Everywhere Means Nowhere: Cell Phones and the Reconfiguration of Space and Information
Olivier Tchouaffe / Southwestern University

Texting in Class: A Reconfiguration of Space

This short essay outlines how mobile telephony is defining itself, particularly in relationship to space and news. The general consensus seems that cell phones are filling up valuable cultural needs by capitalizing to the taste of consumers banking on freeing and expanding their personal communication; however, that one-dimensional perspective must also take into account the exponential mounting screen time and the techno zeal exercised by cell phone users that disrupts notions of space and information, effectively rendering them hostages to that technology.

For the purpose of fairness, the whole concept of new generations of cell phones is performing the technological utopia of the one stop digital shop, delivering competitive edges to internet, newspaper, camera, photography, SMS, ITunes and games which oftentimes can all be downloaded for free. It is a machine that is symptomatic, for better or worse, of our contemporary society. Cell phones can empower every single citizen, dissolving the distance between the governed and the government. For instance, the iPhones can synch users into political agendas and collective actions through access to lawmaker’s biographies, voting records, constituencies, donors, lobbyists and platforms and social activists through multiple networks, immediately reporting on Big Brother actions and misdeeds to million of people, sparking political communities to oppose or advance new policies.

As a fluid and immediate medium, cell phones are relevant to inter-personal communication and interaction. I do messages with “friends” such as “Barack” and “Michelle” which allow me bragging rights because “Barack,” “Michelle” and I are on first name basis. This relationship with “Barack” and “Michelle,” however, does question the boundaries between the “personal” and the “impersonal.” Receiving text messages from “Barack” and “Michelle” does not mean that you have a relationship. On the contrary, belonging to this kind of political network can create peer pressure, as one may shy from dissention for fear of being kicked out of the group. What is important, however, is that these kinds of digital interactions are now expected from politicians.

On a more private level, cell phones come packaged with mobile GPS data allowing friends and families in your network to log on to your account online, track you on Google Maps and text you in case you are lost. It also has the power to create adverse relationships because your “private life” can also be recorded by cell phones cameras, traffic cameras, shopping center cameras, neighborhood cameras, etc. It also means opportunities for misrepresentation, allowing strangers to enter your network posting as friends for data mining or extortion purposes. In this way, cell phone culture presents a paradox: how does one control one’s own data and personal information and build meaningful relationships? Ultimately, cell phone culture expresses a deforming mirror of contemporary society.

Such examples mean that the distance between political and social power have became indistinguishable. Cell phone culture, despite of its technological prowess, is not necessarily progressive. Indeed, it can actually reinforce the status quo. One salient question, therefore, is wheter the cell phone ushers in a world that will be unlivable in the near future? In order to answer that question, one must recognize that cell phone use is not simply about touchstones because the effects of the cell phone culture encroach on space, boundaries, identity and knowledge. Consequently, social changes introduced by cell phone culture are inextricable from social issues.

For the purpose of this short essay, I will focus on a chain of communicative events introduced by the cell phone and the reconfiguration of spaces and the meaning of information that cell phone culture introduced. Consequently, I argue that cell phone culture is degrading the sacro-sanctity of personal space and privacy, face to face interaction, conventional social etiquette and the integrity of space with mindless self-indulgence. Cell phones have become a digital platform from which to launch all kinds of anti-social behaviors that include, but are not limited to, rudeness in restaurants, in forms of public transport, texting while driving, on the streets, in the shops and libraries.

A Blurring of Space?

Indeed, I still cannot fathom the fact that people answer their phones in movie theaters during screenings, or how students fire SMS in the middle of lectures. I can imagine how modern online resources can be made relevant to the classroom experience, however, I have to admit that I was caught off guard when one my students interrupted my lecture screaming from the top of her lungs “I got my internship, I got my internship.” Her lack of restraint was a demonstration that for some students digital interactions was now an accepted activity — even in the classroom. Her behavior, apparently, was not a transgression, highlighting a low commitment to classroom proper decorum and professionalism. Thus, I later learned that for my student demographic, not returning SMS within five minutes was considered “rude” — which explains all the anti-social behaviors I keep witnessing from cell phone users. With the diktat to respond to SMS within five minutes, I understand the temptation to keep checking the inbox. This leaves me out to ponder rather unpleasant questions: what would have happened if my student was receiving hard news, such as a break up or the death of a loved one, then collapsing in grief in the middle of my lecture? The idea that I no longer have the monopoly of my student’s attention filled me with horror. I was now involved in the war against “flow” and flow apparatuses such as cell phones — an odd position for a media scholar.

Texting may also facilitate cheating, as students may use their cell phones to receive information from outside of the class. The cell phone thus fractures the dichotomy between the inside and the outside when it comes to spaces that are enclosed for a specific knowledge and practice; such undefined boundaries express an inability to rationalize or comprehend the meaning of space. The erasure of appropriate settings is very disorienting. If we can take phone calls everywhere, then perhaps we are nowhere — as the concept of space de factor loses its validity, and along with it, the purpose of the classroom space. In other words, the classroom is longer sacred in this race for the lowest common denominator for the sake of gossip, exposure and exhibitionism.

Gossip, exposure, and exhibitionism?

The first casualty of the cell phone is the disintegration of ‘noble’ civic practices. First, cell phone usage normalizes the “failure to listen and reflect;” it institutionalizes rudeness, driving social relationships on the basis of power, rather than solidarity. Within these conditions, the uses of cell phones are, de facto, changing the meaning of public space and accordingly what it means to be informed. Cell phones introduce a culture of immediacy, often bridging the gap between the public and the private to challenge a culture of verification and gatekeeping. This mode of communication is horizontal not vertical. Thus, it often orients the discursive flow with a unidirectional influence that seems to empower the sender, rather than the receiver, to install a repressive culture of marketing and peer pressure. Because most cell phone users are not professional news gatherers, the standard of evidences is quite low and lack of inhibition quite high. Coupled with the lack of serious gatekeeping, these kinds of communication take place within almost a vacuum of law, engulfed in a society of spectacle and symbolic violence.

Information gathered over cell phones often snowball into a technological Far-West were the cell phone replaces the gun. What is taking place is a new paradigm were the dividing line between gossips and news, exhibitionisms and genuine expositions; information and manipulation are becoming increasingly blurred. If everything becomes blurred, the questions then become how can we defend genuine information if there is no genuine gatekeeping? How do we know what we need to know? It means that we are left with interpretations which can be quite disorienting. Cell phone culture, therefore, amplifies a flow of news that is difficult to verify: this ‘news’ comes from selective perspectives and is often decontextualized. Because gatekeeping is not firmly in place, the power in cell phone culture is quite diffused; however, it does not mean that power is inexistent.

Olivier J. Tchouaffe is a visiting Assistant Professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. He teaches classes on Communication and Film Studies. He currently working on a book on Cameroonian cinema and grassroots democratic activism.

Image Credits:
1. Texting in Class: A Reconfiguration of Space
2. A Blurring of Space?
3. Gossip, exposure, and exhibitionism?
4. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.


  • A trip to the grocery store reveals that blabbering on a cell phone is as much an imperative as cash or a credit card to the shopping experience. This essay eloquently answers the elusive question of why people gabbing on mobile phones in public irritates others who share his or her space: “First, cell phone usage normalizes the “failure to listen and reflect;” it institutionalizes rudeness . . . ” Tchouaffe has nailed it with this notion. Bravo; wonderful and succinct writing! What an appropriate topic in this day and age of growing depersonalization and shrinking privacy.

  • Brilliantly put Tchouaffe!!! Googled you today to see what you’ve been up to and found your essay. Glad I did, what an enjoyable read.

  • So true – that cell phones pervade space boundaries. We live in a society that – in terms of access to information, is so connected, yet so socially disconnected. There ought to be an etiquette for the appropriate use of cell phones. Since when is it socially ok to pause a face to face conversation in favour of an sms or cell call?!..

  • The history behind the cultural revolution of technology resulting in antisocial behavior can be traced back to the late 1970’s with the invention of the Sony Walkman. The walkman took the once communal idea of listening to music, and brought it into a personal and antisocial space. People started walking around with headphones in their ears and began closing themselves off from the real world. This practice has evolved with the advent of iPods, iPads, and cell phones. Cell phones (smart phones in particular) have taken the idea to a whole new level, since, in addition to music, they can offer any other function a person could possibly imagine, and they thereby eliminate the need to have physical interpersonal communication altogether.
    Tchouaffe’s comment about cell phone users being “hostages to the technology” could not be more accurate. Instead of being a great social tool, cell phones weaken social skills by making people feel more obligated to pay attention to what is happening on their phones than focusing on those individuals with which they are involved at the moment. This phenomenon happens to me on a daily basis when I am having conversations with friends and I see them texting or answering emails instead of paying attention to me, even though I am physically right next to them. This reinforces the point that no one can ever really devote the entirety of their attention to the space they are in, because their phones are constantly bombarding them with outside influences. The fact that it is considered rude if one doesn’t respond to a text message within five minutes of receiving it reinforces the point that people have become slaves to their technology and have allowed it to take precedence over real life encounters.
    In addition to cell phones negatively affecting the way that we communicate with other human beings, the concept of constant and simultaneous communication with multiple people is also creating a more stressful culture than ever before. This instant gratification that cell phones offer is really a double-edged sword. It’s nice to be able to do everything quickly and efficiently, but, at the same time, people can never really catch a break. There is no down time anymore, since everyone is easily reachable 24/7. Because of this, more is expected of people and life has become a lot more stressful. Teachers can e-mail their students right before class with assignments that they want them to have ready by the time that class starts. An instructor can just assume that all of the members of his class will see an e-mail right away on their phones and that they will complete any task outlined within the message immediately. In the past, demands like this would never have been considered reasonable. The same concept applies to work environments where bosses get blackberries for all of their employees to ensure that these individuals will be available via e-mail at all hours of the day. This type of constant pressure is not conducive to leading a good, happy and peaceful life.
    In addition to the stress that cell phones cause, these devices impact our lives in other negative ways. The number of deaths caused by texting, “Facebooking,” and Tweeting while driving is rapidly increasing. People often believe that it’s more important to update their Facebook pages than to concentrate on the road. Recent research indicates that cell phones have been linked to causing brain tumors and other forms of cancer. In addition, cell phones are definitely making people stupider. First of all, they make it extremely easy to cheat on tests, so students are no longer motivated to study and acquire data. Also, with the navigation features on cell phones, it is no longer necessary to become familiar with reading maps and learning directions. Solving math problems independently and memorizing important historical facts have become antiquated skills. Extensive research is no longer necessary when you are holding a small device that can access any information right there on the spot.
    Although cell phones clearly provide people with many immediate advantages, one cannot help but wonder whether these modern conveniences are worth the hectic lifestyle that is intrinsically linked with them.

  • I agree with this article that cell phones are changing our space, our relationships to each other, and how we relate to what is happening around us. They have become something we can’t leave home without, without them we feel disconnected, not only from our loved ones, but the entire world, even if it were just for one hour. The recent events in Egypt can confirm just how connected, or disconnected we are to the world with these devices. When the government shut down nearly all access to the network, along with cell phone service, it proved how effective a tool it is to share news, as “blurred” as it may be, and how it acts as a communicator to alert, not just our loved ones, but the entire world when we are faced with danger or injustice, and how powerless we can be/feel without them.

    Cell phones provide a sense of immediacy, and protection, and as Egypt proved, they are also a freedom that can be cut off (or shut off if we don’t pay our bill). But, as the article argues, as much as they provide a sense of connection, they also create distance, but I would say it’s more from the texting and internet features than the phone itself. When cancellations, breakups, and even firings can happen via a text message, there is an easy and impersonal way out of communication that would otherwise be more difficult. Walk into a business meeting, a restaurant, and as the article mentions even movie theaters and classrooms, everyone is looking at their blackberries or iphones, the more they look and type, the more important and busy they seem, and it’s a distraction from having to actually interact with each other. It provides an escape from reality, and suddenly the human interaction portrayed in WALL-E doesn’t seem so far off in the distant future.

    They are also a symbol of elitism, keeping up with the newest version of the iphone or blackberry device, sends the message that it is important for you to be in the know, check in on the news, email, Facebook and twitter. This has made the cell phone even more important, not to mention addicting, giving the user the ability to upload minute to minute details of what is going on in their world, and keep up with what is going on in “the” world. It sends instant alerts whenever anyone has emailed, facebooked, twittered, texted, or called, making the user feel popular, busy, or just plain overwhelmed. If messages go unanswered you can’t help but feel anxiety. I myself admit that I am a “hostage of technology.”

  • It has been my experience that the pervasive use of cell phones is increasingly fragmenting our ability to be present with the actual space, people and activities that are happening around us. In addition to cell phones degrading the sacro-sancitity of personal space and privacy, fat to face interaction, conventional social etiquette and the integrity of space as the article states, I would add our ability to be aware of space and place.

    I used to be a Park Ranger in Death Valley National Parks. Over the years, it was surprising the number of visitors who came up to me, their hands clutching their useless cell phones and were thankful their cell phones did not work. Some described it as liberating. Others said that they are forced to let go of work and personal issues. The vast silence of Death Valley has a tendency to engulf these connections to other places and people and leave behind the raw awareness of being in Death Valley.

    A few weeks ago I was in Death Valley again for a shoot. It has been a couple of years since I had last been there. It was mixed feelings that I discovered that a cellular network had been installed in Death Valley and I got clear reception. While it truly was helpful for the shoot, it did change my experience. My awareness of being in Death Valley was altered. I was a bit less present with the knowledge that at any moment the next tweet, email or phone call could be coming in. Yes, I could have turned off the phone. However, the knowledge that all I had to do is turn it back on to plug right back in changed they way being in Death Valley felt. It no longer felt like a time away from time—a endless expanse set away from the world as I usually experience it.

    Soon, a new type of wilderness will become valued: the wireless wilderness outside the range of the cellular network.

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