The diffusion and use of information and communication technologies and the city from 1996 to 2009
First Monday

The diffusion and use of information and communication technologies and the city from 1996 to 2009 by Leopoldina Fortunati and Sakari Taipale

The aim of this paper is to investigate whether the diffusion and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are associated with the size of the place of residence where people live. The article explores how the relationship between ICTs and place of residence changed between 1996 and 2009. The study presents data from two consecutive telephone surveys collected from Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain. Results show an unexpected role of the relatively rural areas as attractor of new technologies. Although the largest cities have remained the locus of telecommunications on the whole, the relationship between ICTs and the place of abode has changed considerably during the 13 years studied. This is especially due to the innovative role played by the mobile phone. In 2009, although the mobile phone was independent from the place of abode, it was more diffused in relatively rural environments.


1. Introduction
2. The urban and the city reconsidered in the information society
3. Methodology
4. Results
5. Discussion and conclusions



1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to investigate whether the diffusion and adoption of information and communication technologies (ICTs) are associated with the size of the place where people live. Furthermore, the article explores how the relationship between ICTs and place of abode changed between 1996 and 2009. This time span was selected because while small–sized ICTs and the Internet were only at the beginning of their diffusion in the mid–1990s, many of them had become established in the everyday life of people in the affluent Western countries towards the end of this decade. In this paper the city is not studied as a place of residence, which differs from other places, such as megacities, or towns or villages, in terms of its size. Instead, we will consider the city as a place of abode which differs from other places in terms of its degree of urbanization.

Much has already been written about telecommunications and the city and telecommunications in the city. In 1997, Gottmann observed that ‘urban concentration can generally be shown to be proportional to the intensity of telephone use’ [1]. The coexistence of media and the city has a long history, since according to Wajcman and Jones [2], ‘the public spheres historically formed around city–based newspapers’. Telecommunication and the city: Electronic spaces, urban places, authored by Steve Graham and Simon Marvin (1996), is a milestone book in this field of research. It is the first comprehensive book on the complex relationships that exist between ICTs and cities. It analyzes the technological dimensions of the social, economic, geographical, political and environmental development of modern cities. The book moves beyond the technological and social determinisms presenting the implication of ICTs in the city that are unforeseen and affected by the policies and practices that are adopted. Since then, a blizzard of scholarly studies has addressed the role of ICTs in cities. These accounts have quite consistently portrayed the newest appliances, such as mobile phones and the Internet, as urban artefacts that chiefly reflect and convey the ways of life in large cities (e.g., Castells, 2000; Kopomaa, 2000; Townsend, 2002). The same studies have largely been premised on a qualitative research design and theoretical speculations.

These studies provide a legion of vivid reflections, skillful theoretical argumentations and detailed empirical results that, however, cannot be generalized. The quantitative approach, which makes possible the generalizations and that is adopted in the study at hand, includes another type of limitation: a necessity to simplify the often multifaceted research problems through operationalization. In this study these questions are discussed in the light of large survey data sets which represent a repeated cross–sectional study with two waves. Thus, this study should not be considered as a true longitudinal study as the samples were not the same.

This two–wave study advances knowledge on two important aspects of the relation between the media and the city. More precisely, it adds to the relationship between the diffusion of ICTs and the size of the place of residence and about how this relationship changed from 1996 to 2009 in Europe. But in the end, although the chosen quantitative approach forces us to simplify, it enables us to deliver generalizable results. Given the domination of qualitative, theoretical and cross–sectional approaches, we believe that the opportunity to conduct temporal comparisons with quantitative data sets makes a genuine contribution to the existing scholarship.

The surveys on which this study relies were collected from Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain (i.e., EU5 countries) in 1996 and 2009. The authors of this study have previously published a set of cross–sectional studies, based on either the 1996 survey or the 2009 survey. These studies have explored how ICT is utilized in cities of different sizes, yet they have always focused on one communication technology at a time (Fortunati and Taipale, 2012a; 2013; Fortunati and Manganelli, forthcoming). We have published another study which compares the 1996 with the 2009 data set. In that study the focus was on sociability and the diversity in media usage (Fortunati, et al., 2013). The diffusion and usage of ICT were not, in other words, investigated from the spatial–geographical perspective in particular. In contrast, the aim of this paper is to create a more complete picture of how the various ICTs have diffused over time, taking into account the size of respondents’ place of residence.

The paper is organized in the following way. In the next section the relevant studies and discourses developed on the topic of the urban, the city and ICT will be reviewed. Then, in the third section, the methodology and the data will be described. The fourth section is devoted to an illustration of the main results. Lastly, results will be discussed and some conclusions will be drawn.



2. The urban and the city reconsidered in the information society

To date, spatial analyses of the information society have been dominated by the urban realm and the city. In the mid–1990s, Graham and Marvin [3] proclaimed that ‘what is emerging is a more totally urbanized world, where rural spaces and lifestyles are being drawn into an urban realm because of the time–space transcending capabilities of telecommunications and fast transportation networks’. At the turn of the new millennium, Castells [4] also saw it fit to argue for the role of ‘informational cities’ as the hubs of the information age, predicting that ‘the ecological dream of small, quasi–rural communes will be pushed away to countercultural marginality by the historical tide of mega–city development’. Elsewhere, Aurigi [5] presented two arguments speaking for the urban future of information societies: first of all, according to his vision, urban areas are more likely than rural areas to be endowed with high technologies at cheaper prices; second, urban areas can offer the considerable advantage of physical proximity along with electronic communication.

The two arguments together may be called the ‘urban thesis’. This thesis associates ICTs with the urban realm of life, based largely on the advantages offered by the accumulation of large numbers of population in the same place and so by economies of scale. Where there are large numbers of people concentrated in a small area, there are also more potential consumers and supplying all the infrastructures needed for launching new technology is economically less risky.

Already, towards the end of the 1990s, it had become obvious that media technologies would soon be widely accessible in all regions of the developed world [6]. ICTs in general, but especially the mobile phone, have spread rapidly from the urban centres to the more scarcely populated areas in the developed North and also in some less developed countries [7]. The implications of this fact for the alleged urbanity of ICTs still need to be clarified, although it seems evident that, at the very least, we may expect them to further blur the urban–rural distinction.

Moreover, this debate about media and the cities has been complicated by the insurgence of another vivid debate about the conceptualization and definition of what is ‘urban’ and what is ‘rural’. Contrary to the traditional conceptualization of urban–rural dualism, in the last few decades the belief has caught on that the urban and the rural can also be considered as parts of the same continuum (e.g., Champion and Graeme, 2004; Massey, 1992). The blurring of the urban–rural distinction has been a subject of much debate for several decades now (e.g., Dewey, 1960; Pryor, 1968; Massey, 1992; Champion and Graeme, 2004). This orientation in the studies on urban–rural dialectics has developed with the purpose of capturing and understanding the relevant transformations which the territory of the industrially advanced countries has undertaken. With the further advancement of the electro–mechanization of work, which has decreased the labour requirements of the primary and extractive industries, and with the increasing value of urban areas, many enterprises originally considered ‘urban’ have begun to relocate their factories to the countryside (about counter–urbanization, see Berry, 1980). Along with the migration of factories to the countryside, the rural has become intertwined with the industrial in new ways.

On the other hand, the rise of the service sector and growing education levels among the population have contributed to the influx of workers and students from the countryside to the urban areas. In consequence, many people today reside in one type of area but work or study in another, causing the sphere of their everyday life to expand over several localities. How can we define people who work or study all day in a city and who in the evening return to the countryside to spend their reproductive time with the family and sleep? Are these people urban or rural dwellers? And vice versa, should we consider people who work all day in a factory in the countryside and in the evening travel back to the city as rural or urban dwellers? In qualitative studies, researchers have tried to tame this fluidity by conducting ‘thick’ descriptions of people’s mobile lives (e.g., Elliott and Urry, 2010). Yet, when studying the volume of this socio–technical change with statistical methods, the complexity of this phenomenon must be diminished by using reductive measures. We decided to produce this reduction by introducing the theoretical idea of the rural–urban continuum that might function as an umbrella covering all the phenomena described so far. This notion moves beyond the dichotomic conceptualization of rural and urban that has a poor fit to the simple measures of population size or density. Starting from the seminal idea of the rural–urban continuum, we have decided to reduce this complexity by looking at the degree of urbanization of the place of the respondents’ abode. Compared with population density or other typologies, the degree of urbanization reflects better the insights coming from the debate on the rural–urban continuum. It gives more emphasis to people’s own perception of the ‘size’ of their place of residence and it does not compel people to place themselves in any prefixed categories, such as village, town or city. Taken all together, it becomes evident that approaching the city only as a single category would appear simplistic and misguided as a strategy. It would not enable us to acknowledge the complexity of the urban–rural continuum.

This very same phenomenon has led to an important change in the spatial identity of many people who embody in themselves both urban and rural ways of life. In consequence, when determining whether a given place is ‘urban’ or ‘rural’, besides the size of the population, the lifestyle has also started to be considered as a useful indicator to characterize the spatial identity of a place [8]. In today’s information society, ICTs are more and more embedded in people’s lifestyles.

The consequence of this debate is a paradox: ICTs are connected to the cities, but it is no longer certain what the city is. What remains certain is that ICTs influence and mediate the way people attach spatial attributes to their place of residence. In the spirit of Lefebvre (1991), it can be argued that the city as a social space is not just a theoretical and ‘conceived’ space of cartographers and urban planners. Instead, the city, just like all other variants of the place of residence, is a living and cultural body. For Lefebvre, the city is more related to the social production of its spatiality, including the ways people perceive, hear and sense the everyday life of the city (see e.g., Goonewardena, et al., 2008). Moreover, the place where people live is increasingly ‘perceived’ and ‘experienced’ through electronically mediated communication. Being always available through the mobile phone, navigating with the help of portable GPS tools, and getting information on nearby places in real time, just to mention a few, are all factors that contribute to whether a given place is seen as ‘urban’ or ‘rural’.

Of course, the place of residence can be perceived and experienced quite differently by those who share the same physical whereabouts. This relates to the fact that in highly networked information societies (Castells, 2000), the sense of place is less influenced by group or local solidarities and conceptualizations, and more by what Wellman, et al. (2003) call ‘networked individualism’.

As both the terms ‘city’ and ‘size’ can be understood and used in multiple ways, definitions are required. In this study, city is considered as a physically contiguous area in respect to territorial or other boundaries, which is typically governed by a municipality or similar legal body. The city differs from other places of residence, such as villages or towns, in terms of size. In previous studies the size of the population has typically been operationalized either as population density or degree of urbanization following the territorial approach outlined by the OECD. As our data set does not include information on population density and it is not possible to import this data retrospectively, we opted for the latter choice. We use respondents’ estimates of the size of their place to operationalize the degree of urbanization.

This strategy means that we do not utilize the usual typologies that have been applied to define the place of residence (e.g., megacity, city, town, villages). Instead, we apply the notion of perceived degree of urbanization, which distinguishes between the categories of essentially rural, relatively rural and essentially urban. Thus, this study will put forward two research questions: (1) whether the diffusion of ICTs supports or challenges the clear–cut division between the cities as ‘urban’ and the smaller habitations as ‘rural’, and consequently (2) how ICTs contribute to the spatial reshaping of places of residence. As a working hypothesis, it is expected that ICTs spread from the most urban to the most rural places between the studied years of 1996 and 2009. As a result, it is plausible to expect that ICTs were more evenly distributed across places of residence of different sizes in 2009 than they were in 1996. Unfortunately, our data sets do not involve measures to study the ‘urbanity’ and ‘rurality’ of respondents’ lifestyles. Due to this data restriction, we are compelled to look at their place of above in terms of its perceived city size only.



3. Methodology

3.1. Data sets

Two nationally representative telephone surveys that were carried out in Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain (EU5) are analyzed. The first survey was implemented in 1996 (N=6,609) and the second one in 2009 (N=7,255). Both surveys aimed to explore the diffusion and adoption of the most important ICTs in Europe. The questionnaire was basically the same in both surveys, although in the 2009 study the questionnaire was adapted to the new technological situation. As the samples were not the same, these two surveys might not be considered longitudinal in classical terms. However, comparisons between the data sets are certainly thought–provoking as they are representative at the country level. Both survey questionnaires were pretested with 100 people. For each country, the sample was quoted on the basis of gender, age and macro–region of residence. In this study, weighted data which correct some distortions relating to age, education, ownership of a computer and access to the Internet are used. Both studies were funded by Telecom Italia.

3.2. Methods

The empirical analysis of this study only draws upon bivariate statistics, such as cross tabulations and the analysis of variance (ANOVA), for the following reasons. First, it is the aim of the article to enter into a dialogue between the diffusion of ICTs and the place of residence, especially the city. Hence, by introducing socio–demographics in multivariate models, the attention would be dispersed and also turned to respondents’ personal characteristics. Second, the socio–demographic structure of each country did not dramatically change between 1996 and 2009, although populations throughout Europe continued to age. Third, as mentioned above, the authors have previously presented a similar analysis with multivariate methodology. These studies can be referred to in order to see how various background factors affect, for example, the adoption and advanced use of the mobile phone in cities of different sizes. They show, for example, that age and education are the most powerful predictors for mobile phone usage, while the gendered patterns of mobile phone use are not very pronounced but still existent (Fortunati and Taipale, 2012a; Fortunati and Manganelli, forthcoming). Furthermore, these studies reveal that only in some EU5 countries, namely Italy and France, do people living in the biggest cities make use of a more diversified set of mobile phone functions than those living in less urban areas (Fortunati and Taipale, 2013). Fourth, by keeping the statistical methodology simple, the article aims to avoid methodological ‘technicisms’ and to facilitate theoretical reasoning on how the adoption and penetration of ICTs are reshaping the city.

3.3. Measures

City. The size of place of residence was first estimated by respondents, and then recorded into three categories that are indicative of the degree of urbanization of the place of the respondents’ abode: essentially rural (less than 5,000 inhabitants), relatively rural (5,000–100,000 inhabitants) and essentially urban (more than 100,001 inhabitants).

ICT possession. In 1996, the possession of ICTs was measured by asking ‘Which of the following types of equipment or service do you have in your home (whether belonging to you or another household member)?’ with an answer modality ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In 2009, the same question was used for ICTs other than mobile phones, such as iPods, other MP3 players, and games consoles, which had in the course of time changed from household tools to more private equipment. In relation to these, the question ‘Which of the following types of equipment do you own personally (excluding equipment belonging to another household member)?’, with an answer modality ‘yes’ or ‘no’, was used.

ICT use. The survey data sets contained two measures of ICT use that allowed comparisons over time. As regards mobile phone use, in both the surveys, respondents were asked to state the average number of calls made and received per day, while in 2009 the respondents were asked to also state the average number of SMS messages sent and received per day. In this study, the answers to these questions were combined into one measure of mobile phone use for 1996 including only calls (made and received), and into two measures for 2009, one including calls (made and received) and another SMSs (sent and received). The measure of fixed–line telephone use includes equally the average number of calls made and received per day. In 2009, a measure for Internet use, covering all usage without making a distinction between fixed and mobile Internet usage, was also included in the questionnaire. This measurement is indicative of the amount of time spent on the Internet. The answers were grouped into three categories: high usage (two or more hours per day), medium usage (around an hour a day) and low usage (less than daily or occasional use). In this way, the measure can be interpreted as a continuous variable for which mean values can be calculated.



4. Results

4.1. Diffusion and use in 1996

ICT diffusion is illustrated in Table 1. This table shows how various ICTs and their usage spread in the studied EU5 countries from 1996 to 2009. First of all, Table 1 reveals that in 1996 appliances that were attached to fixed–line phones in particular, namely answering and fax machines, were more characteristic of essentially urban areas, consisting of big cities with 500,000 and more inhabitants. Also, a personal computer and access to the Internet were clearly more common in the biggest cities, yet the Internet, in particular, was only taking its first steps. More interestingly, the table shows that the car phone — designed for fitting in automobiles — which has been generally regarded as an urban phenomenon, was actually more common in relatively rural areas than in essentially urban areas. In the same vein, the mobile phone, which later partly replaced the car phone, reflects a slightly unexpected result: the mobile phone as a pretty recent innovation was not associated with the degree of urbanization in 1996 at all. Neither was television, as being a well–established appliance it had reached a very high penetration rate in all households.

Regarding the use of ICTs, Table 1 presents results based on ANOVAs. Post–hoc tests (not presented in Table 1) were also carried out to find out which categories of the place of residence (i.e., essentially rural, relatively rural, essentially urban) significantly differed from one another. On the one hand, the results show that the fixed phone was used more frequently in the cities and towns than in rural areas. On the other hand, it appears that in 1996 mobile phone use did not yet reflect any significant differences between essentially urban (city), and relatively and essentially rural areas. Hence, at the beginning of its diffusion, the intensity of mobile phone use was not reliant on the urbanity or rurality of the context of use. This outcome, however, has to be treated with caution, owing to the small number of mobile phone users in 1996.


Table 1: Diffusion and use of ICTs in Europe between 1996 and 2009.
Diffusion and use of ICTs in Europe between 1996 and 2009

Note: Standardized residuals higher than 2.0, which are statistically significant, are marked in bold.
1 1996: x2=4.972, df=2, p=n.s; 2009: x2=1.882, df=2, p=n.s.
2 1996: x2=49.591, df=2, p=.000; 2009: x2=7.862, df=2, p=.020.
3 1996: x2=15.364, df=2, p=.000; 2009: x2=5.441, df=2, p=n.s.
4 1996: x2=1.873, df=2, p=.n.s.; 2009: x2=6.663, df=2, p=.036.
5 1996: x2=8.918, df=2, p=.012.
6 1996: x2=60.129, df=2, p=.000.
7 1996: x2=7.615, df=2, p=.022.
8 2009: x2=6.973, df=2, p=.031.
9 2009: x2=5.441, df=2, p=n.s.
10 2009: x2=1.053, df=2, p=n.s.
11 2009: x2=6.343, df=2, p=.042.
12 2009: x2=1.011, df=2, p=n.s.
13 2009: x2=18.250, df=2, p=.000.
14 1996: F=10.886, df=2, p=.000; 2009: F=7.278, df=2, p=.001.
15 1996: F=0.917, df=2, p=n.s.; 2009: F= 1.159, df=2, p=n.s.
16 2009: F=1.74946, df=2, p=n.s.
17 2009: F=8.709, df=2, p=.000.


In sum, these results imply that ICT in general had mainly penetrated the urban environments in 1996. In particular, those ICTs that were connected to vast information systems were adopted in cities first. It might be that the infrastructures of cities benefited from networked systems of information and communication in a particular way. By benefiting from ICTs, cities managed to develop information–based infrastructures (e.g., fast data transmission, service and knowledge industries) which in some cities may have happened at the expense of their mechanical infrastructures (e.g., transportation, electro–mechanical engineering industry). This shift allowed the smoother functioning of city life, and higher productivity and consumption. Graham and Marvin (1996) allude to this when saying that the industrial city had become the post–industrial or informational city, where the urban functioning revolves around the processing and circulation of information, rather than around the circulation of physical goods (e.g., Borja and Castells, 1997; Castells, 2000).

4.2. Diffusion and use in 2009

In 2009, the technological landscape was much more diversified than in 1996. In particular, appliances that were based on computer technology, such as iPods, MP3 players, games consoles, and digital and video cameras, had entered the market. Table 1 shows that towards 2009, the number of such technologies, which are equally common in habitations of different sizes, had somewhat increased, although they entered in the market at different times. In addition to the classical media, such as television and radio, digital cameras, video cameras, iPods and MP3 players were also present, not only in urban cities but also in rural territories. This is a faint indication of the fact that the technologies of entertainment and self–expression, in particular, are embodied in both urban and rural ways of life. The distinction between the urban and rural ways of life is typically made by referring to classical sociological studies, which argue for the inversely proportional relationship between the size of the locality in which a person lives and the relative weakness of primary social ties such as family relations (e.g., Wirth, 1938). However, critics have argued that this rural-urban dualism overemphasizes the extreme ends of the rural–urban continuum (e.g., Guterman, 1969). Furthermore, it has been argued that people in rural areas might adopt and use ICTs for different reasons than city dwellers, since their everyday life activities are more restricted and the access to information, goods and services is more limited (Gilligan, 2005).

To begin with the diffusion of ICTs, it can be reported that in 2009 the personal computer was especially common in urban areas. This finding supports the so–called ‘urban thesis’. However, access to the Internet was spread across the rural–urban continuum without differences. In contrast, other results clearly show that mobile phones and games consoles were more widespread in relatively rural areas than in essentially urban areas. The small and medium–size habitations had, in other words, acquired a technological status with a specific profile of connectivity and entertainment. In fact, previous studies also indicate that towns have many facilities to offer that increase their attractiveness as a place to live (e.g., affordable housing, high quality of life) and provide relatively short commuting distances [9]. Finally, as regards ICT usage, the use of the fixed phone and the Internet was linked more to essentially urban and relatively rural areas than to essentially rural areas in 2009. In contrast, neither number of mobile phone calls nor SMSs is associated with the degree of urbanization in 2009.

4.3. Changes from 1996 to 2009

The empirical data of this study clearly show the changing face and physical landscape of cities. The same phenomenon is also shown by the previous literature. In the city, hard metals, such as iron and steel, concrete and glass have now been joined and sometimes even substituted by the lightness of information bits and flows (e.g., McQuire, 2005). In particular, the new family of computer–based technologies has greatly supported cooperation between individuals, that is, with the division of labour, the fundamental natural force of social labour (Fortunati and Taipale, 2013; Fortunati, 2007). The results of this study further reveal that computers and the Internet have rapidly diffused, but also sustained their reputation as urban technologies. Of the newer appliances, iPods in particular seem to characterize essentially urbanized living environments. It is thus fit to argue that the diffusion and use of ICTs have changed the ways in which a modern city walks, talks, searches for and handles information, while, in turn, the city has influenced ICT diffusion and use.

There are two exceptions that clearly oppose the above trend: television and the mobile phone. At the same time, these are the two most widely adopted ICT tools in the EU5 countries under investigation. The data regarding the mobile phone show that in the first phase of its diffusion, the degree of urbanization was not a distinguishing factor. In respect to television, the data confirm that television has been stably rooted in the everyday life of modern citizens for a long time. Over time, the adoption rate of television has not changed remarkably, and the mobile phone has become perhaps a slightly more common tool in medium–size habitations than in the most rural and urban locations. Thus, it would be important to study carefully whether the mobile phone has managed to facilitate social relationships as well as time management and entertainment — which are the main purposes for which the mobile phone is used (Taipale, 2009) — perhaps more successfully in the relatively rural areas than elsewhere.

Lastly, the rightmost column of Table 1 shows that the pace of diffusions has been relatively steady when the three degrees of urbanization are considered. There is only one indicator that reflects a notable change. This is the possession of the personal computer, which has in relative terms become less and less urban. While in 1996 mobile phone use was not seemingly connected to the degree of urbanization, in 2009 mobile phones were already most commonly in relatively rural areas. In 2009, the use of the mobile phone was not connected to the degree of urbanization at the statistically significant level. As a final comment, it is worth recalling that comparative data from 1996 are not available for the newest, portable technologies, such as digital and video cameras, iPods and games consoles.



5. Discussion and conclusions

To answer our first research question, this study shows that ICTs and the city are still intertwined in many ways, although this relationship has considerably changed its shape over time. It is a matter of fact that the rural has not been as attractive for the early diffusion and use of these technologies as the city. However, the present research reveals that along with television the mobile phone was the only new ICT whose use did not reflect rural–urban differences in 1996. The study also shows that the city continued to be a place that is able to solicit and attract new technologies. But later, regions that are situated in between the rural and the urban — in this study called relatively rural areas — also progressively became a pole of attraction for new ICTs and consequently began to embrace new technologies.

These results support the idea that the very old relationship between media and the city must be relativized and revisited in its indissolubility. Even if buying a more nuanced vision, for example, can serve as counter–evidence, our research shows that in the second half of the 1990s a series of technologies, especially those connected to entertainment and self–expression, spread across the rural regions similarly to urban ones. In particular, games consoles were more characteristic of relatively rural areas and not as typical of essentially urban cities. Also, the diffusion of both digital cameras and iPods was associated with the degree of urbanization, although the statistical significances were relatively weak. In 2009, digital cameras were least common and iPods most diffused in essentially urban areas. The mobile phone usage was statistically independent from the degree of urbanization also in 2009. As we have argued elsewhere, this is perhaps an indication that the mobile phone is more associated with the human body than with geographical localities (Fortunati and Taipale, 2012b). Hence, if one looks at the issue of media and the city at the end of the last decade, it turns out that the city had begun to lose its centrality regarding the diffusion and use of new technologies.

The fact that the new technologies express different patterns of penetration (the Internet is more urban, the mobile phone is a trans–geographical tool which embraces both the urban and the rural) makes it possible to reconsider the traditional distinction between the city and the countryside. This distinction seems to be subject to a major fluidity and flexibility. Hence, it can be proposed that there has been a change in the center of gravity from ‘essentially urban’ towards ‘relatively urban’ on the rural–urban continuum with regard to the adoption and use of new ICTs. These displacements of the rural–urban axis depend on the fact that there are communication and information networks everywhere which support and follow the local mobility of a large part of the population. Simultaneously, the rural–urban boundary is increasingly crossed by electronically mediated communication, which further influences the processes of identity building and the sense of place. Also, because of these technologies, the place is less capable of bonding people to itself and preserving its consistency over time, which have provided a specific identity for the place.

The above provides support for the recently proposed rural/urban continuum. On the one hand, the investigated technologies, as the enablers of networking, allow the incorporation of the urban into the countryside, and the rural into the city. On the other hand, globalization and the increased mobility of people seem to call for a new integration of the rural and the urban. Similarly to the studies on globalization that gave birth to the term ‘glocal’ as a combination of the local and the global (Robertson, 1992; Hampton and Wellman, 2002; Hampton, 2010), there now seems to be justification in the studies on media and the city for talking about the ‘urbal’, a new combination of the rural and the urban.

As to the second research question, how ICTs contribute to the spatial reshaping of places of residence, the study provides empirical findings that can be used to enrich theoretical understanding on how electronically mediated communication affects the processes of identity building in habitations of different sizes. The finding that technologies commonly considered urban are now increasingly utilized in semi–urban and semi–rural environments might contribute to new ‘urbal’ identities. These identities may be typical for highly educated people and young families, who inhabit these areas and actively use new technology (Fortunati and Taipale, 2012a). For the same people, the largest cities manifest themselves perhaps more and more as the loci of work and income, rather than as enjoyable environments in which to raise children and manage daily duties. The new identity of cities seems to be linked with a mobile lifestyle and increased commuting between cities and smaller habitations which are suitable and affordable for young families (e.g., Elliott and Urry, 2010). This phenomenon gives us reasons to believe that ICTs, as electronically mediated forms of mobility, have perhaps, after all, increased people’s likelihood of living permanently in smaller cities and towns. However, the spatial reshaping of places of residence is not limited to these aspects.

As we have technologies, such as the Internet or the mobile phone, which shrink distances, the social distances between urban and rural localities, such as the city and the countryside, shrink as well. They disappear from people’s perception and they become zombie categories, empty concepts [10] that are used as before but with little correspondence to real experience. Both the city and the countryside enter into the state of absent presence (cf., Gergen, 2002; Fortunati, 2002), in the sense that they continue to exist physically but they become absent in people’s awareness and remain in the background of calls, tweets, e–mail and the like. Consequently, cities are reshaped; they are made empty of physicality to the extent that they leave room for the media. In fact, the cities become filled with the immateriality of media.

Finally, the current study also reveals the need to develop new indicators that capture how the diffusion and use of ICTs affect the spatial identity of the place of residence. Future studies have to develop statistical indicators similar to those measuring the use of ICTs for local, glocal, and distant contacts (e.g., Hampton and Wellman, 2002; Campbell and Kwak, 2010). Such indicators would measure the proportions of contacted people who live in essentially rural, relatively rural and essentially urban regions. Also, indicators connected to the lifestyle should become part of the design of future research. Needless to say, qualitative studies are also required to more rigorously investigate the patterns of ICT usage that support living in essentially and relatively rural areas and enhance the combinations of urban and rural ways of life. End of article


About the authors

Prof. Leopoldina Fortunati is the director of the Ph.D. Program in Multimedia Communication at the University of Udine, where she teaches Sociology of Communication and Culture. She has conducted several studies in the field of gender studies, cultural processes and communication and information technologies. Her works have been published in 11 languages: Bulgarian, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Slovenian, and Spanish.
E–mail: fortunati [dot] deluca [at] tin [dot] it

Dr. Sakari Taipale is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. His is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Eastern Finland. Taipale has published numerous articles on new media, the Internet, mobile communication, and mobilities in high–ranking international journals such as British Journal of Sociology, Telecommunications Policy, European Journal of Communication, Mobilities, and Social Science Research.
E–mail: sakari [dot] taipale [at] jyu [dot] fi



1. Gottmann, 1997, p. 304.

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Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Leopoldina Fortunati and Sakari Taipale.

The diffusion and use of information and communication technologies and the city from 1996 to 2009
by Leopoldina Fortunati and Sakari Taipale.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4960.

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.