Geography Compass

(Im)mobile phone geographies

By Helen Pallett

Image credit: Derek A. from Akishima, Japan

Mobile phones are, for many of us, an essential yet banal technology. Without them many of us would struggle to organise our lives, entertain ourselves and stay in contact with loved ones, yet we frequently take for granted this technology which was not widely in use, even 15 years ago.  The humble mobile phone however, is a central element in several of the biggest news stories of the past two weeks, including the trial of senior figures in the British press accused of hacking into the mobile phones of celebrities and other individuals, the revelation that the United State’s National Security Agency was tapping the calls of foreign prime ministers and presidents, and the story that the UK Border Agency had sent a text message to thousands of people accusing them of being illegal migrants.

In contrast to the media coverage of events around the Arab Spring in 2011, these stories highlight not the potential for mobile phone technologies to bolster personal freedom and popular movements, but rather their potential to act as more sinister technologies of surveillance and discrimination. This highlights how mobile phones can function as technologies of control, fixity and immobility in certain contexts, whilst they can increase mobility and connections across physical distance in others. These recent developments raise serious challenges for how we can live with and regulate such technologies, even in the context of supposedly liberal western societies.

A review of ‘Mobile Phone Geographies’ in the journal Geography Compass by Julia Pfaff in 2010, discusses how geographers are studying mobile technologies and engaging with these challenges. The tension between the potential for mobile phones to promote certain freedoms but also to enable forms of control and surveillance, is something which has been of particular interest to geographers. In particular, mobile technologies enable surveillance and control not only between nation states and large corporations – though the NSA revelations show that this form of surveillance is far from dead – but they allow surveillance between private citizens. So individual journalists were able to listen in to personal calls and access voice mail messages. In the case of the UKBA texts, the British state was able to connect up vast amounts of data about the residency status of private citizens to mobile phone records, in order to send out a mass text message to at least 39,000 people. The evidential basis of these text messages has been undermined by evidence that some of the recipients were British passport holders; yet, their impact as a tool of automated yet targeted intimidation was still keenly felt by the individuals concerned as a strategy of control and immobilisation.

This tension between freedom and control in analysis of mobile phone use is closely linked to the blurring it allows between private and public spaces. Mobile phones allow private conversations to be conducted in public spaces, whilst also enabling people to act publicly  – for example on the internet or as part of protest movements – when they are themselves in private spaces. The possibility of surveillance and control blurs these boundaries further. For  example, the UKBA’s texts represented a very public campaign conducted through a private, personal means of communication, whilst debates around phone-hacking and the regulation of the press hinge on how to balance notions of the public interest with the rights of individuals to privacy.

Geographers and other analysts need to be wary of technological determinism when discussing the societal effects and entanglements of important technologies like mobile phones. In tandem with the potential for mobile phone and smart phone technologies to promote greater mobility across space, and enable previously impossible or difficult interactions, there is also the potential for these same technologies to play into a politics of control which can have the effect of limiting or guiding the mobility of certain individuals and groups.

books_icon Julia Pfaff 2010 Mobile Phone Geographies Geography Compass 4 1433-1447

60-world2 Les Back You’ve got a text from UKBA: Technologies of control and connection Discover Society, 13 October

60-world2 Phone-hacking: trail of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks to begin The Guardian, 28 October

60-world2 US spy leaks: how intelligence is gathered BBC News, 30 October 

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