Manuel Castells, Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective

Review by Rusty Carpenter

Manuel Castells, et al. Mobile Communication and Society: A Global Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

[1] In Mobile Communication, the writers focus on the mobile network society, which seems appropriate for an age where there are hundreds of millions of cell phone users throughout the world. Mobile communication is at the forefront of technologies, and mobile devices have become mass-consumer products. Surprisingly, developing countries prefer mobile communication devices as a way of reducing the technological divide. We appreciate mobile devices such as cell phones, Blackberries™, and laptops for the relentless connectivity they provide us. We can always call or text message friends, family, and colleagues. In Mobile Communication, Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey provide us with a timely perspective from which to theorize about these mobile devices. Without a doubt, a variety of readers will find this book useful for studies concerning global perspectives on mobile technologies and cultural perspectives on technology and communication. Readers interested in mobile technologies and society, geography and communication, mobile communication and culture, mobile communication on a global scale, youth culture and mobile communications, multimodal communication, and trends in mobile communication should build this book into their reading lists. Although the sequel label might not do it justice, Mobile Communication should be situated closely to Castells's Rise of the Network Society. Commenting on globalization and society, readers should also situate this book with central texts on globalization theory such as Chamsey el-Ojeili and Patrick Hayden's Critical Theories of Globalization, Thomas L. Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and Arjun Appadurai's Modernity at Large.

[2] Manuel Castells, author of the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, is a sociologist interested in information society and communication, with an emphasis on social movements. Mobile Communication is coauthored by Mireia Fernandez-Ardevol, Jack Linchuan Qiu, and Araba Sey.

[3] The authors use social research to answer the questions surrounding the transformation of human communication by the rise and diffusion of wireless digital communication technologies (3). The scope of their analysis is global, for wireless technologies are affecting communication around the world. Mobile communication is pervasive and reaches all domains of human activity: work, family, sociability, entertainment, etc. The writers claim that groups become reinforced in hybrid spaces of physical, online, and wireless interaction – technology allows for rapidly changing networks. These networks extend, overlap, and are modified. Mobile communication allows for instant communities of practice and blurs, rather than transcends, spatial contexts and time frames – the space of flows (see also Appadurai's Modernity at Large: global cultural flows).

[4] This book can be read cover-to-cover; chapters are also insightful if read individually or out of order. Readers will want to focus on several chapters where the writers are at their best: Chapter 5: "The Space of Flows, Timeless Time, and Mobile Networks," Chapter 6: "The Language of Wireless Communication," and Chapter 7: "The Mobile Civil Society: Social Movements, Political Power, and Communication Networks." However, if you're looking for statistical research, you might be disappointed. The aim of this research is analytic as opposed to encyclopedic, as the writers explain.

[5] The book opens with "Our Networks, Our Lives," which sets out the purpose – to use social research to answer the questions surrounding the transformation of human communication by the rise and diffusion of wireless digital communication technologies. The authors intend to construct an empirically grounded argument on the social logic embedded in wireless communication, and on the shaping of this logic by users and uses in various cultural and institutional contexts – an argument whose analytical value should stand on its own (4). The writers observe that, globally, there has been an explosion of wireless telephony, but that there are differential rates of penetration in different regions (11). In fact, text messaging has become a critical aspect of mobile communication (24). Castells et al. also discuss the diffusion of wireless communication in countries without strong economies, claiming that wi-fi "holds immense potential for bringing Internet access to poor communities" (27). The useful macro-level view offered by the writers explains that the differential rate and level of diffusion in different areas of the world, as well as in different regions of these countries, results from the interplay of a number of factors, among which level of development, industry structure and strategies, and government policies seem to be paramount, providing interesting statistics for future research.

[6] The writers explain that across the globe, adolescents and young adults are emerging to play an active role in adopting and appropriating mobile services such as Short Message Systems (SMS) (40). Interestingly, as soon as commercial and technological barriers to entry were lowered, young people became the drivers of mobile communication. However, adults use more voice communication, and younger groups use more SMS (41). Despite the widespread use of SMS, the pager still has a customer base among lower income consumers (60). As Castells et al. explain, some countries are introducing low-end mobile service. For example, Little Smart (in China) offers low-end, limited mobility service that allows subscribers to use a mobile phone but only pay the price of a landline. This is a response to the society's abandonment of pagers, due mostly to the "outdated" stigma surrounding them (60-1). Also, pre-paid phones are arguably the most important form of appropriation catering to the needs of those with lower income and education (61). Castells et al. conclude that ethnicity and/or culture do not act as barriers to acquisition of mobile communication devices but may limit the range of applications and services that users have access to, and are interested in using (67). However, some communities may be disadvantaged in that their use patterns compel them to devote large proportions of their resources to paying for communication technology (ibid). Readers interested in culture and communication will appreciate Mobile Communication for this reason. Here, the writers explain that trends in adoption of mobile technologies are cultural, pointing out that "cultural tendencies are to some extent responsible for the rapid diffusion of mobile telephony and data in some countries and the slow diffusion in others" (71). People in collectivist cultures accept certain use behaviors that would be frowned upon in more individualistic societies. In Thailand or Italy, there is a high use of mobile phones, mostly because there is little concern about privacy and personal space. Mobile communication users in the U.S. tend to be extremely concerned about privacy and personal space, which has inhibited the adoption of mobile telephony (67). In sum, the book shows that the social differentiation of technology closely reproduces the social differentiation of society, including the cultural diversity manifested within countries and between countries. Society, which is based largely on communication, produces its cleavages and diverse models of existence in the expansion of its communication mode into the realm of mobile communication (75). Readers are constantly reminded that mobile technology is influenced by and influences society.

[7] Summarizing studies on mobile technology and the transformation of everyday life, Chapter Three highlights key developments that are central to the rise of the mobile network society and makes analytical sense of the observed trends (78). The perpetual availability offered by the cell phone often serves the needs of companies by providing a means of surveillance. Thanks to mobile communication devices, supervisors are now not only able to monitor mobile workers constantly during working hours but can also exert control around the clock; for example, this surveillance can be achieved by supervisors ordering their employees to turn on their mobile phones twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (80). Wireless devices allow constant availability, which means "off time," such as time spent traveling, can become productive time, when mobile workers can respond more directly to local problems in a diffused network of information, coordination, and social support, as readers learn in Mobile Communication. However, "always ready" workers may yield a greater load of working time, but this doesn't necessarily mean increased productivity (81). In fact, the mobile phone is often blamed for the loss of leisure time, as the writers note (ibid). Most importantly, though, Castells et al. explain that mobile communication devices blur boundaries of social space and time: work and work processes are fundamentally transformed with the rise of mobile communication, and a most notable change is the blurring of the boundary between work and the private sphere. While permanent connectivity allows work to spill over into homes and friendship networks, it is also likely that personal communication will penetrate the formal boundaries of work (82). In fact, even commute time has become an opportunity for mobile communication.

[8] To give an idea of how important mobile communication devices have become, the writers tell us that a migrant worker bought a new cell phone with a color screen, using his savings for an entire year. Migrant workers attach much non-instrumental value to the cell phone; it is a milestone that indicates success (84).

[9] As explained in the book, youth find that mobile communication offers an adequate form of expression and reinforcement (127). The mobile youth culture has experienced a fast rate of diffusion in mobile technology because of their openness to adapt and ability to appropriate and use these technologies for their own purposes. Peer groups are constructed through network sociability. In young people, ownership of a wireless communication device affords autonomy (159). However, this youth culture is perpetually available in a mobile culture. Parents can stay in touch with their children even while they are away from the home. The mobile phone is a symbol of youth identity, a piece of clothing. In addition to consuming, the youth culture also produces and creates; for example, they can personalize their ring tones (160).

[10] Along with these considerations of mobile technology use, Mobile Communication also offers important theoretical concepts that will need further exploration, including the blurring boundaries of social space and time. They define the space of flows – networked places where communication happens and timeless time – formed from the compression of time and the desequencing of practices through multitasking. Researchers interested in culture and technology might build off of these concepts for future empirical studies.

[11] The writers discuss the process of transformation of language by text messaging and multimodality. Mobile communication prompts shorter, more concise text messages that are less formal. In fact, Castells et al. claim that SMS communication bears more resemblance to code than standard language (180). Many people now choose texting over talking, forming "mobile orality," new texting situations that mobile telephony generates in everyday life (183). The authors raise the question of whether text messaging is creating a new language, as the territories of orality and writing being are completely restructured; in this case, for example, writing has penetrated the territory of the mobile phone, the oral instrument. That is, texting is changing language through its widespread use in wireless communication (183-4).

[12] The writers explain that the advent of the Internet and wireless communication allow the development of many-to-many and one-to-one horizontal communication channels that bypass political or business control of communication (209). Castells et al. claim that mobile communication is valuable in politics, showing the added value of wireless communication in the process of political mobilization (211). A timely example, Barack Obama used mobile communication technologies in his political campaign: "They've been using [texting] to get out the vote, which is incredibly smart because it gives people a way to take immediate political action ... It's just what mobile technology is suited for." [1] Mobile communication devices allow for instant communities of practice and political mobilizations, and the writers establish a solid foundation with which to analyze these communication trends.

[13] Technological theorists will want to note the claim that mobile telephony may be the answer to closing the digital divide and promoting development (215). Developing economies are using prepaid systems, scaled-down products and services, alternative technologies, low-cost handsets, shared-access and maintenance models, and redistributed resources from wealthier to poorer users (220).

[14] The writers conclude by arguing that mobile devices have become mass consumer products and that they are absorbing most functions of fixed-line phones (245). Youth cultures and professional cultures have framed the form and content of wireless communication (246). Mobile devices form instant communities of practice – unplanned, largely spontaneous communities of practice in instant time (249). Most importantly, wireless communication does not transcend space and time. It blurs, rather than transcends, spatial contexts and time frames. And it induces a different kind of space – the space of flows – made of the networked places where the communication happens, and a kind of time – timeless time – formed from the compression of time and the desequencing of practices through multitasking (250). So, the system of mobile communication enables the blurring, mixing, and recomposing of a variety of social practices in a variety of time and space contexts. The blurring process is centered on the communicating individual (250). Mobile devices also strengthen our culture of individualism – individuality rather than mobility is the defining social trend of the mobile society because it allows users to communicate on the move or from immobility (251). Also, everyone has their own, sometimes customized, ring tone. In sum, the blurring of time, space, and activities into a new frame of chosen time, space, and multipurpose communication dematerializes social structure and reconstructs it around individually centered networks of interaction (ibid).

[15] Casual readers will most likely enjoy reading the research on mobile youth culture. In fact, the research on mobile youth culture helps explain many of the communication tendencies visible on a daily basis in younger generations. However, academics interested in mobile communication theory will appreciate the implications of this text's space/time analysis, which researchers could use as a basis for future studies in a variety of disciplines. It is important to approach Mobile Communication knowing that the writers do not claim to have answers to all of our mobile communication queries. Readers in cultural and technological studies will find plenty of starting points for future studies. So, readers should consider Mobile Communication a foundational reading. This text certainly establishes a strong foundation for mobile communication studies that researchers will find useful for years to come.


[1] Stirland, Sarah Lai. "The Tech of Obamamania: Online Phone Banks, Mass Texting and Blogs." Wired 14 Feb. 2008. 15 Feb. 2008 «».