Book review: Handbook of mobile communication studies

Handbook of mobile communication studies
James E. Katz, editor
MIT Press, 2008. 472 p.

Mobile communication is the most rapidly expanding communication technology on the globe. This collection of studies advocates for the need to sustain ‘deliberation about its place in cultural life, to sensitize ourselves to possible futures, and to open dialogue on ways in which such trajectories might possibly be altered.”

These 32 case studies and essays collectively examine how mobile communication alters social processes at many levels within society, in daily life. Case studies come from Ghana, China, Mexico, Egypt, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Israel, India, Tanzania, Philippines, Indonesia, and Korea.

Editor James E. Katz chairs the department of communication at Rutgers University and directs its Center for Mobile Communication Studies. Like other contributors to this volume, Katz notes that the digital divide for mobile phones is far less severe than it is for the Internet. “It’s impressive to see how many of the world’s poorest people who are able to get their hands on a mobile,” he says. In fact, the mobile phone may be “the real world’s Internet.”

Contributor Manuel Castells, Annenberg School for Communication, says that behind the increasing political use of mobile phones and the Internet is a “worldwide crisis of legitimacy of political parties and governments, the growing lack of credibility of subservient media, and the conviction of many citizens that they must take matters into their own hands, using moments of outrage to establish insurgent politics as a new component in the political system.” He points to the vast areas of the world, including China, India, Latin America, and Africa, that lack acceptable fixed-line communication infrastructure that makes connectivity (or the lack of it) “a key factor in keeping shared development out of reach for hundreds of millions of people.”

“Smart Mobs” author Howard Rheingold also focuses on citizen collective action. “Communication technologies possess a power that has proven mightier than physical weaponry,” he says. “They offer the potential to amplify, leverage, transform, and shift political power by enabling people to persuade and inform others’ thoughts and beliefs. The same technologies and literacies can also organize, plan, and coordinate direct political actions—elections, demonstrations, insurrections.”

Kenneth J. Gergen observes that mobile technology continues to play an increasingly significant role in the structure of political communication. Public deliberation on political issues is greatly enhanced, while simultaneously the potential for both extremism and disinterest in political issues is increased.

Naomi S. Baron takes the cautionary view that information and communication technologies (ICTs) potentially degrade live face time. “We need to ask ourselves what is unique about two people meeting and talking face-to-face, and how important it is to preserve uninterrupted live contact,” she says. “Not easy questions, but their answers are part of what makes us human.”

Ilpo Koskinen also adopts this line of reasoning, observing that mobile users tend to move through the day in “monadic clusters,” largely disengaged from those around them. “In these clusters, people focus on immediate life and microrelationships at the cost of civic concerns,” Koskinen says. “If they focus on issues relevant to democracy, the construct their opinions with their friends and acquaintances rather than in political parties or by participating in community decision making. People are distanced from politics, disrupting dialogue necessary for a healthy democracy.”

Mohammad Ibahrine examines the role of the mobile phone in the Arab world. Here, political and religious authorities are challenged not only by the recent popularity of the mobile phone, including texting, messaging, and imaging, but also by the consequences of the emerging mobile communication environments.

Contributor Lourdes M. Portus documents that about 30 percent of the Philippines’ 85 million people are own or use mobiles. Sending an average of about 200 million SMS text messages daily, the highly literate population (94 percent) has gained the reputation as the “text-ing capital of the world.” His case study suggests that mobile phones allow the Philippines’ urban poor to pursue their gender-defined functions more effectively. Husbands are more accessible for home emergencies and also better equipped to perform their role as protector. Wives are able to monitor remotely their children while staying home and in the interim sustain social relationships and home-based activities.

Chapter 24 considers how the mobile phone reshapes and reflects existing tensions within families in India. Urban family structures there are being renegotiated in response to rapidly changing social and economic conditions. The authors argue that mobile use “is central to our understanding of the tensions facing the new and expanding Indian middle class; it is not only a symbol of middle-class consumption but also a lens through which to see the family dynamic itself.”

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