Office on the Move: Mobile Phones and Entrepreneurship in China1

Office on the Move: Mobile Phones and Entrepreneurship in China1

Mei Wu, Haiyun Lin
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-507-0.ch018
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This study, applying social shaping of technology complemented with affordance theory and domestication theory, qualitatively analyses implications of the mobile phone constructed by entrepreneurs in Fujian Province, China. Findings indicate that mobile telephony has significantly transformed the business practice of time and space by Fujian entrepreneurs. It changes time constraints by enabling a 24-hour contact in business operations. It affects the spatial location with a ‘mobile office’. It becomes a platform for staging tricky business performances. It interconnects business and private lives. Consequently it becomes the ‘magic wand’ -- the central axis around which the lives of Fujian entrepreneurs revolve.
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One noticeable aspect in the mobile telephone development in China is that the mobile phone was initially used by business people for business-oriented activities. Business people, especially entrepreneurs of small and medium-sized businesses, have become one of the crucial user groups of the device. Their use habits have thus contributed to the development of various types of mobile phones and service packages specifically catering to the business community. However, the social meanings of the business use of mobile phones in China remain considerably unexamined.

The significance of this study lies in the fact that it attempts to situate the social roles of the mobile phone within the Chinese context of the economic development, private entrepreneurship and aspiration for modernization. In less than two decades, China leaped from a pre-industrial stage of minimum landline penetration to the world’s number one in mobile phone population of 814.1 million in July 2010, a penetration of 60.5% (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology 2010). As Guo and Wu (2009) point out, this development is rather different from the Western experience where mobile communication arrived a century later after telephony. They argue that mobile telephony attains a new set of social significance in China. It is above all instrumental for economic development and mass entrepreneurship as it advanced in a society which, lacking essential industrial facilities such as a universal telephone service, highway system, public transit network, etc., was under great pressure of industrial imperatives (Guo & Wu 2008).

As researchers note, wireless technologies were initially invented for business people (Castells, Fernandez-Ardevol, Qiu, & Sey, 2004). Castells et al (2004) observed that worldwide, business users occupy a leading market in mobile phone services; the business user group is especially large in developing countries like China and the Philippines. However, studies on the social implications of the mobile phone in business usage are rather limited. The few mobile phone studies analysing business impacts mostly emphasise the mobile phone’s impact on the macro-economy of society (Gary & Scott, 2000; Katia, n.d.; Norton, 1992). On the other hand, some mobile phone studies do cover business usage, but they are mainly concerned with motivations and gratifications of business users (e.g. Ling, 2004; Wei & Leung, 2000). A small number of studies on mobile phone use and micro-enterprises were conducted in developing countries especially African countries, (e.g. Donner, 2004; Goodman, 2005; Samuel, Shah & Hadingham, 2005; Jiyane, 2010). Although these studies offer some details into mobile phone usage of small business owners, they shed limited light on the large theoretical investigation of the social roles that the mobile phone facilitates in creating a new social-techno environment for entrepreneurship, business operation and the globalised market.

In conceptualizing the social effects of mobile communication technology, Castells et al (2004) point to one of the fundamental concerns, how our practice of time and space has been changed as a result of wireless communication. They reiterate the major thesis in Castells’ previous trilogy on the network society that new forms of space and time – the space of flows and timeless time -- have emerged. The mobile phone does not transcend space and time, but it “blurs spatial contexts and time frames” (Castells et al 2004, 241). This point is similarly echoed by Geser (2004) when he argues that the freedom from the constraints of physical proximity and spatial immobility in communication constitutes a significant social meaning of the mobile phone.

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