I used to tell a joke about Manhattan real estate: the rental agent shows you a studio, and when you say, “I thought you said it was a three-room apartment,” she answers: “It is. It’s just that the living room, the dining room and the bedroom all happen to occupy the same square footage simultaneously.”
That is what the youthful Thumb Tribes of Japan described in Rheingold’s “Shibuya Epiphany” seem to have accomplished with the new mobile technology: these “techno-adept, fashion-saturated, identity-constructing [members of the] mobile-texting culture” have succeeded in creating an “extra room” that exists in the same square footage as, or rather in parallel to — their crowded metropoli; a cyber space in which to exercise the physical and personal freedom they lack in their real lives.
It is an impressive feat conceptually as well as technologically. But once again I find myself searching for the tangible societal benefit. What have they accomplished with this smart mobbing, flocking, and swarming?
The history of i-mode is certainly impressive as a business case — a magazine marketer catapults a phone company into the 21st century; I love it! — but what in the end is achieved by the development of this parallel space beyond the organizing of parties and the delivery of pulp fictions involving teenage girls and salary men?
One longs for heroic tales of political resistance made possible – of actual rather than virtual mobs empowered by the mobile technology to face down tyrannical regimes. The example of the “People Power” revolution in the Philippines is offered as “an early indicator of the way mobile communications could affect other countries.” But this tantalizing history lesson is left to a later chapter. We focus here instead on the ways Filipinos use SMS to send jokes, riddles or merely say good morning… To relay Valentines messages or socialize in ways parents would disapprove of (a recurring theme).
Granted, from the many examples offered from around the globe, mobile technology clearly offers a way for GenTxt to subvert parental and governmental control. And that it provides the East African trader access to commercial information and economic opportunity is, in its way, revolutionary. But the heroic acts are not there yet – or at least, not yet told; the accomplishments seem more often on the personal and not the grand scale – the micro and not the macro.
Did SMS help save lives in Indonesia during the tsunami or in New Orleans during Katrina? If so, that would be truly impressive in a way that the stories of virtual motorcycle gangs and botfighters of Stockholm are not. If mobile telephones are “evolving into control devices for the physical world,” are they being consciously employed as the constructive tools of a new and better social order. Or just another way for individuals to mindlessly “change the channel”?
Is this admittedly amazing communications technology bringing us closer to a better communal way of life for all, or enabling us instead to withdraw into our own private worlds for selfish amusement? Is all this “attunement with hyper-coordinated throngs” “invisibly coordinated by flows of electronically mediated messages” serving a greater purpose in the progress of the species. Or are we aimlessly flocking and schooling this way and that, mesmerized by the silvery flashes, while the fishing nets draw closer around us?