Towards a Philosophy of the Mobile Information Society

Kristóf Nyíri


Between 1996 and 1998, Manuel Castells published his famous trilogy The Information Age, taking some 1400 pages to reach the conclusion that information and communication technologies were deepening, rather than closing, the gap between the rich and the poor. As he would characteristically put it in his unfathomable left-wing idiom: ICTs were instrumental in supplanting the "space of places" by a "space of flows". In 1999, I put a vicious review of the work onto the web ( castells_rev.htm). In the following years I have come to regret the viciousness, but certainly not the critical stance, of the review. And it is with great satisfaction I note that, under the impact of the rise of the mobile phone, Castells himself has by today quite dramatically shifted his position. The book Castells et al., Mobile Communication and Society, published in November 2006, fully recognizes the liberating effects of today's dominant ICT, namely mobile telephony. The phrase "The Mobile Information Society", in usage since 1999 or so, is somewhat misleading. Mobile communications point to a future which offers a wealth of knowledge, not just of information; and promises to reestablish, within the life of modern society, some of the features formerly enjoyed by genuine local communities. "Community" on the one hand, and "society" on the other, clearly differ in their connotations. It was Tönnies who, towards the end of the nineteenth century, crystallized this difference into a conceptual contrast; the striking observation in the recent literature on mobile telephony is that through constant communicative connectedness a kind of turning back to the living, personal interactions of earlier communities is brought about. In 1915, John Dewey had already formulated the thesis that social life is not just maintained by communication, but indeed constituted by it. Dewey's thesis is fully corroborated by contemporary research in evolutionary psychology. The notion that "information" is somehow inferior to "knowledge", echoed by T. S. Eliot’s famous lines from the early 1930s – "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" – is not of recent origin. Although the Latin word informare, meaning the action of forming matter, such as stone, wood, leather, etc., also took on the senses "to instruct", "to educate", "to form an idea", "informare" in Italian, "informer" in French, and "to inform" in English from the beginning had the connotation of conveying knowledge that is merely particular. To have information amounted to knowing details, possibly unconnected ones. Now knowledge can be usefully regarded as information in context, and it is a standard observation that information sought through mobile phones is, characteristically, location-specific and situation-specific. It seems, then, that mobile communication tends to engender not just information, but information in context: that is, knowledge per se. Worldwide, there were more than 2 billion mobile phone users by the end of 2006. This figure, impressive enough by itself, reflects some fundamental conditions and changes which I will in my talk characterize under the following headings: mobiles becoming the dominant medium; childhood in a new key; and the transformation of the social sciences. Combining the option of voice calls with text messaging, MMS, as well as e-mail, and on its way to becoming the natural interface through which to conduct shopping, banking, booking flights, and checking in, the mobile phone is obviously turning into the single unique instrument of mediated communication, mediating not just between people, but also between people and institutions, and indeed between people and the world of inanimate objects. Furthermore, the mobile is today emerging as the dominant medium in the sense of that strange singular in the plural, "media" – both as mass media and new media. The age group perhaps most deeply affected by the rise of the mobile is that of children. Ubiquitous communication fulfils a deeply human urge, and children especially suffer if deprived of the possibility of keeping in touch. Also, Dewey's observation that we need schools – artificial educational environments – because the young can no longer move around in the world of adults and thus learn spontaneously, by now appears to have once more become irrelevant. The medium in which the young play, communicate, and learn, is increasingly identical with the world in which adults communicate, work, do business, and seek entertainment. The mobile is clearly creating an organic learning environment. The mobile phone is not just the most successful machine ever invented, spreading with unheard-of speed; it is also a machine which corresponds to deep, primordial human communicational urges. The phenomenon of the mobile phone constitutes an obvious challenge to philosophy, and indeed to the humanities. Having become the dominant medium, the mobile phone today is no longer merely a particular, or indeed exotic, topic of the social sciences, as it certainly still was in 2001, when mobile studies, including the Hungarian project COMMUNICATIONS IN THE 21ST CENTURY (http://www.socialscience.t-mobile).


20th century philosophy; media philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; knowledge society; mobile study; network individual; Tönnies Ferdinand; Castells Manuel

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