The Mobile Web and Media Ecology

There’s an excellent article in mopocket worthy of your attention today (the post is a response to a recent CNN article about the lack of SMS adoption in the United States). In his response, Justin articulates a reasoned approach, drawing on the work of Mizuko Ito and others about how different a PC-based web and a mobile web really are. I’m not attending to Justin’s arguments about political mobilization and SMS at this time, but one of the major points I’m reading in his post is that the two webs (mobile and PC) are distinct by virtue of how they are involved in shaping our individual experience of our environments. While the PC disrupts and bifurcates our experience into online and offline spaces, so the argument goes, the mobile integrates seamlessly into our existing lifeworld:

And whereas keitai is seamless with everyday life, the PC requires abrupt attention to a specific location. It requires you to stop what you are doing and go online. Keitai, in the words of Keitai culture expert Mizuko Ito, “functions more as a medium of lightweight ‘refreshment’ analogous to sipping a cup of coffee or taking a cigarette break.” It’s a small moment of our lives with a substantial importance. The PC Internet is another social space, a cyberspace, as opposed to the mutual “co-presence” of keitai.

I’m not so sure. The ergonomics of mobile web use still require some significant diversion from our actual surroundings. At least that’s how it appears to be unfolding here. A short list of mobile web behaviours already in moderate to widespread usage in North America:

  • the ‘head-down’ SMS posture
  • headset conversations
  • cameraphone panopticons
  • bluetooth snooping
  • locative advertising
  • SMS SPAM
  • mobile use while driving
  • antisociality vis a vis iPod seclusion

As this partial list suggests, to state that the mobile web seamlessly integrates with our experience of our social environment betrays a narrow view of what the mobile web includes. I contend that the mobile web (which might as well include voice calling, music audition and other modalities of use, seeing that Skype and iChat are considered part of the PC-based web, and that podcasts tranverse both mobile and fixed location spheres) has already hit us, in terms of our ergonomic adaptations to the mobile phone, and our changed outward behaviours in public. Our societies have been undergoing transformation in this light for over a decade now. It matters little whether or not we’re gaming or buying things with our phones. Our media ecology is changing according to the patterns of our culture, and the mobile web – more broadly construed as networking with mobile devices – is occupying and transforming different niches of our experience than would be conceivable in a Japanese setting, which instead produced ketai.

So I’m not so much in disagreement with Justin (or Ito) on this point, but I think that there are some preliminary assumptions about what the mobile web is that need to be clarified up front before we can make informed arguments about how it will be adopted on this continent. I think that a broad overview of the media ecology of a social group (the interplay between media technologies and communicators, and their relative use, disuse, and misuse in various spheres of experience) is one of the better approaches to this problem.

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