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Expanding the 'Mobility' Concept
Masao Kakihara & Carsten Sorensen
Department of Information Systems
London School of Economics and Political Science
During the last two decades of the twentieth century we
have seen various transformations in our society as a
whole. In particular, information and communication
technologies (ICTs) have played a critical role in this
transformation process. Because of their pervasiveness
and our intensive use of them, ICTs have changed our
ways of living in virtually all realms of our social lives.
ICT is of course not the sole factor of this transformation;
various "old" technologies have also played a significant
part. Modem transportation technologies, for example,
have become dramatically sophisticated in terms of
effectiveness and usefulness since the early twentieth
century. The train and airline infrastructures are highly
integrated with ICTs such as electronic reservation
systems and traffic control systems. It is therefore
important to recognize that the fundamental nature of
technological revolution in the late twentieth century is the
dynamic and complex interplay between old and new
technologies and between the reconfiguration of the
technological fabric and its domestication [6, 27, 32, 40].
This paper concems the concept of mobility, which
manifests such a transformation of our social lives
combining new and old technologies. It is now widely
argued that our life styles have become increasingly
mobile in the sense that the speed of transportation and
hence geographical reach within a given time span is
dramatically augmented by modem technological
developments and sophistication such as train and airplane
systems. However, in spite of the upsurge of concern with
mobility in our social lives, current research perspectives
define the notion of mobility quite narrowly, exclusively
in terms of humans' independency from geographical
constraints. For example, Makimoto and Manners 
argue that within the next decade or so, a large part of the
facilities and tools at home and in the office will be
reduced enough in size to be carried, making people
"geographically independent" (p. 2) and that people who
use such mobile technologies, it is claimed, will be "free
to live where they want and travel as much as they want"
(p. 6). Their arguments for the significance of mobility, or
nomadicity, are clearly confined to the corporeal
characteristic of human movement freed from
geographical constraints thanks to mobile computing
technologies and services such as mobile phones and
personal digital assistants (PDAs). Likewise, most of
research on mobility in the Computer Supported
Cooperative Work (CSCW) field has been showing the
same tendency [e.g. 5, 11 ].
Considering such a confined situation of the debates on
mobility looking only at human geographical movement,
we reconsider in this paper the notion of mobility and try
to expand our perspective towards it. To do so, we argue
that "being mobile" is not just a matter of people traveling
but, far more importantly, related to the interaction they
perform -- the way in which they interact with each other
in their social lives. New configurations of social-
technical relationships resulting from the difffusion of
ICTs afford various dimensions of mobility to humans'
interactivity with others in their social lives. We here
suggest expanding the concept of mobility by looking at
three distinct dimensions of human interaction; namely,
spatial, temporal and contextual mobility. These three
dimensions of human interaction have been dramatically
mobilized by intensive use of ICTs, especially mobile
technologies, in our social lives in general and work
environments in particular. In the following, we will
discuss each of these three dimensions in detail and
implications for future debates on mobility will be drawn.
Spatial mobility denotes the most immediate aspect of
mobility in our social lives and is manifested by, for
example, dramatic increases in both international tourism
and business travel in the twentieth century. It is estimated
that tourism accounts for 10% of global employment and
global GDP . It has been argued that people in the
post-industrial era are geographically independent
"nomads" supported by various technologies [e.g. 8, 28].
The rapid diffusion of ICTs in general and mobile
communication technologies such as mobile phones and
PDAs in particular has further energized human
nomadicity in urban life, business environments and many
other societal milieus [2, 21]. Support technologies are not
exclusively comprised of the newly emerging ICT
infrastructures but on the situated use of both old and new
However, the emerging nomadic nature of human life only
signifies a fraction of the whole debate area concerning
the mobility in human interaction. The nomadic society is
just a manifestation of the increasing corporeal travel of
people by foot, car, train, airplane or other means of
transportation. As Urry  explains, there are several
other aspects of spatial mobility in the modem society.
SlGGROUP Bulletin December 2001Nol 22, No.3 33
First, the mobility of objects should be considered.
Traveling objects are often associated with the movement
of people, although objects may follow much more
complex and diverse routes than people. The travel of
objects is intertwined with human dwelling and traveling
norms. Lury  argues: "objects move in relations of
traveling-in-dwelling and relations of dwelling-in-
traveling in the practices of global cosmopolitanism" (p.
83). More conspicuously, this can be observed in the case
of the Sony Walkman, which indicates the interplay
between corporeal and object travel, du Gay et al. 
explain: "it is virtually an extension of the skin. It is fitted,
molded, like so much else in modem consumer culture, to
the body itself... It is designed for movement - for
mobility, for people who are always out and about, for
traveling light. It is part of the required equipment of the
modem 'nomad'... it is testimony to the high value which
the culture of late-modernity places on mobility (pp. 23-
Second, along with the mobility of objects, we also need
to take the mobility of symbols into account. Global
satellite television networks, for example, broadcast visual
images and sound enabling billions of people to receive
news almost simultaneously. Likewise, the internet has
become a place where an immense amount of information,
sound and images travel beyond national borders. The
convergence of various media including telephone,
television and the internet has supported and further
facilitated our social and economic activities today
requiring rapid exchange of symbols.
Third, symbolic travel on the internet generates another
distinct spatial reality: the mobility of space itself. As
computers dematerialized the means of communication
and interconnected millions of people, such a loosely
connected network of computers brings forth a virtual
spatiality -- a "virtual community" or "cyber community"
[4, 18, 20, 30]. In such computer-mediated
communication among people, geographical distance no
longer remains a fundamental aspect of the interaction --
the boundary between "here" and "there" dissolves. Jones
 points out that "cyberspace hasn't a 'where'...
Rather, the space of cyberspace is predicated on
knowledge and information, on the common beliefs and
practices of a society abstracted from physical space" (p.
15). In this sense it could be argued that in this cyberspace
the notion of 'space' itself is reconfigured and mobilized
in relation with human interest-centric communality rather
than geographical proximity.
In summary, spatial mobility refers not only to extensive
movement of people; it also signifies the global flux of
objects, symbols, and space itself, and as such evokes
complex patterns of human interaction. It is obvious that
the current debates on mobility only concerns
geographical movement of humans and that such a
perspective is quite incapable of capturing the complex,
emerging reality of mobility in our social lives. The
SIGGROUP Bulletin December 2001/Vol 22, No.3
mobilization of spatiality in human interaction results
from the complex and rapid flux of all entities in our
living world including not just humans but also objects,
symbols and images.
Technology inherently influences temporality of our social
activities. Efforts to invent new technologies and
introduce them into existing work settings are motivated
to a large extent by the desire to accelerate the pace of
work and to save time. Typography, for example, is a
modem printing technique employed to speed up the
production of documents such as newspapers and books
compared with traditional printing methods. Likewise,
factory assembly lines clearly aim at improving the
temporal efficiency of production of goods.
It is obvious, however, that speeding-up and saving time
are not the only temporal transformations of social
activities induced by new technologies. Barley  studies
the temporal order and changes in work places brought
about by new technologies, and argues that "The temporal
order of the workplace therefore serves simultaneously as
a template for organizing behavior as well as an
interpretive framework for rendering action in the setting
meaningful" (p. 125). In order to investigate temporal
order in work places, he distinguishes between structural
and interpretive aspects. Structural attributes are measured
by largely objectified parameters, among which sequence,
duration, temporal location and rates of recurrence are
particularly important. In addition to those attributes, he
also points out the importance of interpretive aspects of
temporality: how people in the work place interpret the
change of those structural parameters. He argues that
"such interpretations not only enable us to lend meaning
to events in our work worlds; they lead us to form
opinions and make pronouncements about the behavior of
persons operating in alternate temporal systems." (p. 129)
From the investigation of the impacts of computer-based
radiology equipment on temporality and social relations in
hospital radiology departments, he argues: "new
technologies may enhance or inhibit conflict by triggering
changes in the structural allocation of events that, in turn,
shift interpretive temporal frameworks" (p. 160). Thus we
can conclude that temporality encompasses a variety of
aspects, which influence and are influenced by the
introduction and use of technologies.
Furthermore, inspired by Hall's [15, 16] work, Barley
characterizes temporality using the dichotomy:
monochronicity and polychronicity. The former refers to
situations where people seek to structure their activities
and plan for events by allocating specific slots of time to
each event's occurrence. The latter signifies situations
where people place less value on and accept divergence of
structural and interpretive attributes of the temporal order.
Barley found in his investigation of temporal order and its
change in hospital radiology departments that the newly
introduced technology increased the monochronicity of
actors' activities by restructuring structural and
interpretive framework of temporality.
However, considering the recent diffusion of ICTs into a
wide range of our social lives, polychronicity rather than
monochronicity of human interaction seems to rapidly
increase. Applying Barley's analytical framework in their
analysis of a Korean trading companies, Lee and Liebenau
[22, 23] found that a new EDI system restructured the
temporal order of the companies' business operations,
increasing polychronicity in the work setting. It is obvious
that by using email or other asynchronous ICT
applications, people become able to deal with multiple
tasks simultaneously. It is no longer strictly necessary to
share the same time per!od exclusively with a particular
person or group. Moreover, whereas telephones and fax
machines reduced the response time from weeks and days
to a few seconds, the computers and the Internet make it
further contracted into nanoseconds . ICTs allow
information and ideas to be instantaneously transmitted
and simultaneously accessed across the globe . Thus it
could be argued that such "instantaneity" of time in the
contemporary society in general and in cyberspace in
particular further increases polychronicity of human
As discussed above, the temporal dimension of human
interaction is increasingly mobilized by the impacts of
various technologies. The temporality of human
interaction can no longer be explained from a linear
'clock-time' perspective; it is now highly mobilized into
multiple temporal modes such as monochronicity and
polychronicity. This leads to a complex social
environment where monochronicity and polychronicity of
interaction among humans are intertwined and
renegotiating with each other. Whitehead  insists that
the temporal nature, or process, of human action is
inseparably bound to human's fundamental existence and
social reality as a whole. In this sense, the increasing
temporal mobilization of human interaction is
simultaneously creating new opportunities and constraints
for the ecology of social life.
In fact, spatial and temporal aspects of mobility in human
interaction have been discussed in various research fields
in various ways. The CSCW field has, for example,
intensively dealt with spatial and temporal aspects in
relation to technological innovations such as the internet
applications, groupware and various information systems.
Through the use of stationary and mobile ICT applications
people can organize and manage their work activities with
fewer constraints, making the work environment flexible
and independent from geographical and temporal
constraints [3, 9, 24]. However, considering the broad
aspects of mobilization of our social interaction induced
and facilitated by various ICTs including mobile
technologies, another important dimension of mobility
needs be addressed: contextuality.
Human action is inherently situated in a particular context
that frames and is framed by his or her performance of the
action recursively. Such contextuality, or situatedness, of
human action is critical for capturing the nature of
interaction. Suchman  argues: "the coherence of
situated action is tied in essential ways not to individual
predispositions or conventional rules but to local
interactions contingent on the actor's particular
circumstances" (p. 28). In addition to spatiality and
temporality, contextuality in which the action occurs is of
equal importance in organizing human interaction; aspects
such as "in what way," "in what particular circumstance,"
and "towards which actor(s)" the action is performed
constitute the critical disposition of interaction just as the
aspects "where" and "when" do.
Modem technologies, especially ICTs, influence the
contextuality of interaction in various ways since such
technologies afford diversified modalities of interaction.
Ljungberg and Sorensen  characterize interaction
modality by two dimensions drawn from Schmidt and
Simone : unobtrusive vs. obtrusive and ephemeral vs.
persistent. Interaction can be "more or less obtrusive
dependent on how strictly it imposes obligations to notice
or react" (p. 125). At the same time, interaction can range
from ephemeral interaction, which "only exists in the flux
of unfolding activities," to persistent interaction, which
"leaves behind a trace for further inspection and
discussion" (p. 125). Based on this framework, it is easy
to observe that various communication technologies can
affect modality of interaction. A Post-It Note discretely
place on a desk or a telephone message recorded on an
answering machine can be characterized as unobtrusive-
persistent interaction. An incoming email urgently
requiring a receiver's reply and/or displaying an alert box
notifying the user of the email can be seen as obtrusive-
As ICTs offer us opportunities for interacting with others
in various interaction modalities, we are now relatively
freed from contextual constraints on interaction.
Cyberspace is a good example. Computer mediated
communication (CMC) not only enables people to
asynchronously connect with others in distant areas, it also
transforms the contextual constraints amongst those
interacting. For example, Multi User Dungeons (MUDs),
electric bulletin boards and mailing list services can
alleviate many difficulties for people to interact .
Whereas unfamiliarity or weak social relationships among
people can hamper natural face-to-face interaction,
unobtrusive and persistent CMC media can lubricate the
interaction beyond those obstacles [18, 30]. From this
point of view, CMC can serve as a catalyst for mobilizing
weakly tied social networks. Granovetter's [13, 14]
pioneering work on "the strength of weak ties" illuminates
the fact that the weakly tied social relationship provides
people with access to information and resources, such as
job information, beyond those available in their own
strongly tied social circles. Applying his findings to CMC
SlGGROUP Bulletin December 2001/Vol 22, No.3 35
environments, many argue that CMC provides access to a
wider range of weakly tied actors and a wider set of
contacts, extending communication possibilities beyond
time and space [12, 17, 33, 37].
We then could argue that contextuality plays a critical role
in constituting human interaction just as spatiality and
temporality do. Contexts m which people reside
continuously frame their interaction with others, including
people's cultural background, particular situation or
mood, degree of mutual recognition, and so on. In face-to-
face interaction among people, conformity of such
contextual aspects is very important; same cultural
background, shared mood and high degree of mutual
recognition are preferable. Yet thanks to various ICT
applications and mediated communication technologies,
people nowadays can easily interact with others relatively
freed from such contextual constraints, interacting with
people in largely different contexts. In this sense, the
relationship between interaction among people and
contexts in which they are is becoming mobilized in terms
of flexible patterns of interaction across different contexts.
It is also clear that such contextual, or relational, aspects
of human interaction are increasingly 'uneven' among
interacting people beyond neat time-space conditions of
interaction. Hence, when considering the mobility, or
more specifically societal mobilization, of human
interaction, we need to deal with contextuality as well as
spatiality and temporality, and, more specifically,
mobilized situatedness of interaction in particular contexts
In this paper we have explored various dimensions of
mobility in human interaction. To summarize, we argue:
(1) what has been and will be further mobilized is not just
human corporeal movement but more importantly
interaction among people; and (2) the notion of mobility
should be addressed in three distinct dimensions: spatial,
temporal and contextual aspects of mobility in human
As we discussed through the paper, the current
understanding of mobility, especially in the CSCW field,
is rigidly confined in human geographical movement. We
of course recognize that geographical movement of people
enhanced by various modern technologies is an important
aspect of the contemporary society in general and
workplace settings in particular, manifesting the
nomadicity of human life. However, in order to appreciate
a larger background of the emerging debates on mobility,
we need to go beyond such a confined and fimctionalistic
understanding of mobility and to capture multiple
dimensions of mobilisation of our social interaction.
The discussions in this paper are still preliminary and
further elaboration is clearly needed. We have tried to
further discuss the concept of mobility and fluid work
practices in the context of work coordination of a
36 SlGGROUP Bulletin December 2001/Vol 22, No.3
Japanese distribution company . Subsequent empirical
validation in actual workplace settings is essential for us
to further understand the theoretical issues on the notion
of mobility discussed in this paper and to draw practical
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