[iDC] mobile phones and the networked posse

Mark Shepard mshepard at andinc.org
Sun Jul 9 00:47:02 EDT 2006

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  

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

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