Cell phone networks and Ecologies of Sensation

Posted: June 1, 2008 in Ecology of Sensation, India, Method, New Media, Perception, Public Sphere, Time
Tags: , , , , , , ,

What is the relation between cell phone practice and perception? This is both a deeply cultural issue and a question of the body understood transculturally (but very much historically!). What would it mean to analyze cell phone practice, media pedagogies (institutions, and flow gradients), capitalizations, and value added schemes as a cultural and transcultural phenomenon at once?

Again, we are at the point of querying method (thanks Patricia): What are the objects here? At what scale of analysis do these objects relate or connect, at what scale is their connection lost or nonpertinent, what is the function, rate, intensity, feedback, distribution, and evolution of these connections? If these capacities-connections have individual and collective dimensions of change, how do we understand the political nature of such affects? This question also follows the understanding of the impact of a thought of virtuality on political practice. Directly on ethics.

Let us proceed, then, by example.

Passages taken from:

Janey Gordon, The Mobile Phone and the Public Sphere: Mobile Phone Usage in Three Critical Situations,”  Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol 13(3): 307–319.

“The use of the mobile phone as a communications device in day-to-day situations is accepted as its natural function. But in times of national and personal calamity, the mobile phone may become an important tool, to document and report events from eyewitnesses and those closely involved. Using multimedia messages (MMS) or text messages (SMS), as well as audio phone calls, mobile phone users can precede and scoop official sources, contribute to the media’s coverage and circumvent censorship and news blackouts.” (307)

The choice of crises here is interesting, and it might seem obvious, but do we know what a crises is? We should understand such crises as multiplicities of events that push people to rely on what is most effectively at hand, and to do so in a way that will provide some stability in a moment of limit-uncertainty (i.e. possible death). So what is often at hand turns out to be the cell phone, and its usage gives people a sense of active participation in an event which in other respects seems and is debilitating, a way of objectifying the event, of stepping outside of it. While Gordon pays scant attention to these matters of perception, intensity, and technological assemblage, her choice of examples invite such a method. But there is more here. Let us take events as shocks to a given media-human ecology or assemblage. These shocks are violent, life-threatening events that are statistically apprehended to affect a human multiplicity differentially and collectively. The shock, its force, is measured by the time it takes for the human-state-technology-nature-property ecology to return to a relatively stable equilibrium. The durations of shock-events have specific implications for media ecologies, which are strictly speaking both smaller than and larger than these social-human interactions and institutions? (Smaller because although they touch upon all aspects of life, that is are distributed through the social, they concern centrally human perception, information technology, and the production of value in all their different functions and uses–we thus delimit the field of media ecologies as the neuro-politico-economy of media. Larger because the topology of media ecologies, its multiplicious and unitary timespace, exceed actualized space, nation-states, and geography as such due to the globalization of information and the speed of its flows.)

It seems that one effect of such shocks is to push media ecologies to the limits (phase transitions, critical ridges) of their capacities: an immanent horizon (as Heidegger uses the term): information and its flows and repetitions potentialize in the incipience of events that exceed their actualization. Part of this return to normalcy is an effect of the use of cell phones: by turning the event into discourse, images, movies, indexical signs (attention getters), information proliferates at a speed relative to both the perceived importance of the shock-event, and the amount of information it generates (and these feed into each other constantly).

“These participant reporters have been popularly called citizen journalists and via their mobile phones and by using other technologies such as the internet they may make vivid contributions to the public sphere….Can the mobile phone be used as a tool of communication in the public sphere and enhance available information or discourse?” (308)

The public sphere is a particular mooring of this discussion. What does the public sphere yield in terms of a concept tying the subject to power within a given media ecology? The public sphere seems most often to lead to a notion of the subject who always already fits within the gridded citizen-demographics of a given nation state. This is a limitation on understanding the dynamics of something like communication with a non-linear technology such as cell phones. Their effects will only be judged according to the actual–but not just any actual, the actual of discourse only.

My objection to the Habermasian notion of the public sphere might seem abstract and counter-productive. After all, isn’t one aim of radical media criticism to open the space for representation within the (trans)nation-space, to claim subaltern counterspheres of self-expression and self- or collective-actualization? So isn’t that precisely what cell phone culture does: it is a technology of expression and representation within a public sphere that is more often than not deemed illegitimate vis a vis corporate media and the state. But my aim is something else. Bergson reminds us (see On Bergson’s Pure Duration and Suzuki’s Sunyata-Tathata ) that if we are not to reduce time to space we must be able to think about lived duration as the very stuff of perception, and that to do so would be to restore freedom (a negative freedom, full of contingencies and also full of chance) to intensive processes. Thus, before we grid cell phone practice through the quasi-citizen of the representative public sphere, we should pose clearly what lived duration does in specific cell phone practices. What are these durations, how are they assembled, how does communication make information active (Peat, Bohm) in the moment of a cell phone transaction? In a viral marketing kind of way, this is what value added schemes try to do: make cell phone practice a potentially forceful way to express a set of desires, without falling into the track of cliches.

“The Chinese government has a censorship policy known as the Golden Shield. Since 2003, efforts have been made to increase their control on personal communications under this policy. Internet sites deemed to be unpatriotic or threatening to the government are removed within about one hour of being placed. There are also over 2800 centres to monitor the content of SMS messages across China. Personal communications concerning topics deemed antisocial in some way are not allowed to proceed (Erping Zhang, 2003). Amnesty International has documented a number of cases where Chinese citizens have been imprisoned for placing material on the internet or using their SMS to pass on information (Amnesty International, 2004).” (311-12)

Clearly, this suggests the nature of the cell phone threat: it is the rumor of the bazaar magnified, intensified, and proliferated. Does the nature of the contagion from verbal rumor to digital SMS remain unchanged? One might say that the level of noise has been reduced, but is this in fact the case? More needs to be known here, but the potential for subversion, disruption, jamming, and general non-authorized communication is clearly what is sought to be controlled by the machinery of repression in China.

The information, poetry and jokes that were spread by SMS and mobile calls during the SARS outbreak may have contributed to discourse within the public sphere and given a feeling of empowerment to the population. But the Chinese were also susceptible to inaccurate information as there was no credible official information to use as a comparison. The Chinese authorities were successful in setting the news agenda by stemming information about SARS for some months. They may also have felt threatened by the new technologies. Since the SARS outbreak, the Chinese Golden Shield has been further refined into an extensive, modern and sophisticated system of electronic surveillance and censorship (Human Rights Watch, 2006). Those caught attempting or succeeding in finding a way around it are treated brutally. Consequently, it is unlikely that the Chinese people can contribute much to their public sphere by citizen journalism, via mobile phone or other new technologies, except at great personal risk.

This would suggest that the level of noise is not less in the digital era of SMS, but of a qualitatively different nature. What is that nature of noise? Need to pose that question better!

Let us go back to Norbert Wiener’s definition of informational entropy in The Human Use of Human Beings: “Messages are themselves a form of patter and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as etnropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probablity. That is, the more probable the message, the less information is gives. Cliches, for example, are less illuminating than great poems” (21).

More classic, if not superceded, definitions: “This control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance is known as feedback, and involves sensory members which are actuated by motor members and perform the function of tell-tales or monitors–that is, of elements which indicate a performance. It is the function of these mechanisms to control the mechanical tendency toward disorganization; in other words, to produce a temporary and local reversal of the normal direction of entropy” (25).

Following the 2005 tsunami, warning buoys have been placed in the Indian Ocean and systems such as alarms, broadcasts and SMS messages have supposedly been put in place to alert those living in the areas predicted to be at risk. However, on 17 July 2006, a tsunami followed an earthquake by 45 minutes, the Indonesian authorities gave no warnings and 339 Indonesians were killed (NOAA, 2007). This was despite being sent alerts by the PTWC and the Japanese Meteorological Agency. It appears that the authorities are wary of giving tsunami alerts as they feel it is bad for tourism and they do not want to give false alarms. There have been instances in Japan where, following a tsunami warning, people will go down to the beach to watch it rather than stay away. Several mobile phone companies have set up tsunami SMS alerts for their customers so that individuals can decide themselves whether to vacate the area or get out their mobcams!

The original hypothesis of this article was that the mobile phone may be challenging conventional and official sources of information, that the use of mobile phone technology in critical situations would be beneficial to the public sphere and that mobile phone usage might influence the primary definitions of news, news agendas and news gatekeepers. There was some indication of this but less than might be expected. Mobile users in Guangdong province did use their phones to enhance their local public sphere. During the period of the tsunami, the use of mobiles was limited but subsequently they became part of the rescue efforts.

“When I have a big catch, the phone rings 60 or 70 times before I get to port,” he said. The cellphone is bringing new economic clout, profit and productivity to Rajan and millions of other poor laborers in India, the world’s fastest-growing cellphone market.

At the beginning of 2000, India had 1.6 million cellphone subscribers; today there are 125 million — three times the number of land lines in the country. With 6 million new cellphone subscribers each month, industry analysts predict that in four years nearly half of India’s 1.1 billion people will be connected by cellphone.

“This has changed the entire dynamics of communications and how they organize their lives,” said C.K. Prahalad, an India-born business professor at the University of Michigan who has written extensively about how commerce — and cellphones — are used to combat poverty.

“One element of poverty is the lack of information,” Prahalad said. “The cellphone gives poor people as much information as the middleman.”

“The two crucial changes that have happened in my lifetime,” said Jayan Kadavunkassery, 37, an Andavan crewman in a pink button-down shirt and a lungi, “are the inboard motor and the mobile phone.”

Rajan said that before he got his first cellphone a few years ago, he used to arrive at port with a load of fish and hope for the best. The wholesaler on the dock knew that Rajan’s un-iced catch wouldn’t last long in the fiery Indian sun. So, Rajan said, he was forced to take whatever price was offered — without having any idea whether dealers in the next port were offering twice as much.

Now he calls several ports while he’s still at sea to find the best prices, playing the dealers against one another to drive up the price.

Kevin Sullivan, For India’s Traditional Fishermen, Cellphones Deliver a Sea Change, October 15, 2006; Page A01, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/14/AR2006101400342.html

Two years ago, Mumbai call center employee Vijay Parihar used his Nokia mobile phone for calls and sending occasional text messages to friends, spending about $7 monthly. Today the 24-year-old, who earns $450 a month and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in suburban Mumbai, forks over about $20 a month — for calls, of course, but also for ring tones of Bollywood hits, movie tickets, e-mail, and mushy text messages to his girlfriend. If he had enough money to invest, Parihar says, stock market quotes, too, would beep on his phone. “My handset is an extension of myself, a cool, one-stop shop for my personal needs,” he says.

Lakshman, Nandini. “Mobile Services Boom in India.” Business Week Online (07 Apr. 2008): 17-17. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 16 May 2008 <http://proxy.lib.duke.edu:2164/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=31610940&site=ehost-live&scope=site&gt;.

Buried in the endnotes of Untimely Bollywood, I write: “I am aware that there is a blurring of physical, biological, and social dissipative systems here. At moments of great theoretical ferment a certain blurring can be productive and lead to new clarity. It seems fairly uncontroversial today to suggest that popular media and its consumption is a dissipative system; what does become fraught is specifying the precise way in which media is dissipative. For instance, if the information in a media assemblage produces entropy (as all dissipative systems do), what is the exact nature of the difference of this informational entropy from chemical or biological processes? This must be further specified and elaborated.” I want to tinker with this question further here. What I am gesturing toward is the kind of processes that information has the capacity to form assemblages through. So we must follow from the actual and show the correlated set of capacities needed to maintain the particular basin of attraction given the relative non-equilibrium of material and energetic flows.

More: It turns out that cell phone networks are crucial to the theory of ICON (integrated counterinsurgency operating network). In Byting Back: Regaining Information Superiority Against 21st Century Insurgents, RAND corporation’s Martin Libicki, D. Gompert, D. Frelinger, R. Smith (not their real names?) argue for a comprehensive strategy for managing, distributing, and auditing information flows in a counterinsurgency theatre.

First requirement: to know the population, to constitute the population through any means necessary as an object and instrument of knowledge. “If winning wars requires understanding the terrain, winning counterinsurgency requires understanding the human terrain: the population, from its top-level political structure to the individual citizen. A thorough and current understanding of individuals and their community can help rally support of the government by allowing the government to meet the needs of the local population” (xiv). Knowledge of the population is time-bound, and politicized, linked to a project of legitimizing the government propped up by US occupying forces. It is important to keep these interlocking projects clearly in mind.

Second: isolate sources of information flows. Chief among these are operators on patrol and the population itself. The operators can establish information streams through voice notes and digital recorders, embedded video cameras on helmets or guns, and developing a national Wikipedia-type database. The population can also contribute to this national Wiki, but basic to the information stream of contemporary populations will be a registry-census apparatus, and cell phone networks (xv). The authors note that COMP-STAT (computerized statistics) helped reduce the crime rate in New York city throughout the 1990s. (The national and international examples are key: there is a fundamental continuity between policing the US city [LAPD is another important source of strategy and information cited by the authors] and fighting insurgency in Iraq). The final element of a useful registry-census apparatus will be a national identification system which can aid in detecting those who “wish to evade the grasp of authorities” (xvi)

  1. John Woodward says:

    An interesting blog, Amit. (Krishna says hello, and thanks to him for pointing out the existence of the blog.) I’d like to point out the truncated nature of your discussion of the public sphere and how a deeper examination of the concept post Fraser and others, might aid in working through the issue.

    First, I think the most important thing about the public sphere which was largely overlooked until Hauser’s _Vernacular Voices…_ is the orientation of the sphere around interest. As Hauser pointed out, the public sphere is discursive in nature. This discourse is generated by the development of common interests among members of the discussion. Your reference to the fisherman also parallels Habermas’s assertion that the public sphere was, in its deepest form, related to trade, commodities, and economies.

    Cellphones are a part of the public sphere, but mostly in the form of information gathering. The discussion of events ‘reported’ by the cellphone users needs to take place in order to fully realize a public sphere. While the distribution of information to the ‘public’ functions as the initial step, a larger system of discussion networks must take place in order to ‘deal’ witht he information. They do, however, influence the nature of the general public sphere, in that they are being more and more seen as factual proof of events. The problematics of messages and message consumption, especially contextualization, are largely forgotten about in the rush to provide a ‘scoop’ or some such.

    While Habermas idealizes the democratic-seeming nature of the bourgeois public sphere, and Fraser and others have pointed this out by showing how it was really oriented around exclusion, his emphasis on discussion should not be cast aside. The public sphere is discursive, interactive, and generated by the nature of ‘common’ concerns; whether they be national transnational or global. It also continues to be a space which is determined not by commonality but by the perception of commonality. It is universal by its nature, because it tends to speak (and this is the same with every public sphere) for every member of the interest group. Yet it would be difficult to suggest that any one subject belongs wholly to any one public sphere–the individual v. universal discussion of Laclau comes to mind.

    What is interesting about cellphones is that there are as many restrictions on them from the superstructure as on any other communication device (especially considering they are more expensive than a common land line), yet they are somehow seen as liberating within a capitalist ecology.

    To come back to your title: the ecologies of sensation is an important concept to unpack. The dynamic relationship between sensations and their environment. Sensations are the result of the interaction between organism and environment; the cellphones then register such an interaction? Seems that you are supporting this rawness as somehow closer to ‘truth’ which is often attributed to cellphone reporting (and exploited in the cinema…). I would suggest that this falls into some of the same problems associated with any media. There is no way of determining the context without inscribing a deep structure of meaning onto which the ‘raw experience’ can then stand. Indeed, cellphone, handicam, etc reporting can be manipulated as much or more than other forms of reporting. And their rawness may make them more believable, which runs the risk of reducing any critical interface with the message.

    There is also the nature of the ecology. If one were to receive a message from a friend that claimed that aliens had landed in his yard, chances are you would not believe it. If you were to receive a message from this same friend which stated that police in Honduras searched his car and stole his wallet, you probably would believe him. The same message about the Tallahassee police, however, would be much more questionable. Why, the context for the former is simply inexistant; for the third it is unbelievable (though possibly true, depending on one’s socio-economic relationship to ‘law enforcement’); in the second situation it is believable because it fits with the perceived social context of ‘Honduras’ (corruption, etc) which is propagated by the media. In other words, even the ‘raw experiences’ received through the cell phone are conditioned by the ‘public sphere’ which generates a level of ‘common knowledge’ against which information is gauged.

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