Mobility, New Social Intensities, and the Coordinates of Digital Networks
From stirrups to satellites, the invention of new forms of technical mobility has always created new intensities within the social. Each invention has also required a new idea of what it might be to be human, along with new tensions as older cultural practices and social forms are challenged. The contemporary mobility of digital networks is no exception. This issue of the Fibreculture Journal is concerned with documenting, and beginning to think through, the new mobile intensities allowed by digital networks. “Intensity” here refers not just to the ubiquitous nature of mobile networks, or to the frequency of use of mobile communications. New intensities are like new forces erupting within the old – taking the social somewhere it has not perhaps been before. At the least, these intensities give established orders new energies to either resist or attempt to fold into established social practices and modes of thinking.
All of the articles in this issue deal with these new intensities. Much of this issue develops key ideas and documents new social practices involving mobile telephony. Dong-Hoo Lee documents the experiments with self-image and expression now allowed young Korean women by camera phones. Angel Lin affirms the continuation of older social practices amongst Hong Kong college students using SMS (in the use of SMS to maintain social ties with friends and family, for example). However, she also notes the increased possibility of political participation, and some interesting shifts concerning biligual textual practices – perhaps even a specific emerging bilingual identity within the community of SMS users. Lin also finds that there are gender differences concerning the way that young people in Hong Kong use mobiles (males tend to use SMS to meet females and new friends, for example). Lin wonders if, however, this will lead males into more ‘social grooming’ via mobile communications. This seems to be the case in the study of Norwegian young people, provided by Lin Prøitz. She finds a surprising amount of gender mobility within the frame of SMSing, even when the rhetoric outside of this frame maintains reasonably strict concepts of gendered behaviours. Lee, Lin and Prøitz all outline the role of desire in promoting proficiency and subtleties within SMS use.
Judith Nicholson gives an extensive account of the brief but influential ‘flash mob’ phenomenon, at the same time describing the political potential of mobile networks in terms of new “mobs”. Here Nicholson draws attention to the use of mobile phones to coordinate the political momentum in the Spanish election of 2004, echoing 1981’s ‘night of the transistors’. Larissa Hjorth argues for the enfolding of older forms of communication within SMS and MMS use. Specifically she contemplates the shifting fragile intensities of the border between public and private in both SMS/MMS and the postcard. If there are new intensities of intimacy to be found in mobile networks, they are often mutations of older intensities.
Several articles move beyond mobile telephony, to discuss broader issues regarding networked mobility. Scott Sharpe, Maria Hynes and Robert Fagan consider the Internet as a forum for coordinating resistance to globalisation. As they point out, the Internet is already compromised as such a forum, as it is itself the forum of globalisation par excellence. They suggest rethinking what is possible in such a context. They give a detailed analysis of an older-style approach, that of the IUF ‘superunion’ educational web site, and a newer approach, that of activists, the Yes Men. In a surprising challenge to much analysis of globalisation and its discontents, Sharpe, Hynes and Fagan turn to Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of masochism to point out the limits of the IUF approach. Rather than buy into the hegemony of representations as outlines by global powers (and some of their opponents), they argue for a humorous creation of new possibilities via the Internet. The latter involves an active seeking after new, more creative modes of thought, via which to nudge the new network intensities away from the monolithic nature of global Capital.
Nearly all of the articles in this issue are as contemplative and they are descriptive. The final three articles are centrally concerned with a thinking through of mobile intensities. Ingrid Richardson poses the concept of the ‘mobile technosoma’ – a return to thinking through the new kinds of bodily intensity associated with new technical intensities, and both bodily and technical intensities together. In the process she argues for a new medium specificity. Far from a convergence of media, Richardson comments that new mobile media forms, and their specific embodied contexts, require more in the way of specific analyses of their divergences.
Notions of stability, identity and place keep recurring in the discussion of convergent mobile media. Mobility, in particular the tactility and telepresence of mobile telephony, brings about an intense focus on the specificity of place and bodies. ‘Where are you, now?’ seems to be a refrain for many authors in this issue. The expansive yet normalising architecture of networks produces paradoxically an ethography of innovation and intimacy as shown in the four qualitative case studies from Seoul (Lee), Hong Kong (Lin), Melbourne (Hjorth) and Norway (Prøitz). In a delicately argued article grappling with this new sense of place, Rowan Wilken discusses a sense of place profoundly transformed by mobile networks, but not completely dissolved into them. Wilken points out that we simply cannot do without place, that place has always been a complex experience, and that, although there is no doubt that mobile networks transform place, this only makes it the more urgent to consider a new concept of mobile place – what he calls ‘mobilitis loci’.This new place – a shifting place, a more intense and uncertain place, requires a new and more subtle politics – a central theme in many articles in this issue. This new politics of place is one that will have to consider the mutually infolding of virtual and actual at every moment of mobility. Wilken turns to some architectural/media experiments emerging from the events of the 1960s, such as those of the group Ant Farm, in order to give such infolding some historical context.
Felicity Colman and Christian McCrea take all these questions – very old and very new technics, new intensities and new fragmentation, new relations, the infinite deferral of networks and the way this deferral ties everything into a web – in the direction of what they call the ‘digital maypole’. For Colman and McCrea, ‘the maypole expresses the network’s torsion balance chart of power. The maypole topology is order through rhythmic tension and torsion, and in this sense its continuous binding of power makes the concept the paradoxical apostate of the network’s labyrinthine structure. The instinctual and biological ties of the etymological maypole enable us to focus upon specific power combinations of the network’s prescience’. There could perhaps be no better description of the problems and possibilities given to us by new mobile intensities, whether for those who are trying to mediate the shifts in social practices and cultural cohensions occasioned by mobility, or those attempting merely to analyse them.
We hope that it will be noted that there is a mix of approaches in this issue. In particular, the articles here range from the purely speculative to the mainly empirical. We are very happy that things have turned out this way. We began with a commitment to sparking conversation between different modes of analysis and response to these important issues. Such diverse studies exemplify the kinds of methodological constellations gathering around mobile phone use – and perhaps as importantly, examine the new relations between new, more mobile social intensities (such as biligualism in Hong Kong, gender fluidity in Norway) and mobile technologies as engaged with these intensities.
Andrew Murphie is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Theatre, University of New South Wales, Australia. He has published on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, cultural theory, virtual media, network ecologies and popular music. He is the co-author with John Potts of Culture and Technology (Palgrave, 2003) and editor of the Fibreculture Journal. His current research focuses on the cultural politics of models of cognition, perception and life; media ecologies; electronic music; and performance technologies. Recent publications include ‘Differential Life, Perception and the Nervous Elements: Whitehead, Bergson and Virno on the Technics of Living’ in Culture Machine (2005), and ‘The Mutation of “Cognition” and the Fracturing of Modernity: cognitive technics, extended mind and cultural crisis’ in Scan (2005).
Gillian Fuller is Senior Lecturer in Media in the School of Media, Film and Theatre, UNSW, Australia. She publishes on network media and the cultural politics of mobility systems. She is co-author of Aviopolis: A book about Airports (2004, Gillian Fuller & Ross Harley, Blackdog Press: London). She is currently writing a book and developing new interactive work on the politics and methods of distribution architectures, called ‘the queue project’.
Larissa Hjorth is a lecturer in Digital Art in the Games Programs at RMIT University. Hjorth is an artist and lecturer researching and publishing on gendered mobile phone customisation in the Asia-Pacific.
Sandra Buckley has held positions as chair of East Asian studies, McGill University, chair of Japanese at Griffith University and director of the Centre for Arts and Humanities at SUNY, University at Albany. Her recent research project at the Canadian Centre for Architecture was entitled Mobile Architectures and is an analysis of new trends in youth culture, community formations, and movement in urban spaces in the context of emerging mobile digital communication platforms. She is a co-founding editor of the Theory Out of Bounds series with University of Minnesota Press, editor and primary contributor to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture, and author of Broken Silence: Voices of Japanese Feminisms (University of California, 1995). Sandra has also been a management consultant for 20 years.