A brief paper on the long history of mobile ICTs
Especially over the last decade, the rapid diffusion of mobile telephones and related worn technologies left many struggling to understand how they might relate to social change. Although there can be little argument that we have seen rapid development in the technology of mobile communication and computation, at least some of our surprise must be related to a flawed overall frame for understanding technology and place. After all, these technologies seem on first blush to be very different from the kinds of communication devices we are more familiar with: technologies of the screen. When faced with technologies that are inherently displacing us, the literature tends to frame them from the perspective of dwelling and settlement, drawing on metaphors of cyberspace and virtual settlements. But mobile telephony is not as new as it first appears, and our focus on dwelling as a metaphor for all technology leads to a gap in understanding the social role of these new devices.
Understanding communication technologies and networks through the lens of the built environment is natural. The evolution of modern human society might be traced through a shift from biological to social change. Rather than adapting to our environments, we change our environments to suit our needs. No particularly acute skills are needed to discover human habitation: we build. And the creation of the built environment has been seen as key to creating physical proximity and urbanity at the core of the modern human experience. We have, however, been unable to build ourselves out of significant human ills, and in many cases the magical and spiritual nature of our built environment has been engineered away. The problems of modern society can be found most acutely in its characteristic environment: the metropolis.
But the rapid diffusion of the mobile phone both within the more and less developed world has turned this seemingly unbreakable bond between urbanity and evolution on its ear. Rich Ling, Mimi Ito, and others write about the new uses of these media to tightly control collaborative processes, particularly among the younger generation. The ability to act in coordination without being co-present, though of course always possible, is now more easily available to larger and larger populations. The favoring of these personal, ephemeral network brings the magical and spectral world back to us. These days, we all hear voices.
This article counters claims to novelty by suggesting that there are long-standing historical precedents to many of social functions of modern mobile devices, and that our tendency to think in terms of physical environments has blinded us to these long-term social uses of mobile technologies. Moreover, it is useful to understand a range of worn technologies, from sidearms to spectacles, as inherently information, communication, and control technologies. By providing an outline and taxonomy of worn technologies, it is possible to more easily distinguish dimensions along which change may be occurring, and find historical precedents to seemingly novel arrangements, like Castells’ “insurgent communities of practice.” It’s dangerous to assume that social arrangements made possible through the affordances of new technologies represent a revolution. As Robert Darnton has suggested, we tend to forget earlier technologies (like the “Tree of Cracow”) and social organization isomorphic to these modern shifts.
Within that “longue durÃ©e” of worn technologies, I suggest we can identify a set of functions for addressing and manipulating social networks, from communicating authority, to record keeping and surveillance, to command and control. While these mobile technologies are inextricably spatial, it is important to recognize that thinking of them from the perspective of geography and place represents only one way of framing the understanding of such technologies, and unfortunately such framing is often done unconsciously and relatively uncritically. What does it mean to move beyond debates of space and place, of cybernomadism and locative technologies? Does the mobile device–from quipu and ehekachichtli, to the saber and flounce, to the iPhone and pacemaker–represent a technology of binding the Bund as much as binding space or time?