As if mobile phones weren’t repellent enough, they are now alleged to be the carriers of infestation. In a recent BT ad, a Londoner on a packed train is heard shouting into his mobile about what lice are capable of – jumping from person to person, burrowing deep under the skin. His fellow travellers prick up their ears and begin edging their way out of the carriage. Some conversations, concludes the strapline, are better had at home.
BT’s ad agency is mining a rich vein of resentment about the effect of mobiles on social life. Gossiping on the mobile can subvert traditional categories of public and private space. When couples or lovers use mobiles in public spaces to communicate with an intimate, the public becomes a “voyeur”, accidentally privy to the minutiae of private lives. On the other hand, when we use “hands-free” equipment to chatter while walking along the road, the public sphere is subsumed into a bubble of private space.
Put on the defensive, some network operators have even taken the trouble to issue guidelines on the etiquette of responsible mobile use in public places. Our exasperation with the chattering classes, however, is misguided. While mobiles can be used for the exchange of gossip, they are chiefly useful for short exchanges aimed at improving co-ordination. Even the apparently self-evident cry of the commuter – “I’m on the train” – is hardly idle gossip, but a staccato exercise in improving logistics: I on train, you at home, let’s talk later to update our maps.
As a result, mobiles are almost invisibly speeding up the pace of urban activity. In his book A City in Your Pocket, the Finnish sociologist Timo Kopomaa followed young people as they used text messages to shift themselves around the city. Mobiles, he concluded, help young people reinvent the nomadic patterns of mobility practised by our ancestors. And the new generation of location-aware mobile devices will take mobilisation – co-ordination through mobile device – to an exciting new dimension. A convergence of different technologies means that our mobiles will soon be capable of alerting us to other people as they pass us by, as well as providing richer, more relevant information about our surroundings.
If the principal function of mobiles is already to help us co-ordinate our activities, devices which enable us to follow our own movements as well as those of friends and colleagues will turn the mobile into a compass as well as a tracking device. At least in embryo, this is already happening. At the San Diego campus of the University of California, for example, students have location-enhanced buddy lists to show them where their friends are on campus.
In Japan, customers of NTT DoCoMo have for years been authorising their handset phones to reveal their location to select associates. As a result, according to one commentator, the geography of urban spaces has changed forever. As part of an experiment called Flirt, single mobile users in Helsinki were asked to leave messages about themselves behind when they wandered around the city. As other people encountered the data and began to respond, according to one reporter, the Flirt experiment “turned Helsinki into a citywide chat room”. Whereas much of what goes on on the World Wide Web is cocooned in the parallel world of cyberspace, these new location- based technologies have the potential to effect a more satisfactory marriage between the digital and the real. We can predict, says one urban geographer, “a scenario in which people visit certain places for the possibility of serendipitous encounters with interesting information, the way they travel now for the same types of chance encounters with people”.
The proposals to enrich urban spaces with floating data archives of information are ambitious. Tentative steps are already being taken in this direction. The London Tourist Board, for example, recently showcased an application that will let users view a map of their location on a mobile phone or mobile device together with information on restaurants, hotels and museums in the area. With adequate foresight and resources, urban planners, policy-makers and designers of public space could encourage experimentation with the new technologies to create exciting new urban experience.
Throughout the 20th century, artists and intellectuals sought to navigate original paths through the city and remake it in their own image. James Joyce’s Ulysses took Dublin as its subject, alerting us to its hidden possibilities as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus spent a day (Bloomsday, 16 June 1904) rambling through its streets and wandering in and out of each other’s lives. Much later, French situationists and the psychogeographers sought to remap the city by divining new axes which lay hidden, celebrating coincidence and revelling in reconfiguring urban space. Were it not for our more muted sense of possibility and our fragile manners, mobiles could put fire back into the belly of a radical modernism. If Bloom’s odyssey were to have taken place today, we can be sure that he would have gone armed with a mobile.