Toronto Star

Oct. 9, 2005. 01:00 AM

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The iPod Nano.
It's all in your head
Community, that is. Cellphones and iPods are turning public space into private space, a phenomenon that's changing how we relate to each other.


Wade Oosterman is rattling off all the glorious gadgetry of the latest cellphones and their more muscular sibling, the wireless pocket PC. Digital camera, check. Video-cam, music player and television, check. Internet access, email, text messaging — all there as well, along with Excel spreadsheets and global satellite positioning.

Oh, and Solitaire, of course, just one of myriad games, not least Texas Hold'em, in which the other players (and their wireless devices) can be scattered around the planet. "That's pretty neat," says Oosterman, who, as director of marketing at Telus Corp., obviously has found a job to his liking.

Coming soon: wireless devices that can scan a bar code in a magazine ad and take you to the advertiser's website where you'll find more information and (naturally) the form to place your order.

Contemplating all this, Oosterman reckons money is starting to lose some of its catalytic role in modern life. "Now it's phones that make the world go round," he says. "It's really information."

About five minutes into Oosterman's spiel, his cellphone rings for the third time. "Sorry," he says. "This is going to happen the whole time. Is that all right? I may just turn it off."

That's the other thing about cellphones: To take advantage of all those wondrous functions, to use them as intended, you have to turn them on. And you know what happens after that: constant interruptions.

Is this good? So far, the bulk of academic fretting about the wireless world has been fixed squarely on the Big Brother issues of security, privacy and surveillance.

But what about the other fundamental implications for society, our sense of community and the way we use public space? And what are we to make of that other popular piece of new technology, the iPod, whose chief allure is that it is not a cellphone? Rarely have two leading-edge products come so freighted with opposing ideals. Are we to become a society divided?

"I kind of think of it in terms of continuous and discontinuous," says Michael Bull, senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex. "When you use an iPod, it's about continual immersion in sound, uninterrupted, which kind of makes the user feel very much empowered."

The iPod crew, or iPeople, if you will, essentially shape their own perceptions of the world around them, like movie producers applying different soundtracks to the same film script. Whether you're looking at people lining up for the subway or a beggar on the street, what your mind sees — and consequently your mood — is bound to be affected by whether you're listening to, say, Gershwin or Tom Waits.

Wireless devices, by contrast, bring none of that control. "Mobile phones are about the discontinuous; that is, interruption," says Bull. "Always connected means essentially often powerless."

For his upcoming book, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience, Bull interviewed more than 1,000 iPod users, mostly in North America and Europe, and discovered that a good 25 per cent of them actually hated cellphones.

That still leaves a majority of iPod users who don't loathe cell phones, but even they often approach wireless devices with a kind of wariness. "A lot of them would not use their phone when listening (to their iPods)," says Bull. "They would wait until they'd finished listening to their music."

It's easy to imagine the iPeople being the polite ones, especially when you consider the oft-repeated tale of the woman talking on her cellphone aboard a crowded New York bus. She's having a loud and extended discussion with her husband regarding whether they should have salmon or steak for dinner. Finally, an exasperated man across the aisle yells, "Salmon." At which point, everyone else on the bus (and in the spirit of Seinfeld) starts chanting, "Salmon, salmon, salmon." It's a tale apocryphal in its details, perhaps, but not in its spirit.

At the back of the bus, presumably, is an iPod guy, gazing out the window, oblivious to all but the self-made movie he's watching.

Yet cellphone users and iPeople have one fundamental thing in common: They are both appropriating public space for their own use.

"There is this whole business of space becoming less and less public space, and more and more taking private space outside with you," says Robert Pike, a professor emeritus at Queen's University writing a book about global communications between 1860 and 1930.

It may have a lot to do with the sheer amount and variety of communication technology that we've stuffed into our homes. Back when the Beaver was still in short pants, the typical home would have a single, hardwired telephone, one television set and likely just one hi-fi system for playing records.

Now just about every family member has his or her own collection of communication equipment — a cellphone, television, computer, game player and stereo system. "What you see is a slow division of the home into individualized nodules," says Bull. "Those kind of predispositions then get taken out onto the street.

"The technology doesn't happen in abstract," he adds. "They're part of a long history of the individualizing of experience."

The iPod people will sing along to their music or engage in `non- reciprocal looking'

By appropriating public space in this way, people are also discounting its value, especially the cellphone users — who actively disturb the peace with their own words, as if those physically around them either don't exist or are beneath noticing.

That goes hand-in-handheld device with another development: As we turn public space into a quilt of private spaces, we're losing our inhibitions.

The iPod people will sing along to their music or engage in what Bull calls "non-reciprocal looking." That's when the lady with the iPod is looking right at you, but you just assume she's not rudely staring since she's probably just engrossed in her music. The iPod, in fact, may now be to people-watching what sunglasses used to be.

And how many times have you been on the street, or queuing up at the checkout counter, and had to listen to people talk into their cellphones about the most intimate and astonishingly mundane details of their life?

"It's not that they don't recognize that it's ill-mannered," says Bull. "Essentially they don't really care."

Does this mean the end of public civility, even the end of community? That depends on how you define it. Several decades ago, one sociologist came up with nearly 70 definitions of community, notes Barry Wellman, sociology professor at the University of Toronto.

But if we take the traditional sense of community — a village or urban village where everyone knew each other and kept track of one another — well, that was already starting to vanish long before cellphones and iPods happened along.

In 1968, Wellman surveyed 845 people in East York, which then prided itself on community ties. He returned a decade later to interview 29 members of the original sample.

"We found that only a small fraction of people's strong relationships were with neighbours," says Wellman. "They only knew the names of four or five neighbours and they only visited maybe one or two."

So the whole notion of a strong, controlling neighbourhood community "has factually not been true" since at least the 1960s. What has replaced it — with the accelerating help of cellphones — is what Wellman calls "networked individualism."

"The big change has been this shift from groups to networks," he says. "They're less formally structured, they're more amorphous."

Those in anyone's network don't have to be physically close, just a cell call away, and it's easier to opt in or opt out of a network than it is a group.

"People can switch around and manoeuvre around. What that does is leave them with some uncertainty in their lives but it also leaves them with some autonomy. It's a switch from public sociability to private sociability."

Your cellphone network becomes, in a sense, an extension of yourself, what some sociologists have begun calling "a third skin."

"The notion is that you should be connected at all times," says Wellman.

There is a small irony in this: "In some ways, it goes back to pre- industrial villages (where) people were always visible. You knew they were at home, or saw them walking from one home to another."

But now it's communication with your personal network that provides the sense of comfort and security that local vision once did. Do you feel safer in your car knowing that, should anything go wrong, help is just a cell call away? Or that you can always phone your peripatetic teenager to see if she's okay?

You could look at this as a trade-off. In return for suffering (and sometimes inflicting) all that cellphone rudeness in the company of strangers, you get safety and apparent freedom from helpless worrying.

But there may be a third way — and salvation from unwanted noise — in a related technology: text-messaging. At least, that is, if we learn anything from Japan, where you're allowed (and technically able) to use cellphones on the subway, but scarcely anyone talks into them.

"You have a lot of people sitting there quietly," says Wellman. "But instead of reading a book or newspaper, their fingers are flying over their cellphones, sending and receiving text messages.

"What you have is a lot of quiet people, very socially connected, but not to each other."

Yes, quiet, and politely respectful of those around you. Heck, you could even do it while listening to your iPod.

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