What do you say? – Column Natalie Dixon

We live in two cities at the same time: the city of bricks and the digital city of bits and bytes. In Stadsleven ‘The digital other’, we investigate the influence of digital technology in the city. Natalie Dixon is co-founder of the research studio Affect Lab which investigates mobile phone culture.

No escaping mobile phones..of other people

Watching people eat on trains? Okay. Hearing Youtube videos on trains? Fine. Overhearing someone’s mobile conversation? Please, anything but that.

On a recent train trip to Schiphol airport I was seated within earshot of an American traveller who’d forgotten his laptop at his hotel in Amsterdam. I know this because he was using his mobile phone to discuss, in loud breathless tones, the logistics of how it would be returned to him. He went through an astonishing amount of detail in the conversation. There was the arranged time for a courier to collect the laptop, how it would be labelled and packaged, and most importantly, what would happen on the off chance that someone was not at reception when the courier arrived. I could tell he was panicked from the way his requests almost clung to the person on the other side, like this call was his last and only link with his Macbook.

Natalie Dixon 1

The angel of death on the Tube in London. Photo: Natalie Dixon

I’ve long since made my peace with train etiquette in Europe. Unlike say, the Japanese, Europeans are completely at ease wolfing down a 3-course meal directly in front of you on a train. Once I watched a woman dismantle an entire club sandwich, removing the onion and then flinging it with sweet abandon into the open rubbish bin next to our co-joined seats. Some trains include “silent” carriages – ones which don’t allow any music to be played or mobile calls. But most times you’ll find yourself in the “anything goes” carriage, which means you run the full gauntlet of techno, house or my favourite, Youtube videos. It helps to close your eyes when you’re on the train. The sociologist Erving Goffman might have called this the extreme version of “civil inattentiveness.” But these are extreme times. And our new companion species isn’t furry and doesn’t bark. Mobile phones are lively critters, going everywhere we do.

Mobile phones as transmitter of emotions in public space

While music and food shenanigans are par for the course in public spaces, it seems that we reserve a special tension for involuntary eavesdropping on  mobile conversations. The mobile phone has become a powerful actor in the erosion of the boundary line between our notions of private and public. This has been the subject for academic debate for over 10 years. What new meanings are created by having intimate conversations in public? What does this mean for our defence of space? How does it shape concepts of individualism and the collective? Turning to new age framing: what does this mean for our sense of presence and being mindful?

Natalie Dixon 3

No time like the present. Photo: Natalie Dixon


Getting back to the guy who forgot his laptop, I wondered what exactly bothered me about overhearing his conversation. I narrowed it down to three options, not mutually exclusive. 1.) I was disenfranchised of any choice – I was trapped into hearing his conversation, thanks to my proximity and his booming voice and I had no way of defending my personal space. 2.) The conversation was one sided. In other instances, like when I overhear a conversation between two people chatting in the seat behind me, it somehow feels more incidental and appropriate, it seems to melt into the background. But when someone is having a mobile conversation, it’s annoyingly lop-sided and somehow more intrusive.

It’s hardly a new thought that our bodies are not just solitary bounded “things” that merrily move along in life. We exist as porous bodies, constantly exchanging information with other bodies – human and non-human.

Have WiFi will survive, at the Rijksmuseum. Photo: Natalie Dixon

Have WiFi will survive, at the Rijksmuseum. Photo: Natalie Dixon

Which leads me to my most plausible explanation of the three. 3.) Like Mr Laptop, I also became anxious, as I overheard his conversation, it affected me. I had planned to decompress a little on the trip to Schiphol, instead now I was part of a someone else’s drama. His anxiety became mine. It connected us in a way that I had little control over. There was a kind of affective resonance happening between us, that rippled from him to me. And that’s what makes mobile phones such significant social actors. They don’t just transmit data, voice messages and network signals, they transmit emotion too. As actors in the city, they are producing and circulating emotion in a way that changes our perception and experience of space.

Meer lezen?

Klik door naar ons dossier ‘Stadsleven ‘De Digitale Ander’ voor meer blogs en columns over dit onderwerp.