Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Towards mobile space as feminine space

Molly Steenson's research at Yale School of Architecture is shaping up very nicely. Her first thesis-related paper is a bit of a jumble of ideas, but The Excitable Crowd: Characterizing Social, Mobile Space (pdf) starts with this interesting question: "Where mobile technology is concerned, might mobility be more feminine than masculine?"

I've long argued that mobility and flow are feminine in their voluptuousness and leakages, and I think it's great that Molly is challenging the idea that technologies are always already masculine. The first part of the essay takes a closer look at how women use mobile phones to feel secure in urban spaces. Molly discusses a UK ad campaign that warns women against showing off their phones in public because it draws thieves, and she wonders what effect that might have on women who show off their phones precisely as a means of creating personal space and security. It's a good question, but I think the matter of risk has to be better sorted before this argument can go any further. For example, how are mobile technologies active in creating and maintaining these urban risks? How do we make arguments for feminised/feminist spaces and technologies that avoid at-risk or potential-victim characterisations of women?

Molly goes on to discuss how Japanese women and girls use their mobile phones to create personal space in public, but it's not clear to me how phones are cute and subversive when they use them but creepy and oppressive when older men use them. I wonder how they are complicit in the creation and maintenance of certain urban risks - it seems a bit off that women and girls have the power to protect themselves from a threat that only they are able to create. I'm not sure that De Certeau would consider that a good tactic! But I haven't read Kenichi Fujimoto's article so maybe I'm missing the whole point.

The next example of how mobile spaces and technologies are feminine involves Molly's discussion of what has been called 'micro-organisation' and 'hyper-organisation'. She points out that women tend to use their mobile phones for social networking - staying in touch with friends and family, arranging meetings, etc. - more than men do. Molly argues that mobile technologies and services have been instrumental in creating and maintaining social capital in urban spaces, and that much of this social capital is being accumulated by, and shared between, women. Very interesting, but again I think the question of social capital deserves greater exploration, especially since the first truly ubiquitous locative or mobile media will most likely be some form of advertising, and this may only better position women as consumers. The desire to create instruments or devices that coordinate and organise our lives has also always been a part of feminist critiques of science and technology, and Molly's example raises questions about what kind of feminism only masters or reappropriates masculine designs.

The final part of Molly's argument addresses how women are using mobile phones in non-industrialised countries. She takes the idea of social capital and argues that it can help put financial capital into the hands of poor women through 'micro-entrepreneurship' practices. (Molly, have you checked out Bourdieu on the kinds and conversions of capital?) I have to admit that I'm highly sceptical of technology in development - especially because it almost always starts with a disclaimer that technology can not fix the world. But Molly raises some good points, and I think we're still really struggling to understand emerging international economies and organisations so open engagement is crucial.

Needless to say, I got all giddy when the paper turned to spatial and cultural theory, although this is probably the section I'm hardest on. Molly defines her understanding of architecture and mobility along the lines of Lefebvre, De Certeau and Latour: space as practice, production and representation. I'm not sure I follow her interpretation of Lefebvre's space of production - she seems to mobilise a network metaphor where I think a protocol metaphor would be much more appropriate. But I was super happy to be reminded of the idea that maps (Lefebvre's representations of space) "will eventually be broken up by the inconsistencies of the governing rules of spatial practice". Nonetheless, I also think her interpretation of representational space requires a little more critical reflection. If it is indeed a sort of field-of-play, it's worthwhile to look at Bourdieu's fields and note how they differ from networks or flows, and to assess the political (as well as gendered) implications.

Moving on to De Certeau, Molly calls on his concepts of strategies and tactics to understand spatial practice, and makes explicit the political dimensions that were a bit overlooked in her use of Lefebvre. This section could have provided a way to flesh out some of her assumptions about space, gender and power but she does argue that "in mobility, the tactic claims space by doing what the strategy does not expect" and we've ultimately got mobility as anti-structure or hybrid space (which has consequences for any argument involving masculine OR feminine concepts). So enter Latour, and Molly extends hybrid space to include networks and assemblies. However, she calls upon his dingpolitik, without actually discussing the political implications and their connections to Lefebvre and De Certeau. The paper then ends rather abruptly as Molly raises the tendency towards universal explanations of space in the works of Lefebvre and Deleuze, and wonders if notions of mobile space either challenge or uphold them. The reader is left with the Big Question: "what is mobile space?" and I guess we'll find out what she thinks when her thesis is done.

There are some really great kernels of ideas here, but I expected the paper to ask more questions in order to give the reader a sense of what the broader thesis project was actually going to address. As it stands, I'm neither sure of where she stands, nor where she wants to go. (Maybe it would have helped if all the theoretical discussion came first and each of the examples applied these ways of thinking and actually offered critiques?) But she's definitely doing something right and I definitely want to stay along for the ride!

Now, all I want to know is why she chose that title ... Mobile vulgus indeed ;)

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