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July 10, 2006

[iDC] Mobile Phones and The Networked Posse


Cultural and Regional Conditions

"To what extent are our concerns regarding the Networked Public Sphere tied to a specific historical phase (or regional condition) of the Internet? How are these concerns problematized by way mobile communications and wireless networks have evolved since the mid-late 90s?

I'm writing this from Tokyo where I'm with a group of architecture students studying the city as part of a study abroad program. One difference noticeable here is the way people access and use the Internet. Free wifi access is hard to find, and virtually no one is seen working on a laptop in cafes. Internet cafes here are cavernous spaces normally one or two floors below ground, consisting of stalls containing a desktop computer occupied by someone playing World of Warcraft, sofas for couples playing PSP at dedicated media stations, and racks of comics for casual reading. They also appear to be popular places for napping.

As Mimi Ito notes in "Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life" (MIT, 2005), a majority of Japanese access the Internet via their mobile phones, rather than a laptop or desktop computer. The Japanese word for mobile phone – keitai, roughly translated as "something you carry with you" – provides a clue to its role within Japanese culture. In contrast to “the cellular phone” of the US (defined by technical infrastructure), and “the mobile” of the UK (defined by the untethering from fixed location), the Japanese term “keitai” references a somewhat different set of parameters.

Here, the keitai is truly ubiquitous. Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing, for example, claims the highest density of mobile phone use in the world. An overwhelming majority of the Japanese population own phones equipped with digital still and video cameras, SMS (Short Message Service) messaging, wireless email and Internet browsers. Mobile phones have replaced computers as the de facto e-mail terminal of choice for many Japanese who are not in technology, finance, engineering or other computer-intensive occupations. This is particularly true for the young, who most clearly prefer handsets to laptops. These devices are used less often for voice communications than for asynchronic exchanges of text and images between close circles of friends or associates. These exchanges – often conducted throughout diverse urban spaces such as a subway car, a street corner, a shopping mall, or a grocery store aisle – interject new forms of privacy within otherwise "public" domains. Kenichi Fujimoto refers to the devices themselves as "territory machines" capable of transforming any space -- a subway train into "(one's) own room and personal paradise." While late 20th century (and predominately western) notions of the Internet promised to unlock us from the limitations of offline relationships and geographic constraints, keitai space flows in and out of ordinary, everyday activities, constantly shifting between virtual and physical realms. Here, "the" Networked Public Sphere is elided by a multiplicity of "networked posses" - small groups of close acquaintances rather than a distributed "mass" of virtual actors." Mark Shepard [posted on Institute for Distributed Creativity]

Posted by jo at July 10, 2006 10:23 PM