Theories of the Mobile Internet: Book Review

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There is indeed no scarcity when it comes to books and articles dealing with the so-called mobile revolution. While most present the now usual techno-utopian perspective, only a few offer an adequate analytical framework to try to explain the rapid evolution and diffusion of mobile technologies around the world. The recent book by Herman et al. is an excellent example of the latter.

The book, a collection of 13 articles from different authors, explores in detail the dynamics of the mobile Internet which is becoming the dominant form of access to the network of networks. It tackles the issue by posing two relevant and related questions: how does the mobile Internet creates “zones of connectivity that are fluid, transportable, and meaningful?” (pg. 2). And second, what are the immobility structures on which the mobile Internet functions?

To respond to these two questions,  the concept of assemblage is defined and used throughout.  An assemblage here is described as a “socio-technical articulation”  which “refers to how an elemental ensemble of objects, social practices, symbolic representation, experiences, and effects are drawn together in a specific and contingent unity” (pg. 2).  In the case of the mobile Internet, an assemblage articulates both materialities and imaginaries.

The former comprises two related themes: one relates to production and the other to media and communication. Does the mobile Internet generate a new form of capitalism and labor?  What are the new dimensions of power in the global economy? Regarding the second theme relates to the meaning of messaging and communications of the mobile Internet, including the design of interfaces and applications.

Social imaginaries are understood not only as a set of ideas but also as a set of social practices which define social action within a specific framework. A good example here is the utopian view of the impact of new technologies on society.  Looking at the past and at history can also help us understand these new social imaginaries.

Building on this, the book has three separate sections: One deals with the politics of the mobile Internet. The second looks at mobile pasts and futures, and the third looks at living mobile lives.

In part one, articles by Alison Powell and Edna Brophy and Greig de Peuter can be highlighted.

Powell compares the development of the Internet to that of the mobile Internet. As it is well known, the former was primarily accomplished using a model of openness starting with the technical protocol (TCPIP) that allows the Internet to work seamlessly.  Such transparency, in turn, gave birth to the democratic and cyberlibertarian imaginaries of the Internet, as well as to the idea of Internet Governance and its multi-stakeholder approach. Free/Open Source Software can also be seen as part of such developments and imaginaries.

The mobile Internet has followed almost the opposite path of development, especially when we consider devices and access to the radio spectrum. The latter requires that mobile providers bid large sums of capital to access spectrum. And the development of devices is highly competitive and thus far from open. There is not ONE mobile Internet network. On the contrary, the mobile Internet is comprised of a plethora of networks some of which do not even talk to each other.

This has a definite impact on the users and consumers of the mobile Internet. First, device choice is limited in many countries, and device portability is restricted across mobile networks. And second, the emergence of mobile apps, mostly undertaken by independent software developers, is controlled by the large IT companies that place limits on how the apps should be developed. This model of software development is probably not as open as that of  Free/Open Source Software. “The move to the mobile Internet returns many forms of corporate control to the communications ecosystem and adds new forms such as the management of the app economy through the solicitation of contribution without the facilitation of peer governance” (pg. 35).

This does not mean that alternatives do not exist. Powell cites the example of Openmoko, a startup that tried to open the process of production of a mobile device with limited success. The initiative faced several issues and folded a couple of years ago due to financial problems. But the point remains: we need to find ways to bring back peer governance mechanisms into the development of the mobile Internet.

Brophy and de Peuter address the so-called mobile circuit of exploitation which essentially traces the production cycle of mobile devices which in turn has a global character. They identify six moments in the cycle: extraction, assembly, design, mobile work, support, and disassembly. Extraction is linked to the mining of two essential minerals: Coltan and Tantalum. Such mining is mostly undertaken in developing countries (DRC is one of the most known countries here) under harrowing labor conditions which include not only intense exploitation but also sexual violence and ecological degradation.

Assembly refers to the factories where mobile devices are actually produced. While Foxconn is the best example here.  Factories with the same harsh labor conditions or worse can be found in India, Mexico, and Vietnam. Migration to these places of production is an essential factor to keep in mind. In this regard, some countries in the EU now host IT factories where Bulgarians and Romanians among other work.

Design addresses the development of mobile apps which is mostly undertaken by independent software developers and entrepreneurs. Nowadays developers can outsource part of the app development to third parties for small amounts of money. The issue here is that most app developers have a hard time making a living from their own work. But competition among producers drives this market in my opinion.

Mobile work addresses the issue of just-in-time employment. Nowadays, thanks to the mobile Internet, labor is always available regardless of location or day of the week. Add to this the fact the mobile devices are in fact means of work where employees can deliver information, services, etc. using a mobile device.  Crowdsourcing is also a good example here, and one that highlights the cyberlibertarian character of mobile work.  Micro-work is also another new modality of labor as is the concept of “free labor” where users are also workers and feed their own content to freely available mobile platforms.

Support takes the form of call centers which are vital for the operations of the telecommunications sector (as is for the financial sector).  In general, women with low wages and rudimentary work conditions perform these chores, depending on whether they work in-house or in corporate headquarters (conditions are worse here, usually). Outsourcing of work has dealt yet another blow to unions although conflicts still emerge and have been fierce in their struggle for better job conditions.

Disassembly addresses the issue of rapid obsolescence of mobile devices and their disposal as e-waste which has also become a very profitable business. China, India, and Ghana are countries where one can find e-waste cities. The business case emerges from the fact that discarded mobile devices (and computers too by the way!) contain valuable metals that can be recovered for sale. “The circularity of global e-waste flows is arresting. Thanks to explosive demand, metals recycled from discarded electronics find their way back into the Chinese manufacturing process, from which they begin their return overseas…” (pg. 74.).  Not surprisingly calls by civil society actors for fair and green mobile devices have already emerged.

All in all, we can see the extreme heterogeneity of the types of labor and production processes are required to build, sell and use a mobile device. There is no one single production point or factory doing this. From the perspective of labor, it is thus much more complicated to think about labor organization and mobilization in the age of the mobile Internet. “…the greater challenge confronting the cybertariat is that of constructing oppositional social imaginaries, imaginaries that would help convert the utopian impulse animating ‘whatever’ connectivity… into political solidarity” (pg. 77).

Part II has an article by Ghislain Thibault on Wireless Pasts and Wired Futures. Looking back in history Thibault tells the story about electrical wires that were used in the late XIX century to provide electricity to cities, etc. Most people perceived wires as dangerous and thus oppose their deployment. This gave rise to the profession of electrical engineers. In any event, this created the imaginary of wireless which was generously used to describe the absence of wires and not wireless transmission. At the same time, real wireless transmission of messages became a fact at the end of that century. “Wireless became a space for speculation and potentialities – a space of ‘virtuality’. And it was this space that imaginaries about wireless power transmission took form” (pg. 92).

The article then tells the story of Nikola Tesla one of the first proponents of wireless power transmission which even today is not yet feasible. Thibault argues that Tesla’s model of wireless power had three principles: increased centralization of networks; improved control over machines power by electricity; and the need for standardization. Tesla faced stiff competition from Marconi who successfully spearheaded the wireless telegraph but was never able to reach his goals. In any case, wireless power is thus a great example of an imaginary that can help understand the concept of mobility in the 21st Century, especially if we factor in the ideas of increased centralization and control which were part of Tesla’s original vision.

Herman, Andrew, Jan Hadlaw & Thom Swiss. 2015. Theories of the Mobile Internet: Materialities and Imaginaries. New York: Routledge.