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Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance

James E Katz and Mark Aakhus (Editors)
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
0521002664 (pb)

xxiv + 391

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Front Cover
This collection is the "first fruit" of an international conference on the social aspects of mobile communication held at Rutgers University in 1999. That conference was perhaps the first with such a theme, and the collection has both the vitality and the chaos to be expected of such an early, inclusive, and important venture. The editors state three goals for this work - to see how, in ten cultures, the mobile telephone is affecting people's lives, to see how use of the mobile phone illuminates previously taken-for-granted aspects of human behavior, and to introduce the "Apparatgeist" as a theoretical framework with which to understand and investigate personal communication technologies. The work as a whole suffers from an almost pointillist structure; each chapter stands alone on its own merits, none explicitly refers to another. Individual chapters seem repetitive or isolate. Not until the concluding chapter do the editors plausibly suggest a coherent unifying framework.

Part I consists of case studies of mobile phone use in eight nations - Finland, Israel, Italy, South Korea, the United States, France, Netherlands, and Bulgaria. These are all intended to provide a macro level description of the political economy, industrial structure, history, and culture, of the local context of mobile phone use. Some pieces, notably Schejter and Cohen's "Israel: Chutzpah and chatter in the Holy Land" do an extraordinarily effective job of articulating these local configurations. Part II investigates interpersonal relations and micro-behavior, and includes two excellent studies - Ling and Yttri's "Hyper-coordination via mobile phones in Norway" and Kasesniemi and Rautiainen's "Mobile culture of children and teenagers in Finland."

Despite extreme variance in methods (which range from statistical analysis of surveys and calling records, through qualitative analysis of message transcripts, focus groups and individual interviews, to the impressionistic and anecdotal), and the cultural context of cell-phone use (the value of silence in Finland, chutzpah in Israel, fashion awareness in Italy, crony collectivism in South Korea), common findings run through these chapters. Public spaces are privatized (for example, by taking "personal" calls in "public" spaces), while private spaces are made available to intrusion (business calls invade the bedroom). Mobiles are used in different groups for different purposes, including hyper-coordination, in- and out-group definition, reinforcing or avoiding contact between parents and teens, or between employers and employees. However, because only one study was designed to be comparative, these commonalities emerge, if at all, as suggestions or possibilities.

Part III shifts the focus to structure, rather than individual action. It also, for the most part, abandons empirical research for a succession of grand theoretical forays by eminent scholars, including Kenneth Gergen, James Rule, and Emanuel Schegloff. Each of these pieces is suggestive and interesting, and Rule's chapter, especially, is a welcome reminder of the workings of the global information economy. However, none really engages the preceding chapters, until, finally, in the concluding chapter, the editors offer "Apparatgeist" as a "new term to describe social change and its interaction with social institutions within the technical communication context" (p 304). Apparatgeist is the logic of personal communication technologies (PCTs), grounded in historical, materialistic, religious and ideational ontologies, that precedes any particular technology. Katz and Aakhus extrapolate from the perceived common patterns of the empirical work in this volume, to the rudiments of a theoretical framework for predicting the adoption and use of specific technologies among specific social groups in specific cultural, historical, and political contexts. They suggest that, in every context, the competing needs for connection and autonomy provide the tension that propels the adoption and use of PCTs. This drive to adoption must, however, negotiate variable terrains. That is, individual decision-making on whether and how to connect with others is informed by incentives and disincentives along symbolic, utilitarian, economic, affiliative, environmental, folkloric, and bodily levels. As a predictive model, this may suffer from the supposition that this terrain is in fact prior, discernable, and isolatable. However, as a theoretical framework, apparatgeist provides a coherent roadmap to the type of phenomenon to be accounted for in the design and analysis of communication technology research.

It also, at last, provides the lens which brings the multiple perspectives and findings of the entire collection into convergence.

David J. Phillips
Department of Radio-Television-Film
University of Texas at Austin

Copyright Sociological Research Online,