Mobile Infrastrucures of Metropolitanisation

The Guardian today has an interesting report on the global penetration of mobile telephony and broadband internet (‘Africa calling: mobile phone usage sees record rise after huge investment‘). Perhaps the most striking statistic is that ‘[o]n average there are now 60 mobile subscriptions for every 100 people in the world’. However, it is also worth noting the phenomenal growth of mobile phone usage in Africa (550% in the last 5 years). It is worth highlighting the services that are made available through mobile phones in the developing world:

Popular mobile services include money transfers, allowing people without bank accounts to send money by text message. Many farmers use mobiles to trade and check market prices.

Elsewhere I have written about the way in which communications infrastructures are constitutive of contemporary urbanised ways of life. These figures – and the manner in which mobile phones have become integral to accessing vital services – reaffirm this point.

What is interesting, however, is the manner in which the mobile phone is a flexible, rather than static, infrastructure. While phone masts and associated relay technologies are static, the handset itself permits (or even encourages) circulation. This flexibility can be conterposed to the static infrastructures of modern urbanisation, many of which simply tied particular sites into fixed relations. It is particularly interesting in this regard to note that fixed phone lines saw a ‘slight decline’ in 2008.

Fixed infrastructures generate particular spatial patterns of urban development. In particular they can bypass and exclude certain sections of the population (for an excellent discussion of this dynamic see Steven Graham and Simon Marvin’s Splintering Urbanism). While mobile infrastructures do not in any sense offer a panacea when it comes to countering such exclusionary dynamics, it is interesting to ask how they will affect the spatial patterns of contemporary metropolitan development. Fixed infrastructures are constitutive of patterns such as suburbanisation (where roads and telephone lines, for example, fixes particular suburbs in relation to a city centre). As the renting of mobile phones shows, flexible infrastructures might permit different patterns of urbanization. In particular it might mean that it is no longer necessary for particular segments of the urban population to congregate in those places where fixed infrastructures are densest. While this will probably not lead to a reversal of the gap between rich and poor it may complexify the core-periphery pattern of urbanisation epitomised by suburbanisation.

Furthermore, it is interesting to ask about the ways of life constituted by such technologies. Urban life has always been hybrid and cyborg. However, will mobile technologies generate distinctive forms of circulatory cyborg urbanity? While the political subject constituted in relation to the fixed phone line is a projection of self from one static point to another, the mobile phone user is, by definition in circulation. The political possibilities of such subjects are already in evidence from the mobility of anti-capitalist protesters to the networked structures of terrorist organisations. Mobile infrastructures are thus constitutive of novel political subjectivities.

Keeping an eye on these infrastructural trends will thus be important for understanding the potentialities of politics in an era of global urbanisation.

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