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Sunday, 29 January 2006
Frenetic longeurs


I took the above photograph at a service station on the M40, near Lighthorne.  I liked the orange light in the phone booths, the fact that they were deserted, and was struck how rapidly they are starting to become relics of our recent past. There are already more mobile telephones in the world today than there are fixed ones. China alone has 270 million mobile phone subscribers.

I recently read two interesting articles on the effects of information technology on the human condition.  The first, Why the world went mobile by Dan Schiller, was in Le Monde Diplomatic. The English version is behind a subscribers-only wall but the French version is available in full.  In the article Schiller argues

Frenetic market development efforts are evident in every niche in the emerging mobile economy. There is hothouse innovation in wireless technology. The stakes could hardly be higher: wireless grows ever larger within the telecommunications sector, and worldwide mobiles in use already outnumber landline telephones. It seems likely that wireless has not yet achieved its full potential.

The huge promotional effort has led to a major social transformation. The marvel of mobility is the outcome of years of corporate-led neoliberalism, but it has within it deep-rooted predatory and chaotic tendencies.

He talks about a global wireless market [that] has been balkanised by incompatible networking standards developed by rival corporate consortia and the locking-in of subscribers and how the competitive market, beholden to neoliberal policymakers, has created overcapacity across the telecommunications industry, yet inadequate network investment by individual carriers.  Yet Shiller stresses how the demand for ubiquitous communication is socially created:

There is no innate human need for perpetual contact. Economic players decide whether a particular technology will develop. The need for constant connectivity signifies a transition into a new phase of mobile privatisation - a term coined 30 years ago by the great cultural critic and theorist Raymond Williams.

The second article is On the Way to Life, published by the Catholic Education Service.  This is a longer and more wide-ranging article but it has a section called Frenetic Longeurs which talks about the distortion of time as a feature of contemporary cultures:

At one level, this can be seen in the way in which the technology which promised to convert time to leisure produces the sensation of a time-space compression: there seems to be less time than there used to be. To take two ordinary examples: the speed of communication by email and the internet have both transformed our access to information but both have increased the demand upon us to respond. Indeed, it may be that the ubiquity of the humble mobile telephone is the enduring icon of this experience. We cannot believe that it is necessary to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but advertisers seek to persuade us that, without it, we are non-persons: no telephone, no significance; we are cut off from our network, adrift in the silent cosmos, lost in a black hole of non-identity, no longer able to order our take-away or impose the trivia of our life upon others in the train, underground, or street. The irony is that this very symbol of in-touchness only serves to show the poverty of our communication and loss of our private space.

I do not agree with all the arguments raised, nor am I sure which ones I do agree with, but the articles provide plenty of food for thought.

Posted by bigblue on 29/01/2006 at 11:13 PM
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