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Mutation and Money
Arguing with Sadie Plant on the mobile
by Susanna Paasonen
Sadie Plant is a UK-based cyberfeminist and cultural studies theorist best known for books like Writing on Drugs (New York: Straus and Giroux, 2002), Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture (New York: Doubleday, 1997), and The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age (New York: Routledge, 1992). Plant is also the author of a recent pan-continental study on the cultural impacts of wireless devices. Mobile technology giant Motorola commissioned the research, and in October of 2001 released Plant's findings in a report called On the Mobile: The Effects of Mobile Telephones on Social and Individual Life. This essay will discuss the main issues in a contentious debate that erupted on the international mailing list Nettime following On the Mobile's appearance. This debate among artists and scholars largely focused on the economic underpinnings of the study, and on Plant's claims about the social and cultural transformations brought about via the mobile telephone's use.
The first postings on Nettime about On the Mobile consisted of Motorola's press release heralding this "groundbreaking new global study" exploring the "behavioural effects of mobile phone use." There was also an enthusiastic interview with Sadie Plant by Sean Healy. A more heated debated followed in March 2002, after one subscriber forwarded an article from the UK's Guardian Unlimited Observer newspaper that discussed the physical effects of SMS phone text messaging on the thumbs of teenagers.
According to Plant, SMS messaging is creating new bodily skills: "Tokyo's keitai [mobile phone] kids are known as oya yubi sedai, or the thumb generation." Plant continues, noting that these young Japanese "even point at things and ring doorbells with their thumbs." In the Observer article, this was interpreted as "a physical mutation in the under-25s." Coco Fusco, who was to become the most articulate Nettime opponent of the report, argued that Plant's claims of technology transforming the body were "insidiously pro-globalization and ethically irresponsible." Fusco derided the study as a puff piece serving the purposes of Motorola.
Considering the nature of Plant's earlier research history, such accusations were not altogether far-fetched. In Zeros and Ones, for example, Plant narrated a story of contemporary societies allegedly developing toward
greater feminization and increasing complexity, as illustrated by globalization and the proliferation of computers and computer networks everywhere. These computers and networks were seen as indicators of the future mobility and multiplicity of cultures at large. Plant's model represented computer-saturation and globalization as both unavoidable and evolution-like stages in human cultural development.
Similar ideas about the effects of technology are present in On the Mobile. They are visible especially in the way in which Plant discusses (or fails to discuss) issues of power and politics. In the interview with Sean Healy, Plant claims that "the technology of communication is only one side of a broader thing happening -- increasing mobility...We have a new culture of mobility, of working on the road, with huge movements of migrants, etc." Plant draws parallels between people working with laptop computers and those enduring forced migration. She reads the laptop as a signifier of a mobile culture. Questions of privilege, power and access disappear, however, since they are not even posed.
While Plant argues for the possibilities of mobile communications in areas without telephone lines, she does so without addressing the political and economic implications of purchasing phones and paying for their use. As in Zeros and Ones, globalization and the proliferation of communication technologies are presented as unavoidable steps in a narrative of progress that is bound to transform all of the globe.
The Politics of Funding
In her response to Coco Fusco, Plant refuted accusations of "technoeuphorism", and claimed that her study did address the social, political and economic implications of mobile phone use. Simplifying the ethical questions involved, Plant asked whether Fusco herself had "access to some source of clean and uncorrupted cash."
In her second (and final) posting, Fusco defined Plant's study as a "narrative of seduction for Motorola enshrouded in trendy rhetoric about genetics and human-machine interfaces that is not only bad scholarship but...obfuscates deep and disturbing truths." Fusco argued for the importance of acknowledging the oppressive working conditions under which the tools of the "mobile revolution" are manufactured. Fusco pointed out the difference between discussing "mutation" in young thumbs trained for mobile phone use, and the effects of toxic substances on the bodies of women employed in the factory production of mobile communication technologies -- for example, in the maquiladoras (i.e., low-wage border factories) of Mexico. While the development of a "thumb generation" with greater strength and dexterity in one digit is indicative mainly of a new type of exercise, not true mutation, many of the toxins used at maquiladoras are in fact mutagenic, with the potential to disrupt the genetics of exposed workers.
As is often the case with online debates facilitated by venues like Nettime, these discussions of politics and power were rather short-lived, and the participants willing to engage this topic were few. After less than a week, one subscriber was already calling the thread "tired", while others defended Plant's work and corporate funding, accusing her critics of simple biases against mobile technologies. Participant Sean Smith, for example, while admitting that he had not actually read On the Mobile, accused Fusco of simplistically categorizing "any research done that doesn't show mobiles to be tools of evil (in spite of their worldwide popularity)" as "necessarily `paid endorsement'."
Among the various conversants, Lorenzo Taiuti agreed with Plant's argument that assuming research to be independent only when funded by the government is naive. Mark Dery insisted that while intellectual production is implicated and conditioned by its sources of cash, there are differences between "emergent bias" in research and "bald propaganda", as typically represented by promotional corporate rhetoric.
Nettime is mainly a forum for artists, critics, journalists and scholars who are often involved in independent projects, and such accusations of naivete soon spawned conversations about project work and money: Desde América in particular discussed the "sustainability" of projects, and the need to reconsider their basis of funding. However, the ethics and politics of research were soon relegated to the background and, in the end, the actual content of Plant's study (which many participants in the discussion had not fully read) was afforded little further attention. Ultimately, the influence of corporate funding on Plant's findings was barely touched upon.
The Limits of Vision
Plant's fieldwork for On the Mobile was conducted in nine cities on three continents. But, even in the context of her brief discussion of the study's sociological framework, this fieldwork is presented via random anecdotes only, rather than statistical analyses or even comparisons of data. The report appears to imply that research results from London and Birmingham are representative of the average global use of mobile phones in the present era, while the mobile cultures of Tokyo are representative of the future of mobile communication (as with "the thumb generation"). Sites such as Beijing or Peshawar are implied to represent "the past", in the sense of traditions and conventions that are supposedly being eroded by mobile phone use.
Interestingly, certain regions with high mobile phone penetration, such as the Nordic countries, were left out of the fieldwork altogether. Considering the study's funding by Motorola, this is perhaps less surprising. After all, the strong presence of Ericsson in Sweden, or Nokia in Finland, makes these regions unlikely targets of future Motorola enterprises, while markets such as China remain lucrative and full of potential.
In another major omission, On the Mobile makes no reference to previous scholarly studies on mobile communications -- or even on new media. In comparison to the findings of such research, Plant's ultimate conclusion that "many mobile users behave very differently in different social contexts" is hardly striking in its novelty.
In conclusion, what the debate on Nettime made most clear is that Plant's report On the Mobile seems to have been guided by the assumption that mobile communications are "making things better and life smarter" -- a sentiment proudly declared on the Motorola home page, and implied in the company's preface to the study itself. It remains crucial to consider the legitimacy and legacy that Plant, as a widely read and referenced scholar, brings to these claims of happier futures made imminent by the globalization of mobile technologies, and their ubiquitous consumption and use.
Susanna Paasonen is a writer and Web artist with a passion for feminist theory. She is presently a researcher in the Media Studies department at the University of Turku, Finland, where she completed her Ph.D. on women, cyberdiscourse and the popular Internet.