sean aylward smith on 14 Nov 2000 02:22:58 -0000


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[Nettime-bold] cell/mobile phones



some thoughts upon the mobile/ cell phone debate:

“David Bennahum coined the term cellspace two years ago...”

i cant help thinking that the term ‘cellspace’ is wrong and
imperialistic. imperialistic, because the term ‘cellphone’ is primarily
restricted to the usa, or at a pinch continental north america. as another
nettime poster has already indicated, in central europe the term ‘handy’
predominates; in western europe and australia - the countries with the
highest participation rates (or what the industry so lovingly calls
‘penetration rates’), the device is called the mobile telephone. that the
term that predominates in the usa, which has the lowest participation rate
in the mobile-enabled world (the last time i looked, just over 29% of the
us populatyion had a mobile; at the same time australia was just cresting
the 50% participation rate, the uk was approaching it and the early
adopter countries of finland and sweden had long since exceeded it),
should be taken as the standard term for the mobile in favour of the term
that dominates in those places that lead the way in mobile use and uptake,
seems to me more than a little presumptuous, denying the taken for granted
experiences of the majority of ppl who actually use the device. the term
‘cellphone’ - and explanatory metaphors based upon it - is, in the
inimitable phrasing of an australian comedy duo, ‘wrong and broken’.

“Bennahum predicted a bright future for cellspace. "So what happens when
you strap on a wireless modem to a Palm Pilot and access the Internet? You
get a peek at the way many of us will experience cyberspace by 2000. Much
as the Web unleashed a multi-billion dollar global industry and new
cultural forms, so too will cheap, ubiquitous wireless datastreams, what I
call Cellspace."“

without having read bennahum in full, its a bit hard to coment
authoritatively, but it would seem as tho he has missed the point. mobile
cellular telecommunications devices aren’t searching for the killer app to
‘unleash a multi-billion dollar global industry’. the killer app - voice
communication, aka conversation - is already here, and the mutli-billion
dollar industry, one which dwarfs the nascent e-commerce market, is
here. you only need to look at the amounts of money being poured into
third generation spectrum auctions to get an idea of the future profits
the telcos involved are expecting. and you only need to look at the
non-collapse of their share prices during the two technology stock
collapses this year to realise that capitalists the world over agre with
the telco’s business models. 

mobile phones dont so much break down space as, to paraphrase zygmunt
bauman, decompose time. as does the internet and indeed all remote
communications devices, the mobile enables non-contiguous
relationships; however, unlike computer mediated communcations
technologies such as the internet, the mobile enables synchronous
communication - and enables it in such a straightforward manner that
pretty much anyone who can use and afford a landline can use and afford a
mobile. however, it is the ability to conduct these remote relationships
in real time, and to thus save time - because as bauman points out, time
is the one commodity that capital can only lease, not purchase
freehold. the contrast to the bright young capitalist taking recieving
emails on central station is the character of takeshi kitanl in _hana-bi_
. altho kitano’s detective character has a mobile, no amount of calls to
dodgy police, yakuza or loan sharks can change the fact that his wife is
dying of cancer, and he is left, standing by his car, uselessly holding
his mobile, waiting for he and his wife to die.

the young women eager, as mckenzie describes, to call their friends to
discuss the night out, are not trying to shrink space; they’re trying to
decompose time, to reduce the time between having the date and discussing
the date. mind you, all the research on _why_ young women are taking up
mobile phones indicates the single most important reason for their
adoption of mobiles is security, not to call their friends. of course,
security doesnt rate as a reason when they are asked _how_ they use their
mobiles - its all about enabling their relationships with their
friends; however ya gotta gt one first before ya can use it. 

the dream of mobile network operators is, as it has been described to me,
‘the dick tracy thing’ - the video phone that is worn by all users as an
accessory, providing the verisimilitude of a face to face communication
with the ubiquity of a wristwatch. video phone capability is the basic
operational parameter of third-generation mobiles; combined with blutooth
technology (a chip that allows blutooth enabled devices eg, yr fridge, yr
carport, the coke machine at work, yr mobile, to talk to each other),
telco operators expect that market saturation for third generation mobiles
to be 200% market participation.... yep, two mobile per person. this is
the next wave in mobile technology: blutooth chips are currently fully
functional, however until they enter mass production and their unit price
drops, they wont enter mass circulation... (and of course, until they
enter mass circulation, few manufacturers are willing to take the risk of
mass producing them.. ;) ). the next wave of mobile telecommunications is
human/nonhuman relations, or human/object relations.

it is possible to construct a formalism between us use of the internet and
european use of mobiles, as mckenzie suggests. it would go something like
usa= individual= suburban= internet usage=market driven=
competition; europe= communal= urban= mobile usage= state driven=
monopoly. however, except as a descriptive metaphor, such a formalism has
almost no utility, and in fact disguises so much of what is actually
occurring that it rapidly becomes misleading. 

two examples: it is true that urban usage of mobiles is greater than
suburban usage of mobiles (as long as we lok at usage statistics rather
than possession statistcis: the rate of mobile by domiciles shows an
extremely high proportion of suburban owners, if only because the business
ppl have to go home at night); however, the rate of _rural_ usage is at
least as high as the uban usage rate: in australia, the mobile (in
particular the analogue and the cdma mobile) have been godsends to rural
and regional communities, for whom landline access was always precarious -
even if they could get a phone line laid, getting to it was not always
convenient. however, the fact that mobiles are tied to persons rather than
spaces, as landlines are, has changed this: a recent report of a woman
severely burned during a bushfire but able to use her mobile to call for
help - and who stated in news reports that if she’d had to crawl back to
the house to use the landline she wouldnt have survived - vividly suggests
reasons for the popularity of mobiles in rural areas.
similarly, altho it is essentially true that it was technical competition
in the us, in contrast to a unified approach in europe, that explains why
the us didnt take up second generation mobiles in any great numbers, it
elides the most salient points. prior to the development of GSM - ie
second gen mobiles - the us had a well developed, technically unified
analogue market, based upon the AMPS standard. the european commission -
note, NOT the (sometimes) state controlled telcos - mandated the
development of an alternative standard a: to avoid paying royalties to us
teclos for the rest of eternity; b: to kickstart the european telco
sector; c: to give a unifying eu project in line with european commision
aims. the development of GSM was seen in us telco sectors, rather
famously, ‘as industrial folly by european bureaucrats’, as an
unneccessary governmental intervention in a stable technological
marketplace. much like ibm’s famous ‘there is a global market for maybe
250,000 pc’s’ and xerox’s belief that ‘there was no market for graphic
user interfaces’, the us corporate sector entirely missed the boat on
second generation mobile. (in fact, it raises the interesting and very
real question - would the internet have occurred if the us gov’t hadnt
funded it, with the very obvious answer: of course not). having to play
catch up, and unwilling to go the cooperative route that european
companies such as nokia and ericsson, enamoured by the european
commission’s vision, had taken, the us telco sector began competitively
developing their own second generation standards. without the cooperative
and unified aproach of the european telcos however, the us developments
never had a chance of moving beyond their proprietary networks, such that
not only more sophisticated technologies as CDMA remained marginal global
technologies, but third generation (3G) standards, adopted by european,
japanese, chinese, korean, australian and some us telcos, are firmly based
upon GSM foundations. this is not us competition falling to european
monopoly power or even us private sector falling to european state
regulation; this is competitive short-term self-interest unable to compete
with rational cooperative international behaviour; a very old story well
described by, amongst others, fernand braudel.
The wireless application protocol, WAP, by the way, is not the enabler of
short message systems (SMS) - SMS is a basic function of second generation
GSM; whilst WAP is part of what is known as GSM 2.5 - an interim standard
to deliver some internet functionality to GSM, prior to the launch of 3G
networks - designed to prevent network operators (note, NOT
users) migrating over to CDMA standards. (CMDA, being fully ten years
younger than GSM, offers internet functionality that the original GSM
could only dream of; 3G offers functionality CDMA can never deliver; the
strategy with GSM 2.5 is keeping network operators using a GSM base until
3G comes online). 
these technological developments onyl provide part of the explanation for
the stagnation of the us mobile market in the bourgeois/ privileged/ niche
market demographics in the face of mass-market participation rates in
other countries. the other crucial factor, as mckenzie alluded to, is call
costs. local call costs in the us are free, as far as i know, so internet
usage was always cheap; timed call costs in europe have long made the
internet a device only for the anoraks and the bougeois - ie, a niche
technology. on the other hand, the fact that only the caller pays for
mobile calls in most countries, and that competing local landline calls
are not free (and in most places already timed) makes mobile usage
extremely attractive in most countries, competitive with landlines and
with greater utility and benefits. conversely, in the us, the fact that
both caller and reciever has to pay immediately makes the mobile
expensive, combines with free competing local calls and subsidised long
distance calls condemns the mobile to be a niche techology that only the
privileged or those with excessive disposable income can afford. as
another nettime poster indicated, the amazing diffusion of pagers in the
us - a technology which is long obsolete in most countires - indicates the
factor call costs play in the distribution or lack thereof of mobile
telephones in the us compared with, say, other OECD countries. you dont
need to rely upon dubious formalisms when technological standards and
basic economic realities will suffice. 

similarly, you dont need to speculate as to the psychological state of
users, as benjamin geer did in attempting to explain why he was struck by
the sight of a mobile user having entirely ordinary (if nonetheless
annoying, for their invasive qualities) conversations on the street. the
need to speculate on the mindstate of users is not so much an attempt to
understand why mobile users use their mobiles as an example of the very
marginal and niche nature of mobiles in the us that i have been
suggesting. the user on the street having a banal conversation is a
liminal figure, worthy of comment, only because they are so rare. think by
way of comparison, of the archaic figure of the fob watch wearer: when
timepieces we expensive and hence only accessible in numbers to the
bourgeoisie, the fob watch was eo ipso a marker of said bourgeois
status. similarly, in places where mobile ownership is still minoritarian,
the mobile user is a liminal figure; in places such as australia however,
such liminality is restricted to, for example, mobile users who use
ear-mouth pieces to avoid possible radiation risks (because they are a
minority of mobile users) or mobile users who are schoolchildren (because
only a minority of schoolchildren can afford mobile telephones).

cheers,

sean smith
(yeah, i promise, i will actually publish the results of my research on
mobile telephones. im just a bit busy at the moment, *doh*)
___________________________________________

'one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes'
					 - jg ballard


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