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Who's Afraid of Sadie Plant?
The Cellphone as Plumage
by Tom Keenan

Dictionary writers beware -- Sadie Plant is at it again. The woman who outed Japan's "thumb generation" has turned her attention closer to home. She's provided a whole new lexicon to describe those annoying / endearing / pain-in-the-butt / but oh-so-convenient mobile phones, and their varied species of users.

Comfortably perched at the Centre for Cybernetic Culture at Warwick University, UK, and with the corporate sponsorship of Motorola backing her up, Dr. Plant probably has your number. In her recent international field study on the cultural impacts of wireless communication -- On the Mobile: The Effects of Mobile Telephones on Social and Individual Life (October, 2001) -- she describes a young man on the "El" train in Chicago discussing an important business deal in front of a group of suitably impressed women. At just the wrong moment, "his phone rings and interrupts him in mid-sentence, and his fictional deal is exposed." Plant lumps him in with other "stage-phoners" -- people who use their cell phones as props. Their opposite numbers would be the "innies", who keep their mobile phones hidden and only whip them out when absolutely necessary.

Phone as Plumage
The cell phone-as-plumage phenomenon gets considerable attention in Plant's study, as do gender issues. She notes that, "When a mixed couple sits down together, there is a high likelihood that the male will be the only one to have a mobile on display." But if it's two males, odds are that both will have their mobiles on show -- and the newer and sleeker the better. When two guys are lunching, Plant observes "the presence of just one mobile indicating a subtle play of dominance and subordination in which the male who displays his mobile is also asserting his position as the pair's main contact with the wider world." Well, maybe. But tell that to the computer tech support slave who is tethered to his electronic leash while his boss, who is paying for the lunch, has a secretary to take his calls. As for gender, how does she explain the elderly woman I saw in Hong Kong juggling several mobiles as a service to the men in her group? They probably all had their own private cell phones in their pockets, but what was on display was a pool of hardware that was anything but glamorous. Maybe the answer is that mobile phone penetration is just so high in some places that having one no longer fulfils the psychosexual purpose that Plant posits: Owning a cell phone in Hong Kong or Tokyo is about as exotic as having a pen.

Speak Easy Settings
One of Plant's most interesting avenues of exploration asks how environmental settings influence the use of mobile phones. She notes that traditional landline phones effectively encode information about location. If you are at work, you are probably in "office mode" and ready for a call from your boss. But a mobile phone call can catch you anywhere, so your Vice-President might reach you in a strip club. Or your lover might call while you are on a crowded bus or at a funeral. Plant conducted field research in London and Birmingham at neighbouring street-side cafes. In the ones with more formal "white tablecloth" settings, mobiles were less likely to be seen or heard than in the less fancy bistros. She concludes that even in the absence of explicit regulations, there is often a tacit truce between mobile phone users and the persons around them. A key factor seemed to be the presence of a waiter or waitress -- an indication that, yes, this is the ritualized function known as "dining out," and hence I'd better use my phone discreetly, if at all. Of course, there are places where the code of conduct is much more explicit. For example, there are now "quiet cars" on trains in Britain, Japan, Switzerland and the US where wireless calls are not allowed.

A mobile phone user really is trying to live in two worlds, and nowhere is this more manifest than in Asia, where people are frequently seen riding bikes, eating, carrying packages and talking on their mobile phones all at the same time. Plant uses the word "bi-psyche" to conjure this sense of operating on two levels. It also has a physical manifestation: a whole new set of postures adopted by mobile phone users. She describes the "speakeasy" pose -- head thrown back and neck upright, "giving out an air of self-assurance and single-minded refusal to be distracted by the outside world." Then there is the "spacemaker" posture -- head bowed, with the user often walking around in a circle trying to carve out an imaginary private space. If the speaker is sitting, for example on a park bench, then this aura of withdrawal might be enhanced by a pair of feet drawn up off the ground. Or the spacemaker might turn away from the rest of the world toward a corner or a wall.

Sex and the Mobile User
Plant also points out how sex trade workers around the world use mobiles as a basic tool. In Bangkok, for example, mobile communication has allowed prostitutes and dancers much more freedom and independence. In Japan, mobile phones have fostered the industry of enjo kosai ("paid date"), enabling a kind of online bazaar in which Japan's females (and males, for that matter) can advertise their wares in a semi-anonymous format, sometimes with explicit images.

People around the world also keep secret mobile phones for illicit love affairs, notes Plant. She quotes one Brit who fondly refers to his second phone as his "shagbile". Meanwhile, in the more conservative atmosphere of Peshawar, Afghan parents are horrified that their teenagers are now forming their own independent friendships through cell phones. In the worlds of one parent, "I do know some girls who have mobiles, but I think they are bad girls. They talk to boys."

Outing The Innies
Plant divides the mobile phone-using world into "innies" and "outies". The former group use their phones unobtrusively, often leaving venues like the supper table to answer a call. "The basic response is flight," as Plant puts it. She clearly has a lot more empathy for the "outies", who "readily and smoothly integrate" the mobile into their lives. A typical outie will arrive at a table and place his or her cell phone out in the open, claiming a bit of territory and signalling, "I'm here." Plant writes, "Their primary mode is persistence: on receiving calls, these mobile users are likely to remain in their seats, even maintaining both the mobile conversation and the one in which they were engaged before the call." Plant also calls them more sociable, chatty and playful.

Sugar Coated Puffs?
Dr. Plant's report has been tarred by some as "junk science" and "a puff piece for Motorola," but it does address some new terrain in both the physical and sociological aspects of mobile phone use. It gives us words for phenomena that have been nagging in our brains -- like innies and outies -- and it should also give us cause for both hope and concern. The mobile phone has been a liberating force for many of the people who Plant observed and interviewed during her field research. But there's also an undercurrent of dependence, almost desperation, present in some cases. Several Japanese teenagers told Plant that they "would die without" their mobile phones, and one girl described herself as a "wan ko girl", derived from the English "one call girl". She's "so keen not to miss anything that she always answers her mobile after just one ring." That's her choice, but for the sake of the world's innies, let's hope they always make mobile phones with a "power off" button.

Tom Keenan is a computer scientist and award winning science journalist. He is presently Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

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