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Review: Magic in the Air. Mobile communication and the transformation of social life

James E. Katz

New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006.

Information and communication technologies are becoming more prominent everywhere, especially in their mobile form. The increasing variety of mobile communication devices is affecting people’s lives dramatically, directly and on a vast scale. As for the mobile phone itself, no technology has ever been adopted so quickly by so many people in so many different parts of the world.

With about two billion mobile users worldwide and mobile services proliferating, James E. Katz tries to analyze the mobile communication revolution and the social transformations both stimulated by and reflected within it. In fact, this is the second book he has written about the telephone, although the previous one (Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life) analysed both the fixed-line and the mobile phone. The main purpose of this publication is to reflect upon how people make sense of this technology and how this technology changes human beings both as individuals and as social participants. The volume is divided into two major sections. The first section deals specifically with mobile phones and their use, their abuse and the social consequences of both. The second section deals with the social role of telecommunication and information. Throughout the volume, Katz uses many different modes of argument and evidence in addressing the different issues. For some of his claims he provides empirical substantiation, other insights are based on selected examples uncovered by observers and reporters, while still other ideas are founded on his own professional judgments and even speculations about the future.

The author’s reflection starts with an explanation of which mobile communication technology has been adopted and heavily used in many places around the world in order to pursue and promote spiritual matters. This fact inspired the Apparatgeist theory (Katz & Aakhus, 2002), which is extensively explained in the book. This theory predicts that personal ICTs would be increasingly embraced as spiritual emissaries and are even imputed to have spiritual powers themselves. In this respect, Katz considers the astrological services that are available via SMS, the way churches use ICTs for spiritually connecting with their members, and the magical powers ascribed to some mobile phone numbers. Later, he addresses the way that ‘being there’ in space and time seems to have been modified due to the use of mobile communication technologies. On the one hand, some people often feel irritated by others’ mobile communication in public spaces. On the other hand, many of us try to maintain perpetual contact with significant others through these communication devices. At the same time Katz analyses the way people behave while using mobiles, stating that public performance dimensions have been underscored by other researchers. Mobile communication usage resembles for him a form of folk dance as it is performed in public, with the performers acting in a rhythmic and ritualistic way (61[1]). Katz emphasizes that users are co-creators and tend to manipulate their devices in order to reflect personal tastes and to present themselves to the outside world. Moreover, for the author, knowing how to use the mobile phone with ease can give users prestige, as it strongly influences others’ perceptions. Following this line of thought, he gives many examples of the way mobile communication technologies have become fashionable designer objects. Katz emphasizes the importance of fashion and identity in the co-creation and consumption of mobile communication technology. Basically, mobile phone buyers are clustered into two different categories: those who purchase a mobile as a communication tool and those who buy one partly because of the status that a design, logo or brand imparts. According to Katz, this second category is in fact more numerous than the first. The mobile phone should not only be seen as a ‘necessary accessory’ for the body; it also is a communication device which reflects and embodies the user, and is used to communicate effectively with both the person to whom the call is directed and with the audience which is physically present around the user.

As far as the role of mobile communication in schools is concerned, Katz gives ample evidence of the growth in mobile phone ownership among teen-agers in some parts of Asia, Scandinavia and the USA. Mobile phones can be very useful in schools, as they connect students with teachers and other students, and help them deal with class attendance issues, rearrange meetings, provide information about the schedules and assignment data, discuss assignments, coordinate study groups, and seek help with academic and life problems. However, Katz also gives evidence of negative behavior associated with the use of the mobile in the classroom, such as disrupting class, stealing mobile phones, bullying, cheating, and even the teachers’ own use of the mobile phone in class.

At the end of the first section Katz emphasizes the uses and social consequences of telecommunication technologies in modern society, and illustrates this with a very particular case. He analyses the way people used the telephone and related technologies to address the situation and to fulfill their communication needs during the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. In this chapter, based on personal testimonies, ample evidence is given about the way telephone technology can be used as a medium of faith, hope, terror and redemption.

In the second section of the book, Katz explains the impact which the telephone has had during the last century, and the way it has affected the structure and quality of human life. Its effects can be seen in every area of human existence, from business to sex, and even in the way in which war and peace are conducted, i.e. it exercises an influence at every level, from an international to a personal level, for instance on the family unit itself. Katz discusses the influence that the telephone has had on the geographical distribution of people, on the economic development, and on political and social interactions. As far as mobile telephones are concerned, in an age of increasing perpetual contact, the mobile can seem to take on the role of a dictator because the opportunities for supervision are enormous. Yet, despite the frustration, which too much supervision can provoke, Katz argues that on the whole the telephone has become a servant to those pursuing profit and pleasure, rather than a dictator. ‘On balance, the telephone has clearly done far more to liberate humanity than to enslave it.’ (130)

In the next chapter the author highlights some major theoretical perspectives on the information Society. He begins by reflecting about the meaning of the term information: its relation to change, culture, control and knowledge. He also addresses the digital division as a very important issue concerning social equity. As far as the theoretical perspectives on the social role of information are concerned, materialists (such as Touraine (1971), Bell (1973) or Schiller (1984)) tend to see information as a means of production in the post-industrial society, whereas idealists see information as something that comes into existence independently of social circumstances. From a world-systems perspective, ells (2000) maintains that information is both the raw material and the outcome of processes of technological change. Katz describes the contrast in views adopted by researchers whose orientation towards the information society is economic and those whose approach is based on cultural studies. He points out that the former consider the information society to have objective qualities and measurable entities, whereas the latter believe that the information society is both dynamic and multi-layered and, therefore, does not lend itself to definitive measurements, which might even be misleading and irrelevant.

As far as the consequences of the use of digital communication for social interaction are concerned, even though Turkle (1995) predicted that the sense of community and societal integration would be lost, Katz and Rice (2002) emphasize that digital communication provides a valuable opportunity for people to express themselves and to create new relationships. In the near future the combination of mobile communication with the internet will provide new opportunities as well as new problems. Staying away from the Marxist-inspired view of a centralized information superstructure, Katz remarks that personal communication technology has contributed to decentralize that superstructure, as many co-producers are now spreading their own views.

In the last chapter, based on an examination of the past developments, Katz carries out a speculative exercise and attempts to ascertain how life will be lived in the year 2076, two hundred years after the telephone’s invention. As a major trend, he foresees enormous progress in integrating electronic and genetically engineered systems with the human body. As a result, sending a message in 2076 would involve the same processes of planning and acting, as it does now, but the difference would be that these processes would take place at the mental level. So, checking our email (better described as our ‘mind mail’) would just mean activating our mind to look at it, review it and respond to it. He also explores the possibility of being able to inspect the biochemically stored memories of dead people or of implanting someone’s memories in the mind of someone else. Obviously, such questions would require new social conventions and the creation of ethical limits in order to avoid abuses. As a whole, Katz adopts an optimistic attitude towards progress in communication technologies as, he believes that ‘rather than extinguishing liberty and privacy communication technology seems to be extending them’. (171)

Magic in the Air contains a clear message. Katz principally wishes to encourage the undertaking of empirical research on mobile communication technologies. This is a question which comes up frequently throughout Katz’s book and he suggests that scholars should concentrate on this type of research. Within this work the author provides substantial empirical support and frequently quotes data referring to the behaviour of mobile telephone users. However, whilst this information is obviously of great interest and useful, I would have liked to have seen a stronger focus on the way users make sense of this technology and the way they interpret the role that this technology plays in their everyday lives. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from a cultural studies approach.

Reading of Magic in the Air by James E. Katz causes one to reflect upon the revolutionary changes that are taking place in society as a consequence of the mass-usage of mobile communication systems, and makes one aware of the far reaching effects that these technologies may have upon our lives and society in general in the near future.

Note

[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).

References

Bell, D. (1973) The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social foreing. New York: Semiotext(e).

ells, M. (2000) The internet Galaxy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Katz, J. E. (1999) Connections: Social and Cultural Studies of the Telephone in American Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Katz, J. E., Aakus, M. (Eds.) (2002) Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, James E., Rice, R. E. (2002) Social consequences of internet use: Access, involvement and interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schiller, H. I. (1984) Information and the crisis economy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Touraine, A. (1971) The post-industrial society: Tomorrow’s social history. Classes, conflicts and culture in the programmed society. New York: Random House.

Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bio

Maialen Garmendia is a Senior Lecturer in Social Research Techniques in the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social and Communication Sciences at the University of the Basque Country. Her research interests include media audiences, gender issues and digital communication.

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