The Mobile Phone and the Public Space

By Peter Arlt




The art discourse I 1 IA differentiated and continuative discourse can be found in Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften, see for example Wehrheim, Siebel ( on the public space is stuck. For years the loss of public space has been pronounced again and again: Privatisation and economisation, increase of control and surveillance, leading to social segmentation and to the exclusion of minor and non-profitable classes. In the 'cleared out' inner cities the public space is yet only simulated by means of the event and through 'museumisation'.

All these developments and their effect on the public space cannot be denied. However, one should oppose the cultural pessimists who would like to imagine the end of the public space as the logical conclusion of this development. Behind this lies a conservative bourgeois concept of the public space, which attempts to define its function once and for all and does not understand change as a constitutive element of the public space.

In addition, the discourse focuses on apparent interventions by state and capital and by that ignores more subtle forms, which yet entirely change behaviour in the public space - and change public space itself, in my opinion. Presumably these are therefore also excluded because the 'danger' lies within oneself. The following example about mobile phones may explain the matter.


Talking aloud to oneself - formerly a case for the psychiatrist - is a common sight in the streets nowadays. One has got used to the practice, and one even does it oneself. Only in enclosed public spaces - such as in trains or in cafes - is there still no social consensus. (Presumably there will soon be an equivalent to smoking areas for mobile phone users.)

It has become as common to listen in on private conversations as it is to let others listen to one's own conversations.

The other - the one listening in - does not exist for the talker, and therefore can listen in to whatever, since they have nothing to do with each other. One does not know him, one does not really want to get to know him and actually one cannot even imagine meeting again.

The person on the phone also does not exist for the listener, who hears him speak without listening. He is actually 'beamed off' - he is physically present but not aware. The person talking on the phone creates around himself a private capsule within the public space, defining its borders with the volume of his voice. Just like a car driver, he has created himself a private capsule, sealed within which he moves through the public space sealed.

This explains why the possibility for anonymity - hiding in the crowd - which is rather cancelled by permanent ubiquity, is taken for granted. The person on the other end of the phone is not (physically) present, either. One exists in two different space realities, which are activated according to one's requirements.

In this sense the beginning sentences of a mobile chat are of note. They are similar to a code - there is no real reason for the caller to ask the physical location of the mobile-call receiver. But only after knowing each other's position does the actual conversation begin. This is therefore interesting and also anachronistic, because mobile users have left the physically-real site and entered the virtual space, but evidently they do not completely believe in their virtual existence and the 'antiquated way of mankind' breaks through once more.

Noch antiquierter sind allerdings diejenigen Mobiltelefonisten, denen überwachungskameras ein Dorn im Auge sind, denen aber der freiwillige Selbstanschluss an das überwachungsnetz - mittels Handy oder Internet - keinerlei Beschwerden verursacht, obwohl dessen Auswirkungen bedeutend mehr in die Privatsphäre eingreifen.


Even more antiquated are those mobile users who are intensely annoyed about CCTV, but are not bothered about their own deliberate connection to the surveillance network via mobile or internet, although its interventional effect on the private sphere is of major importance.

Less problems are caused by time than by space. Letting everything go in the moment of taking a call is easily managed. When calling hardly anyone asks whether this is a good time to talk, and no one answers that he can not talk right now because he is in a public space among many other people. Something like that is only possible in a film by Achternbusch.

If the public space once stood for idle lingering and the possibility of bumping into something unexpected and coincidental, which therefore afforded some free time, then the mobile phone has increasingly eliminated this 'free time'. As soon as the boredom might set in the mobile phone offers a possibility for change and in this sense offers a replacement to the private TV which is missing in the public space. You zap through the phone numbers of all acquaintances, you get caught up with this one or that one, call a person or write a text message. Contacting others moving in the same - real - public space is made difficult. Is it still possible to flirt in public space? Is it still possible to meet someone in public space who has nothing to do because they're waiting for a bus or because they have been stood up? This might be difficult, since mobile phone help is at hand and you can back out into your virtual circle of acquaintances. To be waiting or free and open to surprise puts you into the actual (unknown) surrounding and proves a weakness: That one has only the one real space to refer to and one is committed to it.



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