- Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective
The four authors of Mobile Communication and Society have produced a rich work of comparative and collaborative scholarship, reviewing the latest quantitative and qualitative research on mobile telephony from around the globe and presenting it in a readable and engaging manner. From their different vantage points of Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Hong Kong, Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey draw the outlines of "an empirically grounded argument on the social logic embedded in wireless communication, and on the shaping of this logic by users and uses in various cultural and institutional contexts" (p. 4) useful to anyone researching personal, portable communications systems.
Although they claim a broad focus on "wireless digital communication technologies" (which would include Wi-Fi laptop computing), the bulk of the book concerns voice, text, and multimedia content sent over mobile telephony networks to personal telephone devices. But since mobile telephony has so quickly become an accepted part of social life in so many corners of the world, scholars and students of communication, technology, and society from all disciplinary backgrounds will find something of value here.
The first three chapters map out the current terrain of mobile telephony, using the best available statistics to report the level of its diffusion around the globe, the "patterns of social differentiation" in this diffusion (what we might call the mobile telephony "digital divide" in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and class), and the diversity of social uses to which mobile telephony is put in different cultural and political-economic contexts. (An 88-page electronic appendix full of primary data and charts is also available from the publisher's website as a free download to readers wanting more detail.) Subsequent chapters explore several key user populations or usage areas that have been the most intense focus of recent research. For example, [End Page 512] the authors identify a new global "mobile youth culture" and speculate on some of its ramifications. They note the potential for mobile telephony in "sociopolitical mobilization" by considering several case studies of collective activism involving the technology. And they consider whether developing countries in particular are able to use mobile telephony to "leapfrog" existing wired networks, especially in environments of rapid urbanization and economic globalization.
The greatest limitation of the book, surprisingly, is its cursory engagement with the complex "network society" theoretical framework which has been painstakingly constructed (and contested) over the last two decades by Castells. The authors claim that what they call the "mobile communication society" simply "deepens and diffuses the network society," and that, as a result, "wireless communication technology does have powerful social effects by generalizing and furthering the networking logic that defines human experience in our time" (p. 258). But this "networking logic" is not necessarily part of the analytic framework of the many academic articles, media reports, state-gathered statistics, and corporate claims that they review in their book. For all of their transformative power, these experiences of mobile telephony don't seem to have contributed back to the original theoretical framework.
If it is true, as the authors claim, that "communication is the fundamental process of human activity" (p. 246), then perhaps Castells's early conception of the network society discovered and defined through the rapid diffusion of wired infrastructures for corporate computation might actually differ from this newer conception of the network society discovered and defined as a result of the rapid diffusion of wireless consumer devices for individualized communication. This difficulty with defining (and historicizing) the "mobile network society" is actually one of the most important themes in the book. The authors claim that "mobile communication now represents the individualized, distributed capacity to access the local/ global communication network from any place at any time," a space-and-time situation of "ubiquitous and permanent connectivity," even when mobile phones are used by immobile groups, as in a rural village in a developing country (p. 248).
This insightful definition...