highly instrumental, in professional

work, in the organization of the family's everyday life, in sustaining sociability networks, in

commercial transactions, in gathering and forwarding information, in sharing music, in producing and

diffusing images, in socio-political mobilizations, and the like. Also, it is not more consumption

dependent or status seeking oriented than, let us say, the use of the automobile. However, as in the

case of the automobile, design, and customization are important. And in the case of the youth,

personal identity marks (colors, ring tones, shape, ornaments) as well as fashion trends in the device

are certainly one of the dimensions present in the use of the technological devices. But it is not the

dominant dimension in the adoption of mobile technology. Yet, what is relevant is that the device

itself, and its technological attributes, has meaning for the users. This is part of the process of

individual expression, of the construction of identity by appropriating a new technological

environment and still feeling oneself. Thus, it is in the relationship between instrumentality and

meaning that we find the understanding of social uses. Not just consumption, but multipurpose

practice of communication. Not just fashion but identity.

 

8.8. THE TRANSFORMATION OF LANGUAGE

Texting is changing language through its widespread use in wireless communication. In an

evolutionary view, we are seeing a new case in which the adoption of new technology affects the

language itself, including vocabulary and grammar rules in the practice of people. And this practice

ultimately affects the common language, and language itself.

In some cases, the new forms of written expression are signs of subcultures, and expression of

innovation from the users. In fact, creative uses of language become a form of personal and group

expression. But in most cases, it is the simple adaptation of language to the format and limits of the

technology, including strategies to reduce the cost of transmission. Thus, what originally existed as

shorthand” with limited instrumental and personal uses (e.g. taking quick notes during an interview

or lecture), has now evolved into a fully-fledged language system used widely within the wireless

culture for social interaction. We are already at the point where new texting-oriented vocabularies can

be listed for different languages, on the basis of observed practice (See Appendix)

Furthermore, the multimedia capacity of wireless communication technology (as it is the case with

the fixed line Internet), displays a multimodal form of communication, with text, image, and audio

being used from multiple locations. The observation shows that the combination of these different

modes of communication, particularly by the young users, are creating new forms of meaning,

characterized by the mixture of methods of assigning meaning, e.g. by using texting only for the

personal commentary or for emphasis, while sound and images are supposed to be self-explanatory.

The merger of text and audiovisual is now diffused more widely in various contexts of

communication through the distributed communicative capacity of wireless technology. We are also

beginning to see texting vocabulary spill over into standard English writing or French writing or

Spanish writing. Teachers are beginning to complain about students using SMS words in their essays.

Since language is closely related to the formation of culture (systemic production and communication

of meaning), we are clearly in a process of cultural transformation associated to the spread of wireless

communication, although the lack of academic research on the subject precludes for the time being to

know the contours and directions of this transformation.

 

8.9. IS THE MOBILE COMMUNICATION SOCIETY CULTURALLY AND

INSTITUTIONALLY DIVERSE?

As with the network society in general, the mobile communication society is culturally diverse. Each

country, each culture, and each social group use the technology according to their values, habits,

traditions, and projects. For instance, in Korea ignoring calls or messages from someone (what is

labeled "chewing out") is seen as "really not cool" and irritating because it breaks reciprocity within

the network. One girl interviewed said that when she was too tired of getting calls and messages she

would discharge the battery of her cell phone (rather than ignoring the messages) because she

"would rather die than chew out messages from others". This is a culturally specific practice due to

the strength of Korean social networks that attach special value to reciprocal communication. The

culture of kawaii (or cute) seems to be characteristic of Japan, as it expresses the Japanese taste for

small, personalized technological products. However, this habit is spreading to China, Korea,

Taiwan, and Hong Kong, so it could be considered a regional trend. In China, the exponential growth

of Little Smart technology, that was presented and analyzed in our report, seems to be the most

distinctive feature vis a vis other areas. This is not only linked to the economic condition of the users.

There is something else: it fits well the culture of informal business relations (guanxi) and a loose

interpretation of state policies in local business practices. Indeed, the Central Government had not

formally authorized until recently fixed-line operators to to build and sell mobile telephony, and the

mobile license-holders strongly opposed the practice. Yet, China Telecom, as the most established

company, enjoys good relationships with local officials, so they were able to diffuse Little Smart by

using personal persuasion and informal connections. Interestingly enough, while the original

technology behind Little Smart is from Japan, and UTStarcom is now selling it internationally, there

is little sign that similar processes are taking place elsewhere, in spite of the clear appeal of this lowcost

mobile communication technology for developing countries. The Chinese institutional context

appears to be a better environment for its expansion than other countries in the world.

In the case of Europe, there is an interesting comparative study on the uses of mobile telephones in

public space in three different cities, London, Madrid, and Paris, that raises the issue of cultural

specificity. The possibility of interfering with other people's conversations or activities prompts the

need of an informal m-etiquette. But this m-etiquette varies in each city. Thus, in Madrid, it seems to

be more permisiveness for intrusive behavior than in London or Paris. This relaxed attitude towards

strangers' communication also extends to the use of mobile phones in movie theaters or in

transportation, even airplanes. In contrast, in London and Paris, people tend to emphasize their need

for privacy in the public space, thus low voice communication is required, and people on the phone

avoid eye contact to be by themselves in their communication space.

Another feature that seems to be distinctive of the European context, is the inclination of users in the

UK, France, Italy and Spain to engage in protest agains the cost of telephone service. In France, for

instance, users, after their collective demand, obtained a reduction in the rates for SMSs. In Spain and

Italy protests actions agains the telephone companies were organized over the Internet. It remains to

be seen if consumers collective action to control the management of wireless communication services

is rooted in the European tradition of civic mobilization or is simply a function of the broader

diffusion of mobile telephony in comparison to other areas of the world.

However, while cultural and institutional specifity shapes the uses of wireless communication, we

would like to warn against reducing the sources of this specificity to countries. The variety of sources

of cultural differences will manifest themselves within countries as well as between countries. And

the context of the use of the technology does not depend on the national variation of institutions.

Some times, the work context in contrast to the family context or to the context provided by interpersonal

networks are more important sources of differentiation than the social environment defined

by a given nation-state. Thus, we must re-interpret observations of cultural differences in wireless

communication in terms of the social environment where they take place, rather than in political

categories defined around national flags. Indeed, most of our observation tends to show that the main

features associated with the use of wireless communication are present in the diversity of countries

and areas on which we have collected information. Wireless communication seems to set in motion

networks of individuals rather than define enclosures of national cultures.

 

8.10. THE MOBILE COMMUNICATION SOCIETY

In our observation of available evidence on the social uses and effects of wireless communication

technology around the world we have perceived the emergence of new social arrangements

characterized by networked social practices, an individual-centered culture, and distributed

information and communication power. The technological ability to maintain this networking pattern

of relationship anywhere where there is access to the communication infrastructure generalizes the

social structure conceptualized as the network society to all domains of activity and to all contexts,

beyond the computer networks built on fixed telephone lines. We have shown the direct effets of this

networking logic in the family, at work, in personal relationships, in culture, in language, politics.

Unfortunately, the extent of scholarly research in this field of observation is still very limited, and

techno-prophets and oil snake sellers tend to move in quickly to fill the void. Thus, we must be

careful in providing the context of our findings and the limits of our analytical interpretation. Yet,

after reviewing the evidence, we are convinced that we are contemplating the emergence of a new

social landscape in which individualized persons strive to cope with the responsibility of constructing

their networks of communication on the basis of who they are and what they want. Freedom is a

dangerous adventure. The alternative, however, is the exclusion of the networks of communication

that power our lives in our age. And this exclusion is still today the lot for most of humankind.