Early 21st century societies are evolving into a hybrid of real and synthetic worlds where everyday activities are mediated by technology. The result is a new generation of users extending their everyday experiences into these emerging digital ecologies. However, what happens when users re-create their human identity in these spaces? How do the tools of new technologies such as the mobile phone allow them to capture and share their experiences? In order to address these issues, this chapter presents the findings from a three-year study into mobile phone use in urban culture. The study revealed that for a new generation, the mobile phone was integral in the formation of fluid social interactions and had accelerated urban mobility. Users once restrained by pre-made plans were able to spontaneously traverse the city and suburbs, swarming between friendship groups and activities. Distinct user archetypes emerged from these mobile phone driven sub-cultures whose practices brought about fundamental changes in social mores with respect to engagement and commitment, to notions of fluid time versus fixed time and, ultimately, to urban mobility. Connectivity had become central to what it means to have a social identity and users responded to this by merging bits of data to create their “ideal digital self” through which they communicate socially. Yet, recent developments in mobile phone design reveal the potential for a new generation of people to recontextualize their use in a way that moves beyond “the social” as they utilise sensors and data capturing and sharing functionalities in new mobile devices to augment their “social butterfly” identity with an ideology of a “socially conscious urban citizen.”
Introduction: The Mobile Phone As A Culturally Loaded Artefact
Ubiquitous, more addictive than cigarettes, empowering, disruptive, the most intimate communications device in the modern world, the new car; just how should we define the mobile phone and the mobile phone user? The discourses surrounding the mobile phone herald the artefact as the defining cultural icon for the digital generation, the one item a person can possess to represent their status as a participating member in early 21st century society. “If you want to assure yourself that you belong to the new century, this is the object to have in your hands” (Myerson, 2001, p3). Claims of this nature reveal much about the cultural times in which we are living. The shift from a post-industrial to a digital society has resulted in a culture that is not only obsessed with being in constant contact with each other, but where the idea of connectivity actually defines the culture.
The literature indicates that the many changes brought about by mobile phone use are occurring within a cultural dimension. The implications are that the mobile phone brings with it more than communication, it brings powerful notions of personalization and identity as can be seen in the work of Carroll, et al. (2002); Counts & Fellheimer (2004); Geser (2004); Goggin (2004); Ishii (2004); Ling (2002); Plant (2001); and Taylor & Harper (2002). Therefore, when the study presented in this chapter investigated young people in relation to mobile phone use, the major focus was on how users interacted with new technologies in order to create a sense of identity, both for themselves and the world they lived in.
Although the emerging themes were focused on the process through which mobile phones were engaged to enforce pre-existing social networks and do not encompass advances that happened after the study finished in 2005, the insights are potentially relevant for those designing for new uses of interactions in urban environments because they provide an informed snapshot of the nature of a young, urban mobile user and the environment they inhabit.
Understanding everyday practices is important for urban informatics practioners as was emphasised by Rhinegold (2003) who draws attention to urban informatician Anthony Townsen’s prediction that the mobile phone will have as much impact on urban environments as the automobile. Therefore, the first part of the chapter will describe the study design. The second section will present the findings from the study. The third section will examine the relevance of the findings as users, who previously defined themselves through social use and conceived the mobile phone as a private mode of communication, begin to identify themselves through new mobile paradigms such as active members of physically co-located communities (Bilandzic et al., 2008) or environmentally conscious citizens (Paulos, 2008). As Oktay (2002, p.261) notes:
Identity is one of the essential goals for the future of a good environment. People should feel that some part of the environment belongs to them, individually and collectively, some part for which they care and are responsible, whether they own it or not. At the urban level, the environment should be such that it encourages people to express themselves and to become involved.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Apparatgeist: The ability of an inanimate machine to possess a spirit.
Digital Augmentation: The enhancement of virtual presence through the use of digital content.
Mobile Phone: The mobile phone (also: cell phone) is a portable electronic device used for mobile communication. In addition to the voice function, standard mobile phones include SMS for text messaging, email, packet switching for access to the Internet and MMS for sending and receiving photos and video.
The Swarm: A patented mobile phone prototype that allows the user to simultaneously represent multiple digital identities and embed their virtual presence with digital content. http://www.pixelshifter.net/client_login/swarm_2007
Qualitative Research: Qualitative research involves the use of qualitative data, such as interviews, documents and participant observation data, to understand and explain social phenomena. It provides an in-depth analysis by examining phenomena within a social and cultural context.
Identity: Relates to the way the person sees themselves either individually or as member of a group.
Grounded theory: ...A technique for analysing data that uses a bottom up approach allowing the researcher to build theory as the themes emerge.
Swarming: The spontaneous formation of social networks facilitated by mobile technologies.