3: Mobility Empowers

The author briefly discusses the notion of solitary confinement, as an illustration of the power of mobile technology. For most people, the thought of being alone is uncomfortable.

In the penal system, solitary confinement is the worst form of punishment that can be inflicted on a prison inmate. It is powerful to remove a person from a society and confine them to a space where they are utterly deprived of interaction and communication with any other person: it makes them feel completely powerless to be unable to communicate with or receive communications from others. Studies show that is is an extremely effective technique in making an inmate more pliable, and some suggest that it is even psychologically harmful.

The opposite of solitary confinement is the complete immersion in a social environment, a situation in which a person is never completely cut off from others, but always has the ability to communicate and receive communications from any other person - which is the power that mobile affords.

More than that, mobile puts the user in control of his interactions with others: he is not a passive recipient of information, but chooses the nature of his engagement - what he chooses to receive from others, what he chooses to send to them.

The author does a simply four-square diagram that contrasts the ability to communicate with control over. (EN: This is something of a wreck, and it seems to be tangled between the ability to send or receive and the ability to control what is sent and received. It's an important distinction that muddies rather than clarifies the issue. Such is the foible of four-square analysis.)

In terms of this analysis, the author provides examples of each quadrant: solitary confinement for the inability to send and receive; written communication for the ability to send but not (immediately) receive; a public address system to receive but not send, and a telephone to both send and receive.

However, technology limits each method of communication. For example, the telephone provides a great deal of power in communicating via voice but deprives us of the ability to communicate nonverbally: we cannot send or receive gestures or facial expressions via a voice-only communication medium.

There is also the limitation of location: a wired telephone meant we had to be in a certain physical location to place or receive a call. A cordless phone extends that range to a few dozen yards. A mobile phone gives us the ability to communicate virtually anywhere (EN: Though there are still locations where mobile devices can't get a signal - such as a rural area or a building's basement.)


The fundamental theory of network communications involves three concepts:

The key difference between a wireless network and a wired network is that a wired network depends on fixed locations: the nodes are not movable and the links are hard-wired.

The subscriber is concerned only with his own node - his ability to send and receive data from a given location - whereas the network is concerned with the nodes through messages pass on their way from origin to destination.

As such, the subscriber considers himself, or his device, to be the primary node, and all other nodes in the network are valued only in their role in transmitting messages to and from his own device.


In relation to the network, the owner of a mobile device is faced with a choice: to participate or withdraw from the network. This is largely a choice between giving one's attention to one environment (the real world that surrounds us) and another (the digital "world" accessed via the device.)

There is also the theory of the "servicescape" - designed spaces within a physical environment. A shopper in a retail store exists within a servicescape that is designed to be engaging - the customer is interested in his surroundings and enjoys being there. In other instances, the servicescape is not very well designed (consider a "waiting area" in an airport) and the customer turns to the digital device as a means of escaping the unpleasantness of his immediate environment.

There are also user-defined servicescapes, such as a meeting (whether business or informal). The same principle applies, though it's also noted that the mobile device is also a tool for arranging an encounter - choosing a place and informing people when to be there - as well as for attending the encounter (if you are lost or running late, you can message someone who is there to get directions or let them know you're on your way).

It's in this sense that mobile has empowered the user to embrace or escape environments. Prior to mobile, it was difficult to arrange social encounters: nowadays. A person can use their mobile device to determine that a number of his friends are within a short distance, find a location, and send invitations to "conjure up a party out of thin air."

One of the problems is that this requires social connections to exist among people, which is being addressed by some businesses by acting as social connectors, enabling people who may have similar interests but do not know one another to be comfortably introduced to one another (over the device rather than face-to-face) and then to gather at a given location.

The author marvels at the number of "intimate" strangers that may exist: in an urban environment, you may well be surrounded by people who share your interests - you may be sitting beside a stranger on a bus with whom you have much in common, and never know it. The mobile platform can help to overcome the isolation people feel in crowded environments.

On the "flip side" of this is the use of the device by the first person who shows up, and is in the awkward position of being alone in a space where others will later arrive, to comfortably withdraw from the situation and engage themselves in the digital environment. Or when others arrive and he feels himself uncomfortable in a social situation, to withdraw from their company to the digital environment until he can find a convenient way to make an escape.

There is some argument over which of these factors is of greater social relevance - the use of devices to engage with others or escape from them. However, the nature of mobile is not purely one way or another: it does both, at different times.


(EN: The author seemed to switch channels in the previous section, discussing the different types of nodes. I've extracted that material and made a separate section of it.)

Information Nodes

The most common type of "node" on the network provides the user with information. The traditional model of the Internet is analogous to a research library - a fixed location to which people go to access a significant quantity of detailed information on a number of topics. The mobile model is more like a travel guide - kept in a pocket, to be pulled out to retrieve a small amount of information that is immediately needed in a specific location and situation.

The author briefly mentions QR codes - used on signage to provide the user access to additional information he might find handy in his immediate situation. The example is given of QR codes in resorts in Nagano, Japan, which minimize the amount of space needed to display information by leveraging the mobile device: snapping a QR code in a specific location enables the user to map his location, get directions, or learn more about something he may be viewing, such as a temple or a piece of art.

(EN: I have been generally dismissive of QR codes in advertising, as they are often quite badly used and driven by the advertiser's interest in providing information to a person who doesn't really want it - hence people did not use them. However, the use of QR codes in the way the author describes strikes me as quite useful and ingenious.)

The interest in push, rather than pull, has made consumers intolerant and even fearful of mobile advertising. A number of opt-in models have been attempted, but thus far have met with little success. It is not for shortcomings of technology, but lack of usefulness to the consumer, that such systems have failed to gain greater acceptance.

Non-acceptance of barcodes and QR codes has lead developers to seek other methods for pushing information to the mobile device, namely, recognizing objects or locations by other means to enable the user to search for information. The idea of being able to identify a person via facial recognition, or identify a piece of merchandise from a photograph, merely substitute for barcodes and text searches in finding information.

Advertisers have long been interested in using mobile to send location-specific advertising to users - a retail store or restaurant depends on the proximity of customers. In the best of cases, the mobile device can be used by an individual to learn of services available near his location; in the worst of cases, the mobile device can push these announcements to him against his will.

The author speaks briefly of a mobile service that has gained some level of popularity, to the delight of customers and the dismay of business: this software enables the user to scan a barcode of an item they see in a physical location (such as a book in a bookstore) to find the item from an online retailer, generally at a cheaper price - or even at a nearby retail store. The customer may decide whether the higher cost of the item in store is worth the benefit of immediate possession.

When this ability is extended to the real world - enabling a person to take a picture of an item "in the wild" (such as a purse another person is carrying or a bicycle pared on the sidewalk outside a school, or even a picture of a television set on a poster) and discover how to obtain one for themselves - it will stand merchandising and the entire retail industry on its head.

Content Nodes

Content nodes enable the user to obtain access to games, music files, movies, digital applications, and similar content that is played on the mobile device. The distinction to the user is that "information" is short-lived and perishable, needed in the moment and for the moment, but it is generally not something the user wishes to preserve; whereas content is an article with which the user will interact for an extended period of time, perhaps repeatedly, and constitutes a withdrawal from rather than an assistant to actions in the physical surroundings.

Technically, a distinction can be made between content that is downloaded to the device itself and played locally versus content that resides on a remote server (such as a streaming Internet "radio" station that plays music that is not stored on the device), but insofar as the user's purpose and consumption are concerned, this is incidental.

"Thing" Nodes

This category consists of devices in the user's physical environment that can be accessed or interacted with using the mobile device. There is considerable potential for expansion in this area.

One example is the use of mobile devices in conjunction with soft drink vending machines in Japan. The user can set up their mobile device to communicate with a vending machine to purchase drinks, download specialized content, and accumulate "points" toward rewards (also dispensed from the vending machines).

Cell phones have likewise been used as methods to check in for flights, access secure areas, unlock the door of their apartment, and perform other basic tasks requiring an individual to be identified (EN: in essence, the device can do anything an RFID chap can do, but with greater flexibility.) In essence, the mobile device can completely replace the wallet: it can be used as a method of payment or identify the bearer as a member of known patron, and can take on some of the tasks of the cash register or order-taking system.

There is also the use of the mobile device as a remote control. Using the infrared transmitter, a mobile device can control entertainment devices such as television sets and video controllers. Connecting these devices to a network extends the range of remote control - you don't need to be in the room to program your video recorder, but can send it commands from a street cafe across town, or across the globe.

The author speaks briefly about home automation systems, in a rather fractured and oblique way: watering the houseplants and feeding the cat by connecting to "wired" dispensers in the home, videoconferencing to a panel on your front door to respond to a visitor when you are far away from home. There is much potential to leverage the mobile device for monitoring and control across great distances.

(EN: My sense is this is contrary to the goals of home automation - which is the complete automation of mundane tasks. Using a mobile system with cameras and controls to check in via a mobile device to monitor your plants and water makes a mundane chore portable - but does not eliminate the necessity of the mundane chore. A better system would use a hygrometer to determine soil moisture and water the plants when needed without having to bother the homeowner at all.)

The "You" Node

Mobile appeals to control-oriented individuals because of the potential to extend their command over great distances - but fail to consider that they are also nodes on the network, and are subject to the commands of others. With a mobile device in your pocket, you are a node that others will seek to access and control. And this can be dehumanizing and disempowering.

Consider the use of the telephone, mobile or otherwise: people delight in the ability to place outbound calls at their convenience, but find that inbound calls are an unwanted intrusion on their private lives. While we generally do not mind the occasional call from friends and family, a call from the office or from a telemarketer is generally unpleasant and unwanted.

Even when you yield to the schedules of others - expecting a call from someone - it is an unpleasant experience: people exhibit signs of anxiety and distraction, unable to focus on their current situation and those in their immediate environment because they are expecting the phone to ring, and show signs of panic when it does not. This is not "empowerment."

Security measures likewise reduce the power of the user: if you've forgotten a password, or accidentally locked yourself out of a device, the process to regain access is often extremely difficult.

As such, the mobile phone aggravates as often as it empowers, and it tops the list of the MIT's annual surveys of devices that users feel they "hate the most but cannot live without."

Aside of the minor aggravations, the mobile device poses threats to the user. The author notes that there are "heinous uses" of the technology, such as "cyber" bullying and stalking, and the device can be used to track people down to do them greater harm in the physical world.

In this regard, there is no effective solution. Privacy filtering and selective ring tones grant a modicum of control over the access that the mobile phone user gives others, but they are not enough. Legal solutions can only serve to punish the offender after the damage is done, and have not been found to have much value as a deterrent: miscreants, both individual and corporate varieties, are adept at finding loopholes in the law, or simply ignore it.


While mobility empowers the individual users, far more attention is granted to the way in which mobility empowers business, and the potential for mobile technology to contribute to profitability.

This is particularly true of marketing: business seeks to control the consumer by providing them information about products and services they want people to buy. In theory, this can be a symbiotic relationship in which business is rewarded for serving the needs of the consumer. In practice, the interest of business makes the customer relationship far more parasitic.

However, businesses have enjoyed greater success in content delivery via mobile. The author examines the two most popular mobile brands in Japan - Disney (paid subscription) and Yahoo (free internet portal) and found that both have strong customer loyalty, even more so than they are granted on the Web.

In general, when mobile users find a site or a service they like, they are less likely to switch to a different site, even when a more attractive offering comes along. As such, businesses should consider that mobile can be a loyalty platform to foster and build upon customer relationships rather than a marketing platform to reach out to new customers.

It's ultimately about business seeking ways to empower the customer, rather than control them - customers have shown that they embrace the former and strongly reject the latter.