Social and Psychological Patterns and Side Effects Resulting from the Widespread Use of Mobile Telephony

This is a powerpoint presentation I made about the following articles (linked) on mobility and psychology as I was beginning my research. Audio coming soon.  (This is a summary on some of the things I was reading at the time. I picked several articles to limit the length of the presentation.)

Adriana de Souza e Silva, Theorizing Locative Technologies Through Philosophies of the Virtual, 2011

Adriana de Souza e Silva, Re-Conceptualizing the Mobile Phone – From Telephone to Collective Interfaces, 2006

Dr. Sadie Plant, On the Mobile, Motorola 2002

Mizuko Ito, Introduction: Personal, Portable, Pedestrian, 2005

Jim McGuigan, Toward a Sociology of the Mobile Phone, 2005



    • The mobile phone, like many other innovations, came into existence with a strict association to its land line predecessor.  But it became something completely different and altered our ideas about space, reality, and the virtual. It transformed our idea of virtual reality. (De Souza e Silva, Ito)
    • Despite the differences, societal ideas and cultural standards continue to cling on from the previous technology.  New rules and norms are emerging slowly as a result. (Plant) This can get in the way of reinventing and repurposing technology.
    • Through reinventing and repurposing the mobile phone and through these new viewpoints of inquiry we will slowly shift away from traditional views of telephony, creating more possibilities for telephony, and redefining the social and psychological associations.
    • The seemingly instantaneous and organic emergence of new internationally recognizable gestural and text languages  calls for a reevaluation of the significance of this new technology. This research is only the beginning of studying and attempting to identify the effects that mobility and connectivity have already had on our lives. All of the authors I have discussed called for more research and for new methods and terminology in studies of language, ethnography, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and social psychology. (De Souza e Silva, Plant, Ito, McGuigan)









other reading (thanks Tricia Wang!)

Paul Ford
great essay about technology hypes –

Alexis MAdrigal

Danah Boyd

Benjamin Bratton

nichola nova

kevin slavin

James Landay

Julian Bleeker

cyborg anthropology

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Aoki, K. 2003. “An analysis of young people’s use of and attitudes toward cell phones.” Telematics and Informatics 20(4):349-364. Retrieved (

Beesley, Philip, and Omar Khan. 2008. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 4: Responsive Architecture/Performing Instruments. New York, NY: The Architectural League of New York.

Bleecker, Julian. 2004. “Getting The Reality You Deserve.” New York 1-61.

Bleecker, Julian. 2004. “The Reality of Technoscience.”

Bleecker, Julian, and Nicolas Nova. 2009. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 5: A synchronicity: design fictions for asynchronous urban computing. New York, NY: The Architectural League of New York.

Bleeker, Julian. n d. “*-computing.” Media.

Bleeker, Julian. 2004. “Getting The Reality You Deserve.” Writing 1-62.

Bonta, Mark. n d. “The Multitude and its Doppelgänger : An Exploration of Global Smooth Space.” Acme.

Boxu, Yang. 2010. “Social Spaces and New Media: Some Reflections on the Modernization Process in China.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 2(5):6941-6947. Retrieved October 19, 2010 (

Boyd, Danah. 2008. “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics.” Managing.

Boyd, Danah. n d. “White Flight in Networked Publics ? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook.” 1-44.

Boyd, Danah M., and Nicole B. Ellison. 2008. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1):210-230. Retrieved (

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Bratton, Benjamin H. 2009. “Undesigning the Emergency: Against Prophylactic Urban Membranes.” Retrieved (

Bratton, Benjamin H., and Natalie Jeremijenko. 2008. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 3: Situated Advocacy. edited by Omar Khan, Trebor Scholz, and Mark Shepard. New York, NY: The Architectural League of New York.

Brown, Barry, Nicola Green, and Richard Harper, eds. 2002. Wireless world: social and interactional aspects of the mobile age. Springer Retrieved (

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Demont-Heinrich, Christof. n d. “When the Panopticon Goes Online: Charting the Geography of Power, Control and Surveillance in Cyberspace.” Control.

Disalvo, Carl, Janet Vertesi, and Technology Studies. 2007. “Imaging The City: Exploring the Practices and Technologies of Representing the Urban Environment in HCI.” Pp. 2829-2832 in Image (Rochester, N.Y.). San Jose, CA, USA: ACM Press.

Dourish, Paul. 2007. “Responsibilities and Implications: Further Thoughts on Ethnography and Design.” Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Designing for User eXperiences – DUX ’07 2. Retrieved (

Eglash, Ron, and Julian Bleeker. n d. “The Race for Cyberspace: Information Technology in the Black Diaspora.” 1-12.

Farnsworth, J., and T. Austring. 2010. “The ethnography of new media worlds? Following the case of global poker.” New Media & Society. Retrieved (

Frei, Hans, and Marc Böhlen. 2010. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 6: MicroPublicPlaces. New York, NY: The Architectural League of New York.

Fuller, Matthew, and Usman Haque. 2007. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 2: Urban Versioning System 1.0. New York, NY: The Architectural League of New York.

Galloway, Anne. 2004. “Playful Mobilities : Ubiquitous Computing in the City .” (January):9-11.

Green, Nicola. 2002. “On the Move: Technology , Mobility , and the Mediation of Social Time and Space.” The Information Society 18:281 – 292.

Green, Nicola. 2006. “On the move: technology, mobility, and the mediation of social time and space.” Pp. 244-248 in The New Media Theory Reader, edited by Robert Hassan and Julian Thomas. Open University Press.

Griffiths, M. 2007. “Future assemblies: theorizing mobilities and users.” Mary Girffiths 9(6):1029-1036. Retrieved (

Hagen, Penny, and Toni Robertson. 2009. “Dissolving boundaries: social technologies and participation in design.” Design 129-136.

Harrison, Steve, Deborah Tatar, and Phoebe Sengers. 2007. “The Three Paradigms of HCI.” Pp. 1-21 in CHI ’07.

Hinman, Rachel, Pekka Isomursu, and Mirjana Spasojevic. 2008. “They call it ‘surfing’ for a reason: Identifying mobile Internet needs through PC deprivation .” Technology.

Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller. 2005. “From Kinship Link-Up: Cell phones and Social Networking in Jamaica.” Current Anthropology 46:755-777.

Huang, P. C.C. 1993. “‘Public Sphere ’/‘Civil Society’ in China?: The Third Realm between State and Society.” Modern China 19(2):216-240. Retrieved (

Jablonksi, Jon R. 2009. “Cultural Heritage Cyberinfrastructure: A Geographic Case Study of China.” Library (June).

Kwan, Mei-Po. 2007. “Mobile Communications, Social Networks, and Urban Travel: Hypertext as a New Metaphor for Conceptualizing Spatial Interaction.” The Professional Geographer 59(4):434-446. Retrieved (||D404A21C5BB053405B1A640AFFD44AE3).

Ladner, S. 2009. “‘Agency time’: A case study of the postindustrial timescape and its impact on the domestic sphere.” Time & Society 18(2-3):284-305. Retrieved October 18, 2010 (

Lee, Kun-pyo. 2010. “Culture, Interface Design, and Design Methods for Mobile Devices.” in Mobile TV: Customizing Content and Experience, edited by Aaron Marcus, Anxo Cereijo Roibás, and Riccardo Sala. London: Springer London Retrieved (

Li, Zhigang, and Desheng Xue. 2009. “An African Enclave in China: The Making of a New Transnational Urban Space.” Eurasian Geography and Economics (40971095):699-719.

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Mancini, Clara et al. 2009. “From Spaces to Places: Emerging Contexts in Mobile Privacy.” in UbiComp 2009. Orlando, Florida, USA.

Molnár, Virág. n d. Reframing Public Space Through Digital Mobilization: Flash Mobs and the Futility(?) of Contemporary Urban Youth Culture.

Moore, Robert J., E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman, and Nicolas Ducheneaut. 2009. “From 3D Space to third Place: the Social Life of Small Virtual Spaces.” Human Organization 68(2):230-240.

Moores, Shaun. 2004. “The doubling of place: electronic media, time-space arrangements and social relationships.” Pp. 21-36 in Media Space: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age, edited by Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry. London ; New York: Taylor & Francis.

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My paper, somewhat related, on my observations in China:

This paper summarizes articles I have read relating to mobile media and internet culture in China and the world, as well as its effect on the urban landscape. Many of the authors I mention recommend a new perspective on urban geography based on a new reality augmented by constantly available and sometimes unavoidable information, as well as the physical implications of constructing these information systems.
My main objective was to learn how new media and the constant presence of information affects the physical and psychological experience of a city in the Chinese context. I was (pleasantly) surprised to find a large amount of literature on the subject.

I will separate what I found into two main categories: The first is the physical presence of telecommunication infrastructure and its implications on economic and urban development. In the second part I discuss some psychological and lifestyle changes caused by living in a reality consistently augmented by virtual information. I try to relate these articles to what I have learned in the US and to what I have observed in China.


Being in China has been a transformative experience, to say the least. To say more, it has made me aware of assumptions I previously held about people, interaction, politics, economics, urbanism, and what I should eat.
Every day as I walk to my internship I pass by a luxury apartment complex. At the base of the first building there are two coffee shops. One sells five dollar (US) coffees, and has a Starbucks- inspired interior, and the other sells coffee for fifty cents, and is decorated to inspire a more traditional Chinese consumer. Outside the guards manually open the gate as fancy men and women in foreign suits and cars try to pull out into street. They usually have to wait for several workers to go by pushing old wooden wheelbarrows, not full, but very full, of miscellaneous construction materials. They also
wait for the people driving three wheeled bicycle carts full of [insert any weird combination of heavy hard core work supplies] Next they wait as I stroll by, with my particularly slow pace on account of my debilitating amazement, and possibly a motorbike taxi man who is trailing me to offer a ride, which I love.

All the streets are full of stuff to see. Ladies fry delicious noodles outside of a KFC; an old man naps in a lawn chair on the sidewalk outside of his flat despite the rush hour horns and sidewalk crowd; fashionable girls who walk by him to enter a giant glass mall; a boy calmly poops in the middle of the intersection outside of the Sheraton while calmly browsing the web, his face illuminated by his iPhone (I don’t mean to be gross but this really happened and it was kind of amazing).

A day in China is full of countless clashes of the new, the old, the rural, the urban, the impressive, and the seemingly inappropriate. Together this creates a place and time of change and opportunity, and millions of people with different backgrounds and directions are reinventing and reorganizing themselves just as quickly. In addition to the unprecedented rate and style of urbanization, China is undergoing rapid changes in the fields of telecommunication. Mobile communication is increasingly becoming a necessary part of life, and access to the internet is providing opportunities and giving a new voice to many.

Today China is the world’s largest mobile market for ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies). In 2012, China will reach 1 billion mobile telephone users, connecting 74% of the population. 34.3% are now netizens, meaning they have access to the internet. The average Chinese netizen spends 2.6 hours per day online (CNNIC, China Knowledge Consulting).

Being the largest ICT market in the world, China has attracted international attention from investors, developers, and providers seeking to capitalize on this opportunity. In 2008 the six biggest ICT operations merged into three major providers, partially controlled by the state, and partially open to foreign and private investment. China Mobile is the largest, followed by China Unicom and China Telecom (Ablott).
By 2009 China produced nearly half of the world’s mobile phones and televisions, and over 60% of the worlds computers, but continues to trail far behind in IT services, development, and innovation (China Knowledge Consulting). In the 12th Five Year Plan, the Chinese government has outlined an agenda to lead the industry not just in exports, but in services, R&D, and innovation. In the plan, “next-generation IT” is identified as one of seven key “Strategic Emerging Industries” (SEIs), the other six being biotechnology, new energy, high end equipment
manufacturing, energy conservation and environmental protection, clean energy vehicles, and new materials (APCO).

In a press release accompanying the party’s acceptance of the new Five Year Plan, the party announced:
“We will vigorously develop the next-generation IT industry; build a high-performance broadband information network; accelerate the integration of the telecommunications network, the radio and television broadcasting network, and the Internet; and promote demonstrations on how to use the Internet of Things. . . We will make every effort to develop and upgrade the software industry. We will strive to create a market environment that is conducive to the development of service industries, and quickly improve the policy system for stimulating their development” (NPC & CPPCC).

To this end investment is planned in improving intellectual property law, science and technology education, and industry incentives, which include next generation information networks, mobile communication infrastructures, internet reliability and accessibility, and development digital and virtual technologies (APCO).

Designed to steer China toward a post industrial economy, these big plans in telecommunication development will impact all aspects of urban and rural development and redefine the urbanization currently underway.
Telecommunication Infrastructure Development and What it Means for a City
Beginning in 1981, Singapore successfully transformed its economy from a low-wage, unskilled assembly and shipping center into an information capital through tax incentives and the construction of an advanced telecommunication infrastructure. During the 80s exports of services became Singapore’s largest industry, and remain so today (Warf).
Similar modern telecommunication infrastructure construction, though on a much larger scale, is necessary for the service and IT industries China seeks to develop in the new Five Year Plan. To this point, such infrastructure in China has been largely defined by market forces, which has lead to its uneven distribution.

The availability of ICTs in China is unevenly distributed among the same lines that define other social, economic, and infrastructural inequalities. The majority of inland rural areas see the least access to these technologies, while urban, industrial, and political centers are the most connected.

The following image is from the end of 2002 from CNNIC, China Internet Network Information Center (Harwit). Although innovations in satellite technology have lowered the cost of accessing some of the underserved regions, development continues to be centered on wealthier urban districts, where consumer and industry demand is highest.
image source: China Internet Network Information Center
The above image has obvious similarities to the GDP distribution map from 2004 as well as the population density map from 2009 below. These maps follow a similar distribution pattern as China’s maps of railroad construction, road construction, energy use. All of these measures reflect the economic incentives of development and habitation of certain regions:
image source: Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis

Today tier 1 provinces have internet penetrations rates above 34.3%, tier two provinces have internet penetration rates between 28.7% and 34.3%, and tier 3 provinces have internet penetration rates below 28.7%. More importantly, the connectivity is not evenly distributed throughout the provinces, with cities containing the vast majority of the connections (China Knowledge Consulting).

The implications of this inequality or “digital divide” include, for the underserved, a lack of distance education opportunities, lack of access to healthcare advise, and a lack of economic and entrepreneurial opportunities provided by mobile and internet technologies. It also creates a huge disadvantage when it comes to the length of time it takes to carry out simple information related tasks1.

Because of the connection to the population and GDP distribution, providing coverage to the underserved areas is not profitable and relies heavily on government subsidies. The party may be weary of providing networking systems to discontented populations, and such subsidies are costly. Some of the areas least connected have insufficient transportation and power infrastructure, have impeding geographic barriers, and would need further subsidies to teach computer literacy and purchase computers. Still the national government has consistently demonstrated (at least proclaimed) interest in programs that build infrastructure and economic opportunity in these areas2.
Urban centers, with their wealth of consumer and industrial demand for ICTs, have also become the telecommunication infrastructure centers. The rate of information transmission, wired or wireless, slows down increasingly as it travels away from the source, making distance from urban centers a disadvantage. As industries that rely heavily on rapid communication become more profitable, they will move toward these centers of communication, restructuring the urban centers, or forming new ones.
The most important information users and producers (banks, law firms, insurance companies, financial service businesses) depend on advanced telecommunications systems to receive and transmit information that defines the state of their industry. In New York City, the financial services industry was formed around Manhattan’s telecommunication infrastructure, and continues to refurbish and add to it, as well as construct new auxiliary infrastructures. Always at the center of New York City’s telecommunications, the Carrier Hotel, originally known as the Western Union Building, at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan, was gradually hollowed out and refurbished into a server space to support the growing industry. In his TED talk, Kevin Slavin showed a map of the server centers in downtown Manhattan (below). The centers in the lower left provide a significant disadvantage because of their distance from the Carrier Hotel (marked with the yellow X), leading to the current refurbishing of the closer buildings marked in green (Slavin).
image source: Kevin Slavin

Slavin showed a hypothetical projection made by MIT mathematicians Cameron Freer and Alexander Wissner-Gross of the current financial and urban centers (shown in red), and the locations where it will be necessary to build auxiliary servers (shown in blue).
image source: Kevin Slavin

Development of telecommunication infrastructure has direct and significant economic and social implications. Mitchell Moss wrote of the United States, in 1997, that
“unlike the nation’s transportation infrastructure – the system of highways, airports, and seaports that has largely been designed and financed by the public sector – the nation’s information infrastructure has been built by the private sector, albeit under federal and state regulations. It has only recently emerged as the subject of local community debate and discussion. In addition, the key elements of the nation’s information infrastructure, such as telephone switching offices, optical fibers, copper cables, and satellite dishes, have been largely invisible to most citizens and local government agencies. But with the proliferation of satellite dishes and mobile telephony, many communities are now being forced to deal with the location of new communications infrastructure” (Moss, Technology and Cities).

Today the development of telecommunication infrastructure, though still largely controlled by market forces, is considered a major function of the government, as it defines the economic and social landscape. Moss discusses the possible effects this development can have on cities. On one side of this conversation are people who think that mobile communication technology will have a decentralizing effect. As people can work and communicate remotely, the sprawl that began with the growth of the transportation infrastructure and personal automobiles will be further enabled. This view holds cities as manifestations of the industrial age, unnecessary and unsustainable in the information age.

The other side argues that face-to-face interaction can not be replaced by telecommunications, but that the two will complement each other. Personal interactions, workplace collaboration, and even place will remain important. William Mitchell points out that face-to-face interaction provides immediate feedback. The ability to communicate the feedback in various ways is still not available through telecommunication technology, where slight delays render body language, subtle humor, etc. ineffective, and where the pace and order of the dialog is moderated by these delays. Face-to-face communication can drastically speed up collaborative work and add urgency and a sense of responsibility in a negotiation process. Furthermore, the concentration of large service industries in the center may attract related and supportive businesses and residents, further increasing demand for their products and services (Mitchell, 2000).

As Moss explains, the effects are often two-way. While freeing up the office from having to be located near the facilities it directs, it has encouraged offices to locate near concentrations of similar service industries, in areas conducive their work (Moss). In this way the presence of telecommunication infrastructure and new technology reshapes and redefines the city.

In his 1994 essay “Telecommunication and the Changing Geographies of Knowledge Transmission in the Late 20th Century”, Barney Warf wrote that
“contrary to early, simplistic expectations that telecommunications would ‘eliminate space’, rendering geography meaningless through the effortless conquest of distance, such systems in fact produce new rounds of unevenness, forming new geographies that are imposed upon the relics of the past. Telecommunications simultaneously reflect and transform the topologies of capitalism, creating and rapidly recreating nested hierarchies of spaces technically articulated in the architecture of computer networks”(Warf).

As urban space is reconfigured to match a new economic landscape, and while physical proximities and face to face interactions remain the drivers of city density, a new kind of mobility afforded by the widespread use of mobile communication devices and the internet will have significant social, psychological, and lifestyle implications. The next section examines how mobility and communication can affect our lives, and how we could employ these ideas in the creation of new urban spaces.
The New Mobile Connected City

Architect Neville Mars moved his office to Shanghai to take advantage of design opportunities created by the scale and speed of urbanization. For the book The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction, which he coauthored with writer Adrian Hornsby, Mars conducted extensive research of survey data and mapped the patterns of urbanization. According to Mars and Hornsby, and many others, China will continue to build approximately 20 new cities annually until 2020 (Mars, Hornsby). This unprecedented rate and scale of urbanization is coinciding with a development of telecommunication infrastructures and consumer adoption of new technologies of corresponding proportions. A new urban culture and society is simultaneously being defined by both of these developments.

The Mobile Phone:

In industrial era cities, where telecommunications infrastructures were imposed on an already developed city, as in the retrofitted cities from the last section, new communications technologies seem to take longer to become fully integrated in urban life and culture.
The New York City subway system is still struggling to provide the kind of live schedule updates and alerts that have long been included in the systems of newer cities. Our ongoing negotiation of social rules associated with mobile communications is another slow development. New behaviors in familiar social places, like shopping areas, public squares, and public transportation, that may contradict traditional behavior, are still being evaluated. For example, a person talking on a wireless headset just 10 years ago was usually considered as looking very crazy, but with increasing awareness of the health benefits of wireless headset devices, and their subsequent popularity, we are more likely to consider that a person speaking and gesturing into mid air is on the phone, and a smart and healthy consumer, before we assume they are insane. A person overheard speaking loudly on the phone about their embarrassing doctor appointment, is publicly shunned through “look” exchanges or laughs, while a person making a brief schedule adjustment, even loudly, is generally (and sympathetically) ignored.

When film was invented, it was seen as a combination of photography and theater, leading to quite theatrical performances recorded on a static camera. Camera movements were eventually introduced, and through that the unique possibilities and expressions of film were discovered. A similar delayed realization has occurred with the mobile telephone and the internet.

In her 2002 ethnographic study for Motorola, Sadie Plant suggests that the early adopters of mobile phones in the US were doing so from within a highly developed culture of land line use, that included preconceptions about the roles of telephones and telephone conversations. As a result, mobile phones were seen through the lens of fixed phones, essentially being viewed as long distance wireless home telephones. They were marketed as being valuable in case of emergencies, but were otherwise considered inappropriate in public space, as phone conversations were traditionally had in private (Plant).

A certain level of market saturation and new rules for conversations had to develop before the mobile phone found its own voice. “A landline phone ‘‘rings at the place, no matter which person is being called,’’ whereas a mobile phone rings to the person carrying the phone, no matter where he or she is (Wellman 2001, 238 Wellman, B. 2001). As the connection is to the person and not to the place, it shifts the dynamics of connectivity from places — typically home or workplace — to individuals“ (Kwan). New questions, such as “Where are you?” and “Can you talk now?” began to initiate phone conversations. Over time cell phones went from being emergency devices, to novel status symbols, to acceptable commonplace tools, and all the while their proper use within traditional frameworks was being negotiated (and still is).

Sadie Plant identified distinct emerging and internationally recognized phone behaviors and personalities. The extroverts tend to talk on their phone loudly while looking up, even making direct eye contact with the people around them. They tend to have their phone on display, often placing it on the table when they arrive at a meeting. The introverts tend to move away from the crowd, shelter their phone by hunching down, sometimes even covering their mouth, and turning away from the people around them (Plant).

Plant also noticed differences between male and female patterns of phone display, noting that when a man and a woman were dining together, the man tended to have his phone on display, and the woman did not. When two men sat together, they usually both had their phone on display. Men admitted to feeling embarrassed when their phone was of lesser value or older model than another man’s. Women were more likely to display their phones when dining with other women, but in those cases the phones were the subject of conversation. Women tended to have their phones on display when walking alone, using their ability to connect as a protective device (Plant).

In short the mobile phone, as it is ubiquitous and internationally relatable, and as it is an empowering device, has come to represent power, freedom, protection, and many other subtle gestures in its own emerging language. Especially where the digital divide corresponds to a
divide in wealth and opportunity, as in China today, the phone has come to represent status and power. It has also become a tool for expression and subtle communication with those around you, not just the people you talk to through the phone.

Unlike in the US, where this new language of mobile connectivity developed despite of rigid preconceptions, in many parts of the world the mobile phone and satellite technology leapfrogged more expensive landline development and static phone culture. It allowed previously disconnected populations to gain access to distant places, people, and information, providing social and economic opportunities for the previously disadvantaged. In such regions, mobile phone use and its cultural associations do not have the same social or cultural obstacles stemming from preconceived notions about communications. As a result these technologies can have a different path of development in these regions. They are free to evolve to match the region’s specific needs with greater flexibility and inventiveness3.

As the world adjusts to the social implications of mobile telecommunications, and attempts to renegotiate some long held social norms and symbols, China’s new cities will be built for (and by) the mobile and interconnected populace, well versed in the nuances of these new technologies. These developments could manifest in new uses of and new kinds of public spaces, transportation, urban interaction, and communication.

The Internet

The internet, as with film and the mobile phone, was lauded in the 80s as a replacement for traditional channels of film, music, literature, mail distribution, and basically everything else, but which has proven to be a medium suited best for its own specific characteristics. It is most conducive to participation.

In China this has unique implications. Erika Maher, who advocates the use of China’s media to promote food and water security, states that in China
“the web offers users a virtual public forum for discussion found nowhere in any tangible public space. Historically, public space in China has been a much different concept than in democratic/Western societies. Even in China’s Imperial era, public vs. private and freedom vs. privacy were nonexistent dichotomies. In an autocracy, whether it is monarchical or not, all property belongs to the State. So, even in modern China, where the government is controlled absolutely by a selective, authoritarian single party, public space is a limited concept” (Maher).
The internet, with its focus on collaboration and communication, and anonymity, especially in the context of China, has the potential to popularize new styles of expression, facilitate the building of social networks, and lead to new uses of public space in the real world.
In his essay Social spaces and new media: Some reflections on the modernization process in China, Yang Boxu agrees that the dichotomy between public and private spaces is a Western concept. However, he argues that this may change in light of the social developments inspired by the internet and mobile media. He describes the societal structure of china as a a “sheep and shepherd” mentality, enforced during the imperial ages and through the Confucius philosophies via “the three bonds”. He explains that “the three bonds mean that the ruler, the father, and the husband are to be the standards of the ruled, the son, and the wife” (Yang, Boxu).

Yang argues that traditional forms of communication, even print media, were effectively utilized by the ruling elite to maintain and assert their power, but that the new dialogic nature of the internet is questioning “the three bonds”, and may inspire the emergence of individualistic-based societal structures. These new forms of communication may manifest in new uses of physical public spaces. He writes that
“as in the West, the Chinese users of new media are forming their personal communities. In other words, the agent becomes a person, not family or group. This gives us some reason to believe that new social structure and some kind of public space might be emerged one way or another for human beings are inherently social. The communication may be civil or rude, civic or cultural in virtual public spaces. But whatever their new media communication behaviors are, they have to be communicative and dialogic. Communicative action and dialogue have nothing to do with servility. In fact, it undermines the “shepherd and sheep” mentality. This may be one of the most significant consequences of diffusion and implementation of new media in China.” (Yang, Boxu)
Participation in internet culture has direct ties to the physical world through the physical infrastructure discussed in the first part of this paper, and through “bridges” to the real world, such as plans to meet up with online friends in the real world. Flash mobs can begin on the internet, but, through mobile devices, actualize in physical public space. Jon R Jablonski, in his research through Oregon University, found this example of an online game translating into the physical world:
“there is a massive multiplayer online role playing game, Fantasy Westward Journey, that is set in the Tang dynasty. In 2006, thousands of game players converged on a location in the game, after what was purported to be a Japanese flag was found decorating the wall of a ‘government office’. Described as a ‘virtual riot,’ crowds gathered ‘shouting’ anti-Japanese obscenities in the virtual space, and clogged the company’s customer support phone lines in the real world, condemning what they perceived to be a slight on Chinese sovereignty (Wang, quoted in Jablonski).”

Silvia Lindtner, a UCSD Irvine PhD candidate conducting ethnographic research on new media and urbanism in China, documents groups of online multiplayer gamers who meet in the real world to develop impressive and extensive server networks that bypass China’s restrictions on bandwidth and online networking. Lindtner also documents new social meanings and uses of internet cafes and other public technology centers (Lindtner).

Yang Guobin, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies ant Columbia University, writes that “the incipient nature of Chinese civil society [defined here as “the intermediate public realm between the state and the private sphere”] is a favorable condition for the development of the Internet in China. An incipient civil society has many vulnerabilities, but it is dynamic. It absorbs new things quickly and is open to innovations.” He says that there are many documented cases of an emerging sense of citizenship rights. This is accompanied by changes in the public sphere, both online and in a wide range of social spaces, from living rooms, were family dynamics are changing, to the public square, where new social structures are forming and convening. “The internal dynamics of Chinese civil society also favor the development of the Internet. There are various manifestations of such dynamics, such as the expansion of individual rights and urban public spaces, the proliferation of popular protest, the decentralization of the media, and the expansion of associational life. These dynamics derive from the extraordinary combination and juxtaposition of ambiguities, tensions, contradictions, and hopes in contemporary Chinese life” (Yang, Guobin).

The world is coming to terms with the economic significance of the internet and its effect on society and the urban landscape. Meanwhile, much of the developing world, and in many parts of rural China, where mobile phones and telecommunications, as well as aspects of transportation planning and design, are happening simultaneously, is experiencing huge and rapid physical and social transformations, accelerated by the availability of communication technologies. According to Yang Guobin, Yang Boxu, and many others, China is especially ready to absorb new forms of communication and develop new urban spaces. These new spaces should cater to the new social norms and psychological paradigms. There is an opportunity to create relevant modern cities for a new socioeconomic landscape.

The Mobile Internet: A New Sense of Time and Space

Despite extremely slow connections, 66% of Chinese netizens access their internet via mobile device (China Internet Watch). As discussed, the internet, especially in China, is reinforcing the need for new public spaces. Furthermore, mobility and constant availability of information has created new possibilities in urban behavior and movement.
As China continues to erect new cities, there is an opportunity to build cities for the modern, mobile, and connected netizen. How to design for this new reality is the subject of a great deal of emerging scholarship on the geography and psychology of the information era.

In his essay Mobile Communications, Social Networks, and Urban Travel: Hypertext as a New Metaphor for Conceptualizing Spatial Interaction, Mei-Po Kwan suggest a model by which to understand the new urban reality, disassociated from traditional views and uses of time and space. He states that “Urban travel can no longer be understood in terms of the spatial interaction between two fixed points in space, as the interactive coordination enabled by mobile communications that leads to a particular meeting or social activity may be transacted continuously over a span of time and space.” On account of mobile telecommunications, “distance as conventionally understood is of declining importance as an organizing principle of urban form. Land use patterns and individual accessibility seem to be determined by much more complicated processes in contemporary cities” (Kwan).

He suggests that as people move around “with” their social networks, schedules and meetings are increasingly arranged and rearranged on the go, leading to a disassociation with traditional time and space structures,
“As activity and travel decisions are now more spatially and temporally contingent than before, and people to a certain extent travel together with their social networks, we need new metaphors that can take the influence of real-time interactive coordination and personalized individualism into account. . . In a hypertext model, each individual has several nodes (as hypertext in a document) that connect to different social networks (e.g., to different groups of friends, colleagues, or relatives). Each link in these networks represents the possibility of interactive coordination between two individuals, who are also connected to many other individuals through various sets of real-time communication links” (Kwan).

Image source: Mei-Po Kwan
The combination of China’s economic, urban, and telecommunication technologies makes it the perfect place to experiment with such new analysis and design paradigms. Instead of augmenting the urban realities of developed cities with a persistent layer of virtual information, in china cities are being built in an era when mobile telecommunications and the internet are deeply imbeded in the economy and the social psyche. Furthermore, ICT saturation and develpment are at the core of the country’s economic ambitions. Weather consciously or not, ICTs will define the many new urban landscapes developing in China.

As China continues to push for a modern connected society, new channels of communication will transform the way that people live and interact in social spaces. Urban development will be affected, both by a focus on certain industries and the infrastructural developments associated with these industries, and by the consequences of their widespread adoption and assimilation into culture and society.

In an information and service dominated economy places with well developed telecommunication systems have significant economic advantages to their underdeveloped counterparts. The way that the Chinese government chooses to distribute the infrastructural development could define the country’s future social and economic divides.

The new urban citizens, entering and helping to shape China’s rapidly growing new cities, will do so within the framework of a new urban psychology, that incorporates traditional behaviors with a new layer of constant connectivity, network based perspectives on time and place, and a persistent layer of ubiquitous information.

Neville Mars, during a lecture on August 2nd, 2011 entitled “China’s Flash Urbanization, Race Between Eco-Hope and Eco-Hazard,” described the current urban planning process in China as passive prediction of the inevitable. He said that impressive museums housing interactive models are being constructed to represent the kind of future city that will likely develop if unrestrained market forces continue to dictate urban development. As the government seeks to actively redirect the economy and upgrade their telecommunications networks, they have an opportunity to redesign the market landscape, and to break with the patterns of development that have emerged out of the current paradigm. There is an opportunity to shift some development to much needed areas, and to create cities that complement a new “networked” population.


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1 The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the “digital divide” as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (OECD, 2001, p. 4 quoted in Harwit).
Telecommunications infrastructure could be especially beneficial in areas with underdeveloped transportation infrastructure. In a series of studies in rural Africa, Heather Hudson found many examples of significant economic benefits of telecommunications opportunities for farmers. In Ghana, farmers were able to check in advance and decide on the best days to travel to markets, check weather patterns, and make better decisions about the way they divided their time between land work and travel (Harwit).
2 During the Mao era, equality of communications technologies was advocated and some progress was achieved, although the focus was on one way information dissemination. The slogan “xiang xiang tong dianhua” (telephones to every township”) was used to rally development during the Great Leap Forward. (Harwit). During this era the rate of construction of telecommunications technologies in rural areas exceeded that of the urban areas. However, in the 1980s under the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping, the focus returned to market driven development and the densely populated, wealthier regions were again the epicenters of telecommunications development. Since then intermittent government incentives and feebly enforced regulations have failed to bridge the divide. However incentives for companies like China Mobile have helped to build infrastructure and sell computers in those regions.
The Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation, provides China market data and analysis on their site, which states that “By the end of August 2009, around 414,000 computers had been sold under the program, which provides a 13% subsidy for purchase of certain products. . . Total IT spending in China is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16% over the five- year forecast period. China’s IT market has a number of strong fundamentals in its favor. A number of factors, including China’s vast potential rural market, government spending and demand from key verticals such as telecoms, will help to drive growth.. . . .Lenovo has said that it aims to sell 5mn computers in rural areas and cover 320,000 villages across the country. To this end, the company will establish 700 new county-level stores in the next three years and introduce 15 new models specifically designed for the rural market. Lenovo and other vendors have tailored their marketing focus to different priorities of the rural Chinese. HP has also been steadily expanding its sales network in rural China over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, Acer, Dell and Lenovo were among 14 vendors selected by the Chinese government as designated suppliers for its subsidized computers program launched in February 2009” (NL Agency).
3 A great example of this is M-Pesa, a popular mobile phone SMS-based service launched by Kenyaʼs Safaricom mobile provider in 2007. The service allows customers to deposit cash amounts to their SIM cards, and provides security codes for transfers of funds between customers, serving as a banking service (although without loans or interest rates.) In addition to making transactions in remote places more convenient, it has been used by third party programs to help farmers put away small amounts of money for investment in tools and livestock, and to help people without access to banking transfer money for distant goods and services. In 2010 M-Pesa service had reached 38% of Kenyaʼs adult population (Jack, Suri).