You are here

Transforming Society through Mobile Technologies

The first post-lunch session on this second AoIR 2005 day is on 'Mobile Technologies and Societal Transformation'.

Gitte Stald: Mobile Phone Use amongst Danish Youth

Gitte Stald from the University of Copenhagen is the first speaker, presenting on democracy and citizenship possibilities in a mobile Internet environment. Mobile media are already integrated with a large part of everyday life in developed nations; of course we have always been mobile, both in  a geographical as well as symbolic sense. But today, digital media provide us with the locality and space for interaction, exchange, and proximity.

The mobile Internet is currently composed of a number of mobile platforms, including GPRS (general Packet Radio Service), CSD/GSM (Circuit Switched Data), and 3G mobile telephony systems such as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System). Soon, however, this will be expanded the Extended Internet systems, embedding computing and networking services in a much larger range of devices which can communicate with their environment. Electronic Product Codes (EPCs) can be attached to a wide range of products, and it will be far more easily possible to access information about products and physical locations on the fly. This is a move away from surfing the Internet, perhaps to a kind of surfing our physical environment.

Gitte's research project is focussing particularly on the uses of mobile media by Danish youth. She has studied a group of 15- to 24-year-olds, attempting to discover their patterns of mobile use, and the factors that influence such use. The project will also lead to the development of content and content concepts specifically for this age group. Some early findings: the mobile phone was switched on almost 24 hours per day for the vast majority of the users (least for the 15-17 year bracket, presumably because they are forced to switch it off at school); SMS and standard phone uses are the main uses here, with only 10% of users also accessing the Internet at present. The greatest use of Internet services at present is amongst the 22-29 year age bracket.

From user comments this is also evident: many users feel that internet access is 'nice to have', but not a must-have, and they have been disappointed so far with the offerings available through mobile Internet services. This is also dependent on the speed of connections, data capacity, and the available interface, of course; Gitte also points out that Danish users are usually not too far away from their desktops and therefore perhaps do not need to access the Net on their mobiles. There is also an issue around early adoption - unless more users do use mobile Internet services, early adopters have nobody to interact with.

There are some potentials for citizenship here, however. Immediate access to personal information (and government services), system/citizen interaction (&A, public information campaigns, opinion polls and voting), and mobile social software (MoSoSo), all have potential; at the same time there are also questions of surveillance and privacy, of course. Further, there is some democratic potential as well: mobile Internet access may transfer more power to the users of these technologies, and enable direct information exchange between users as well as between citizens and systemic institutions; this might also help citizens create meaning and knowledge and generate more group involvement on a societal level.

Alison Powell: Seeing Wireless Networks

The next speaker is Alison Powell from Concordia University, speaking on the politics of visibility in the context of wireless Internet access in urban public space. This is part of a larger research project from a critical technology studies perspective, involving the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking. Underlying is the question of how the space of flows is folded into the space of places (as Manuel Castells has asked).

Alison notes that access to infrastructure is not equal, and that wireless infrastructure continues to be a marker of privilege. New forms of infrastructural developments always tend to appear first in affluent environments, thus reinforcing privileged socioeconomic groups. However, the presence of wireless infrastructure is more difficult to see than, say, the presence of garbage collection of electric light - 'seeing' the infrastructure itself actually requires knowledge, cultural capital, and equipment (i.e. access to components of the infrastructure).

In the case of wireless internet, however, we have also seen the emergence of a large number of community groups trying to establish wireless networks from the ground up - including Île Sans Fil in Montreal, the group which Alison has worked with. This group has deployed wireless infrastructure and has in fact rolled out more hotspots than commercial providers. Everybody logging on to their network is greeted with the same log-on page, which is meant to symbolise the idea and reinforce the sense of a wireless community emerging around this network infrastructure.

The group is organised crucially through its map of its wireless hotspots; this gives the group a sense of geography as well as a sense of the distribution of wireless access points, which links directly to Montreal's socioeconomic and political structures. It also shows the affiliations of the group, which has partnered with some local government and economic organisations to set up wireless access. Interestingly, wireless is currently less used in the traditionally socially and politically influential locations in the city, however, than in other places where perhaps there was a real need for such access to be available.

Comments from users have also shown how wireless Internet access has made them feel more social by taking them out of their private spaces and enabling them to have access to the Internet in public environments. Further, there have also been some subcultural events such as a pub crawl organised by the wireless group, while on the other hand the group has also developed software which makes it possible to see a list of all other users connected to the same local access point - so that all wireless users in the same bar or café can see who else is sharing the same common space.

Some of the successes of this project are that, in effect, the group has 'hacked the city' - making an alternative infrastructure visible through making their maps and leaving their traces. However, this is only a good infrastructure for sharing connectivity, not for creating connectivity - ultimately, the wirlesss access points still need to be connected to the wired netwotk somewhere, still driving more business to the stadard Telcos. There is also a question of whether this just reinforces existing subcultural community structures rather than broadening out the community.

Anxo Cereijo Roibas: Towards DIY Content Production by Mobile Users

Anxo Cereijo Roibas from the University of Brighton now presents a study with Sanna Simola from the University of Lapland, on the potential future for mobile phones as multimedia tools. Current trends in Europe are that there is a diffusion of powerful mobile multimedia phones; there is increasing interoperability between platforms, and hence more pervasive communication; there is a move from one-to-one to one-to-many connectivity; there is development of context-aware applications; and an evolution towards novel forms of malleable content and advanced forms of interaction.

These attributes will enable users to become DIY producers of multimedia content (or produsers, in my terms). This leads to rapid changes in user habits, together with fast technological advances in some areas (mobile and interactive television, for example). Industry has often failed to provide useful services for users, however, and so it is important to investigate what uses may in fact turn out to be successful. The market's response to many new products and applications has not been favourable to date - much of the development is driven by technological possibilities rather than users' needs and wants.

The variables that need to be taken into account include human factors and behaviours, sociocultural and economic trends, as well as design; it is clear that small mobile devices can provide both a functional and an affective interactive experience, and can create a credible immersive interactive environment for the user, if they do take into account such factors.

The study, then, focussed on commuters' and travellers' (or, nomadic users') potential uses of mobile phones. Commuters are in many ways a captive audience, as during the commute they have little else to do and could become heavy users of mobile technology. At first the study focussed on current uses of and problems with mobile phones amongst commuters; in a second stage, the study attempted to anticipate future scenarios of mobile phone usage. Users were involved in this process, using a collaborative design approach.

One approach here was the use of Cultural Proves - users were given a pack with postcards, maps, a camera, a media diary, and a photo album and colour pencils; they were then asked to play with these tools to describe their beliefs, desires, aesthetic preferences and cultural concerns without a need for researchers to observe them directly. For example, on the maps, they would indicate where they would like to day dream, to go but cannot, to be alone, to meet people, and to sketch relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. The camera was used to take a picture or video of content they would like to create with their mobile, as were the photo albums.

Current technical developments in mobile phones are larger screens, colour displays, photo and video cameras, and so on. The study found that users would like to use these for more spontaneous content creation (for example images of exciting social situation which could be sent to friends and colleagues), but also for more structured and recurrent uses such as moblogging, which may be aimed at a broader social circle. The study also found information on what content users are already receiving: when on the move, for example, they were particularly interested to receive contextually relevant information (about the places where they are, for example), rather than social content sent by friends and family.

Youth also expressed an interest to have access to other media (especially TV) using mobile phone technologies - for example by voting on programmes or having their own content shown on TV for their own five minutes of glory; they are also interested in leaving their signature along the way, for example by leaving messages behind for others visiting public spaces - a kind of electronic inscription of public spaces (much as people used to scratch their initials into trees).

This is a form of disseminating creativity - local people can share their vision of the world - and it leads to a new generation of content producers. This shows that mobile phone-based television will probably not be a form of broadcast TV brought to the mobile, but rather a kind of personalised video broadcasting from users' phones. On the other end, viewers of these messages can also become much more involved, by editing and responding to such messages. Of course, many questions remain - especially in terms of privacy and intellectual property, as well as in terms of what communities of mobile content creators might emerge in the process.