Book review: Mobile Interfaces in Public Spaces

Woman behind smartphone

For those of us who are interested in studying mobile technologies (i.e., mobile phones or smartphones), there are a number of very good and fairly recent texts out there that approach the subject from quite specific points of view1, but there are relatively few texts that consider the mobile phone to be an interface2 between the user and the larger world.

Mobile Interfaces in Public Spaces: Locational Privacy, Control, and Urban Sociability by Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith takes this approach. Early on, they emphasize the importance of interfaces, stating that “they play a critical role in shaping interactions [of all kinds] and creating meaning” (p. 2), as they filter information and actively reshape communicative relationships (p. 4). de Souza e Silva and Frith emphasize that the mobile phone was far from the first “public interface,” arguing that books/newspapers and even the Walkman were physical means of enacting a “blasé attitude,” which is essentially a coping mechanism for dealing with the sensory overload that accompanies life in a metropolis (p. 33). They note that these interfaces introduced a relatively new concept–the right to be left alone in public (p. 43)–and that mobile technologies contribute to the creation of individual perceptions of space and time (for example, the Walkman–and later the iPod–allowed for what the authors call “soundtracking,” which is the “cinematization” of everyday life by imposing a user-controlled soundtrack over real life). The larger overarching point is this: individuals are experiencing private moments in public space, which was previously unthinkable, owing to the lack of technologies that would allow such activity.

Indeed, the authors note that wireless users often physically withdraw into private nooks and crannies while using mobile devices in public (p. 84); they do note that some argue that remote connections facilitated via mobile phones “disrupt the co-present situation” (p. 84). However, de Souza e Silva and Frith argue that public spaces have never been the idealized havens full of casual mingling that these critics suggest, and instead argue that this new prioritization of the remote over the co-present should simply be acknowledged as a reality of modernity3.

The concept of micro-coordination is touched on briefly; I would have liked to have seen more information on this concept, but it was only minimally discussed. In a few words, micro-coordination is the idea that space is subordinate to time; in other words, present location dictates scheduling/timing, and all of it is facilitated via mobile devices. For example, one may decide to meet up with a friend because they are only a few blocks away; conversely, a meet-up might be declined because the second party is assumed to be too far away. Again, this concept is discussed in brief, but I believe that much more could be said about it; indeed, some good ethnographic studies could be done on this.

A great deal (over half) of the book is dedicated to locational privacy and controls over disclosure of location, which is of decidedly less interest to me than the actual utilization of mobile devices to filter and manage social interactions. That said, there is a bit of interesting discussion of location-based advertising, location-based social networks and location-based gaming platforms, though none of it rises to any particularly enduring significance overall.

Overall, this book contains more than a few fascinating concepts; the framing of the mobile phone as akin to the paperback book in terms of its “interface-ness” is alone worth a read.


  1. Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones comes to mind; it is an excellent book that I would highly recommend.
  2. Don’t let this terminology confuse you. In this sense, the “interface” being discussed does not refer to the operating system or GUI of the phone–instead, it refers to the mobile device as a means of filtering or screening out elements of the “real world.”
  3. Indeed, the authors note that blanket generalizations about mobile users in public spaces are not specific or generalizable enough to be particularly useful (p. 85).