Tuesday, 12:00am
13 August 2002

Bound by mobility

Cellphone users: free as the breeze or caught in a network? Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for eyemagazine.com

First a confession. I don’t have a cellphone and I have no plans to get one. Does this make me completely unqualified to comment on a book about mobile phones? I don’t think so. After all, do you need to become a virus in order to study one? I get to watch the ‘mobile minded’ in action almost every day. It’s unavoidable. They are everywhere.

This is not a Luddite position. Telephonically speaking, I am fully wired up. I have two phone lines, two answerphones, two dedicated Internet connections, and, for what it’s worth these days, a fax. I’m a committed email user and I love the sense of connection this fosters. Compared to most humans in history, I have an armoury of communication devices, so when the mobile craze took off I wondered why exactly I needed another line. The more herd-like mobile behaviour grew, the less I wanted to sign up, and the longer one holds out, the more fascinating and revealing it becomes.

The editors of Mobile Minded (BIS/Gingko Press) would doubtless say I’m missing the point. For Geert Lovink and Mieke Gerritzen, using the phone wherever you like appears to be some kind of libertarian blow against the forces of repression. ‘To operate “mobile minded” gives us the possibility to freely move around, question authority and predetermined behaviour,’ they write. Never mind that it has always been possible to do the first two and that there is nothing more ‘predetermined’ these days than having to listen to other people shouting into their mobiles every time you take a train.

As with the companion volume Everyone is a Designer (see Eye no. 38 vol. 10) the editors have asked a host of contributors to provide their thoughts, this time on mobile life. Gerritzen’s NL.Design presents these in its usual jumpy, punchy, discordant style, like a series of competing mini-posters. Not much bigger than a mobile, the book is designed for dipping into and, as always, the commentaries vary from the obvious, to the asinine, to the razor sharp. A few contributors buy the marketing line that cellular technology is uniquely empowering. ‘Wherever you go you will be able to take part,’ one enthuses. ‘By going mobile you become part of a we culture,’ declares another. Some brave new callers seem blithely untroubled by the cellphone’s implications for privacy and individuality, though as someone else observes, mobility and privacy are inversely proportional.

New technologies are often seen as panaceas that will finally deliver us from our all too human failings. NL.Design’s last book, Catalogue of Strategies (see Eye no. 42 vol. 11), was shot through with a sense of mourning for the idealistic, pre-commercial days of the Internet. Here, incorrigibly, they long for ‘mobile phone theory’, talk up the ubiquitous gadget with references to ‘information ecology’, actually pause to wonder whether visual culture will disappear in the future, but also seem surprised that artists haven’t been asked to play a bigger role. By contrast, the book’s more believable contributors have little truck with utopian fantasies, preferring to ground their remarks in observation of everyday use. ‘People talk too much and say so little,’ notes Max Kisman. ‘The mobile-minded: just another tribe of command and control freaks,’ says Professor Paul Frissen.

While the coming age of wearable computers will have undeniable benefits, only the most unimaginative could suppose that turning the body into an interface to enable instant access to information – and access to us – won’t come at an existential price. One contributor draws a distinction between the commuter and the flaneur. Mobile users are regulated and ordered by the technology they carry. (On a train I saw a man exclaim ‘What is it now?’ with real desperation, before answering his ringing phone. Others paw at their toys neurotically, unable to leave them alone.) The flaneur, by comparison, is capricious, uses public space in unpredictable ways, takes pleasure in getting lost in order to discover something new. The real measure of a person’s facility in the wireless universe, suggests Cyberia author Douglas Rushkoff, is not the number of devices carried, but how few. Ideally, it should be none. ‘Before long,’ he writes, ‘status will be measured by your ability to create times when you are unreachable, untrackable and undetectable.’ That sounds a lot like freedom to me.

Rick Poynor, writer, founding editor of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.