I’ve been reading James Harkin’s essay on “Mobilisation”, which I mentioned in an earlier post. (Don’t I know how to relax and kick back!). I hoped it would offer some more perspective on smart mobs and the ways groups use mobile devices. (You can get your own copy here.) It’s written with the aim of serving as a policy resource, but it’s pretty light on legal and regulatory stuff, and heavy on ethnographic and interview material: it’s intended to influence what policymakers do in the future, but mainly describes what people do with cell phones today.

There are a few useful things that the report highlights, though nothing that will come as a big surprise to anyone who’s already familiar with the ethnographic literature on cell phone use. (Test: If you can say who Sadie Plant is and what her last project was about, you should already know most of what’s in Harkin’s piece.) It begins with the argument that “Mobile technologies have merited relatively little intellectual or political attention– in contrast to the warehouses full of books, pamphlets and policy papers about the Internet,” (10) which strikes me as more or less right. Certainly I haven’t heard of ambitious academics turning their critical (in)sights on the lowly cell phone, and there’s probably less respect given to the cell phones than to the Web: we worry about a digital divide hurting poor students, but order cell phones turned off on school grounds.

But cell phones are proving to be quite interesting. For example, the meaning, use, and consequences of mobile use turn out to vary greatly with time and geography. “In China… mobiles are aspirational objects,” (15) just as they were in the US and UK in the 1980 and early 1990s, when they “had been colonised by certain kinds of professionals: city workers, drug dealers and up-market prostitutes.” (15) Today, though, the associations are softer (c.f., Finnish term “kanny”), and “the mobile phone effectively serves as a technological reminder of the network of friends and loved ones.” (16)

As many sociologists and anthropologists have found, some of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of mobile communication have been teens. Teens like cell phones because they are “a communication channel beyond the purview of anxious parents.” (21) In South Korea, mobiles are personal (and hence private) devices, while land lines are seen as family (and hence more public). This also makes sense in the context of something a friend told me when explaining the failure of answering machines in Korea:

Why did the answering machine never become popular in Korea, and why was the pager and cell phone so popular? The answer might be: since you are living with your parents, you can’t guarantee privacy with an answering machine. It is risky if you have any messages that you want to keep from your parents.

If the cell phone is a device for guaranteeing privacy, it is also “an emblem of group trust and group solidarity as well as a medium for self-expression:” (21) teenagers in Japan and Scandinavia, for example, share messages and loan phones to trusted friends, turning their phones into “a ‘collaborative resource’ among groups of teenagers as a way of promoting group solidarity.” (21)

Another interesting fact is that celcos expected most mobile phones calls to be long distance traffic, and only a few local; but real use patterns turn out to be exactly the opposite. Why? “Within networks of family and friends, the most important use of mobile communications is… for making and shifting arrangements to meet– so-called “approximeeting’.” (29) For those of you who haven’t experienced this, here’s how it works. You and your friends agree to meet in the Village, or in SOMA (or maybe it just turns out that you’re all within easy striking distance of the same neighborhood). As you head toward the neighborhood, you message each other back and forth about where there’s parking, what restaurants are crowded, what bars look promising; you stop doing this when you’re all about a half block apart, and can actually see each other. As Cory Doctrow so memorably put it, you collapse the waveform at the last instant.

One other good point that Harkin makes is that while we think of mobile phones as emblems of the knowledge economy, they’re “silently revolutionizing the wider working environment” (33) of blue collar and service workers– contractors, plumbers, truckers, warehouse workers, etc.. I hadn’t really thought of this much before, but here in Silicon Valley it’s rare to see a tradesman without a cell phone– and I can’t think of the last time I saw a supervisor/foreman type without one. As one contractor told me, it makes it a lot easier to keep track of your people, mainly because it eliminates excuses– e.g. “I couldn’t find a pay phone.”