User Design and the Democratization of the Mobile Phone
First Monday

User Design and the Democratization of the Mobile Phone by Leopoldina Fortunati

When the mobile phone was first introduced into Italy, it was considered an arrogant and vulgar technology used only by those at the top of society. Today, however, the mobile phone is used across all Italian social classes and is considered highly fashionable. This transformation in perceptions of this technology — and, therefore, its uses — can usefully be understood as, simultaneously, the democratization of the mobile telephone. One of the most important factors that made this technology more acceptable in Italian society was its redesign as a material object, undertaken in response to the actual needs and practices of users. Once individual users found their own identities and desires reflected in the mobile telephone, they were far more likely to incorporate this technology into their personal ecologies. Even though mobile telephones are very much the product of large industrial organizations, this case also demonstrates the contribution of users to design of the technological environment that then in turn governs their own behaviors.


The Machinization of the Domestic Sphere
The Dynamic Use/Consumption/Co–construction of the Mobile Phone
Redesigning the Mobile Phone
The Mobile Phone and Civil Society



Research on the mobile phone started out uncertainly, but over the last 15 years work on the mobile phone in post–modern society has increased significantly, particularly in the area of how people use the mobile phone to modify many aspects of their individual and communal lives (Fortunati, 1995; Fortunati and Burcet, 1998; Haddon, 1997, 2004; ICUST, 1999, 2001; Katz and Aakhus, 2002; Brown, et al., 2002; Rheingold, 2002; Katz, 2003; Kim, 2005a, 2005b; Fortunati, et al., 2003; Nyíri, 2003, 2005; Lorente, 2002; Geser, 2004; Ling, 2004; Höflich and Gebhardt, 2005; Glotz et al., 2005; Ling and Petersen, 2005). This article addresses a question that has not yet received much attention, however: How can use of a small personal technology such as the mobile phone affect macro–level social processes involving such issues as social inclusion, democracy and governance?

The mobile phone is useful as a subject for addressing this question because unexpected and unintended practices in use of this technology have made it particularly effective as an instrument of counter–governance. Of all the information and communication technologies (ICTs), the mobile phone has arguably had the largest structural impact in terms of expanding the possibility of electronically communicating to those who are socio–economically disadvantaged. Many of the design variants that people have introduced into the mobile phone extended and expanded the ability to act on the right to information and raised the degree of democratization of society.

To address this question the mobile phone must first be contextualized vis–à–vis the entire range of technologies now found in the domestic sphere. The history of the introduction and diffusion of these technologies demonstrates that the spread of technique — the machine–like operations Jacques Ellul (1964) referred to as the strong machinization of the everyday — has come about through the ordinary activities of individuals in their personal lives. This was not predicted by classical theories of capitalism as introduced in Marx’s Capital, which have as a result needed to be rewritten. The tendency, considered inexorable by Marx, towards a strong increase in the use of machines (fixed capital) and a parallel decline in the number of workers (variable capital) must be strongly questioned at the present stage of the capitalist cycle. Today in fact there are billions of people using machines in the domestic sphere.

This pressure for the acquisition and use of machines in the domestic sphere is explored in the first section of this article, on the machinization of the domestic sphere. The second section reconstructs an important aspect of analysis of the social use of the mobile phone — the concepts of use and the user — in light of the literatures on consumption and on the role of the user in the technological design process; we can call this process the dynamic use/consumption/co–construction of the mobile phone. The third section examines the roles of users in the reinvention of this technology, looking at unexpected practices of use as a source of the redesign of the mobile phone. Finally, the last section analyzes the impact of such adaptations of the technology on its penetration, focusing on the mobile phone and civil society. Even though mobile telephones are very much the product of large industrial organizations, this case demonstrates interactions between the many ways in which users contribute to the design of the technological environment that in turn then governs their behavior. Thus what is learned from the case of the mobile phone can also be useful in analysis of the role of the use of other ICTs in shaping the conditions of governance.



The Machinization of the Domestic Sphere

It was during the twentieth century that machinization became a matter of mass experience through its spread into all facets of everyday life. While in the nineteenth century machinery was largely in the hands of industrialists (what Marx termed the owners of the means of production), much less was available to craftsmen and peasants. During the twentieth century, however, workers, and those classes tending towards proletariatization, became machine owners in the domestic sphere — the place in which people reintegrate their energies and reproduce. Across society, people people began to use not only goods produced by others but also technological devices of various kinds to increase their quality of life. The genealogy of machinery in the everyday world includes various means of transport (bicycle, motorbike and car), domestic appliances, sewing machines, mass media and ICTs. While domestic appliances were used at a physical level for reducing fatigue and the time needed to do practical jobs like washing clothes, ironing, washing dishes, polishing floors, and dusting, ICTs were used at a non–physical level for purposes such as communicating, entertainment, education, informing, transmitting knowledge, and learning. The widespread machinization of the domestic sphere didn’t led to the accumulation and collective use of machines in a specialized place (the factory), as happened with goods, but rather to their scattering throughout homes for family or individual use. In some cases men were the first users of these technologies in the home (as with cars), but in other cases the first users were women (household appliances), both genders simultaneously (mass media), or children and adolescents (gaming consoles, videogames, and the video recorder).

Access to these technologies by individuals reflects the hierarchy of power within the family as well as the division of labor (and cooperation) in domestic work. In the same way, changes that take place in this access and use reflect the changes that take place in power relations inside the family, as well as during a person’s life. Life cycles and interpersonal dynamics can affect the manner of use (personal, collective, by turns, and so on) of these technologies and the age at which they are taken up or abandoned. Even taking these factors into account, however, it remains the case that the acquisition, possession and use of machines of reproduction by workers — including those who work in the home — is a critical factor in social history because it gives control over the work processes mediated by those machines.

At the same time, the location of these technologies in the domestic sphere does not protect users from the alienation that often accompanies the adoption of technologies; this is because the reproduction sphere is not separate from the valorization process — in fact, it is completely subsumed by it. These technologies simultaneously act as powerful instruments of class control and of subordination because they structure the domestic work day and shape the nature of so–called “leisure time” as they are imagined, described, and experienced. With respect to the structure of the domestic work, these technologies exercise such control for two reasons. First, as Buckminster Fuller underlined (Braman, 2006), although they are used by individuals or families, the system within which they operate is necessarily social. Second, the use of these technologies makes work and activities such as raising children, taking care of the elderly and the ill, and being a partner in an affective relationship more productive and complex. With respect to “leisure time”, these technologies — especially media, as Meyrowitz (2004) makes clear — discipline imagination and immaterial work consumption, imposing “their” narration of the world.

The diffusion of the mobile phone, like all ICTs, can be seen at the level of society as an increase in fixed capital (machines). In the domestic sphere, however, it is of striking importance that the increase in fixed capital has not been accompanied by a decrease in variable capital. The reverse has happened: today an enormous mass of people in both the domestic sphere and society use “intellective” machines (Maldonado, 1997) — machines that are not intelligent in themselves but also stimulate intellectual work in their users. The typical user of fixed capital is no longer the classic worker in a factory or firm but, rather, the ordinary citizen in his or her domestic sphere. Machinery first accumulated at the specific sites of factories is now distributed throughout the entire society. In this sense, the everyday and the domestic have become so factory–like that they can actually be considered social factories (Dalla Costa and James, 1972; Fortunati, 1981). Examples include use of the television as a baby–sitter and a companion for the elderly; use of the computer and the Internet as entertainment, social media, and educational tools for adolescents; and, use of the telephone and mobile phone as “magical helpers” permitting women to use their time more efficiently while simultaneously sustaining social relations. Across all of these uses, it is apparent that reproduction of the family through the rearing of children has itself become increasingly mechanized.

This penetration of technologies into households affects not only the character of the everyday, but also that of the capitalist cycle. This may come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Marxist texts. They know well that for Marx the increase of fixed capital (machines) in the world of production of goods is one of the laws of capitalist development. According to the Marxist point of view, such development is determined by an unsustainable increase in fixed capital (such as equipment) relative to variable capital (workers). In other words, the increase in fixed capital is seen on one hand as inevitable and on the other as unsustainable. This Marxist reading is inspired by strong technological determinism as well as a focus on the production of exchange values.

If, however, we look at what has happened as a result of the increased in fixed capital in the domestic sphere, we find that exactly the opposite has taken place. Increasingly, machines are substituting for humans in domestic reproductive work even though, in Marx’s terms, no significant proportion of the population has become economically superfluous and thus unemployed (the “relative population” in Marxist terms). Indeed, in the domestic sphere machinization has been accompanied by an increase in employment in the sense that the amount of work involved once technologies are taken up increases.

The amount of technological development has also clearly emerged as a ground for social negotiation rather than being inexorable. The development of robotics, for instance, was long restrained simply because human labor was cheaper. Operators and manufacturers of many telecommunications devices and systems, particularly in mobile forms, faced many failures when technologies were rejected by the market; an example of such a “technosaur” was the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). The nature of technologies, including the types of agency they enable, has also undergone negotiation, as we shall see in more detail below.

The Marxist assumption regarding the non–sustainability of the increase in fixed capital relative to variable capital is also not supported in the case of the mobile phone. The number of people who today buy, possess, use and consume machines has increased enormously. At the same time, however, diverse forces devoted to keeping this use in check are also in play. Social scientists, for example, are suggesting that children and adolescents should be careful in both how and how much they use their mobile phones. There is also growing attention to problems of electromagnetic pollution and toxic waste disposal generated by the mobile phone — problems that will worsen as the lifespan of each generation of phones shortens.

It is the double nature of individuals in the domestic production cycle, where they are on one hand buyers, users, consumers and on the other hand a reproductive labor force, that makes these developments possible and explains the innovative role of individuals in relation to the mobile. What is involved is non–physical consumption/production that is very precious: the consumption/production of words, images, and sounds for the production and reproduction of individuals themselves. In the course of the machinization of the domestic sphere, the masses re–designed a technology — the mobile phone — that is the backbone of an undeniable right of human beings: freedom to communicate without control or censorship.



The Dynamic Use/Consumption/Co–construction of the Mobile Phone

The recent literature on the mobile phone has highlighted the crucial role of the user in the re–elaboration of this technology and its design [1]. We start from the user, for the protagonists of the analysis of the mobile have for a long time been users. This was due in part to the necessity of opposing the marketing view of users as buyers or subscribers, and in part to the perceptions of the designers of the technologies involved. Those who work at a machine generally become defined by its use, and thus become users. Starting from these premises the human relationship with the mobile was seen univocally: the phone was to offer communicative functions and services. This accent on use relegated all other issues, such as the nature and consequences of mobile phone consumption, into a kind of twilight zone. Analytically, this approach led to the neglect of questions about the symbolic and cultural meanings, meanings gradually being attached to this device, and about the extra work required by the mobile phone (as with any ICT or other machine) for its maintenance and replacement at the moment of obsolescence.

There may be another reason that early studies of the mobile phone obscured issues of consumption in favor of studies of use. It may be that it was necessary to examine use first because understanding the complexity of relations with the technology itself and of its domestication was necessary before turning to any other analytical dimensions. Over time, however, it became more and more obvious that the figure of the user was conceptually reductive because it emphasized only one mode of relation with the technological object, instead of the whole range of relations. Thus in the last few years we have begun to see studies of the consumption of the mobile phone as well as of its role in social change.

In turn, recent work on consumption of the mobile phone has further illuminated the user. One important influence has been the theory of the consumer as an “active” subject, an independent variable in the consumption process. From this perspective, everyday practices of the consumer decrees in an ever more unpredictable way the success or failure of a product, and conditions its production (Gaglio, 2004). This approach, which owes a great deal to the acute analytical work of the French sociologist Certeau (1984), as well as Baudrillard (1968) and many others, has tried to show how the struggle and mobilization of the workers for self–determination did not stop at the factory, but overflowed into the social sphere and into everyday life too. People rebelled against the logic of consumption, and put up a series of acts of resistance, opposition, and other strategies, that yield behaviors quite different from those intended by the designers of the technologies and the productive system within which those vendors are embedded.

In this framework, the concept of use ends up in a circuit with that of consumption, in mutual harmony. The complementary nature of the dimensions of use and consumption became obvious at the moment in which psychological, affective, and aesthetics elements came to the attention of scholars. Examples include attention to psychological dependence on the technological object (Vincent, 2003), and, as discussed here, to the mobile phone as an object of fashion (and hence subject to change in taste and continual change in form). The literature on consumption has a great deal to offer such analyses of the psycho–social dynamics of the use of the mobile and its social representation (Contarello, et al., 2003).

Increasingly, consumption is understood as an activity that is less and less secondary compared to production and more and more like goods production, in the sense that the consumption is increasingly seen as work directly involved in the production and reproduction of individuals themselves (Fortunati, 1981). Studies of this aspect of consumption have been further complemented by research on the role of the user in the re–elaboration of technologies and their design (Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Maldonado, 1997). Introduction of this stream of work into research on the mobile phone made visible the important role of the consumption of that technology in the process of its co–construction by users and manufacturers (Akrich, 1992; Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003). After this merging, the literature on mobile use began to register various aspects of its co–construction.

It may be useful to give a list of activities that contribute to this co–construction: the individualization of the mobile phone, its sedentary use, replacement of the landline phone, the introduction of a new dynamics between the private and the public, use of the phone for visual documentation of one’s environment, the discovery and diffusion of text messages, creation of special ringtones for the purpose of communicating without paying, calling random numbers to expand one’s circle of friends, interacting with the media (voting during programmes by means of text messages, phoning while in the car), the role of the mobile phone in self–presentation, and incorporation of music into phone use through ringtones, radio programs, and concerts (Fortunati, 2005). Studies on the criteria for buying a mobile (Gaglio, 2003), on its life span (which is at present 18 months, but tending towards 12), and on emotional responses to the phone such as are experienced when the object is left behind somewhere or lost are fewer in number but still useful.

Without doubt this more complete line of inquiry on use/consumption/co–construction of the mobile has made it possible to observe how the process of ideation and implementation of technologies does not stop in front of the walls of a factory, but is immersed in a much wider circuit that includes the domestic sphere. The domestic sphere is one of the places where the mobile is bought or refused, tried out in its full–blown or possible functions, in its more or less latent meanings, and in its performance hierarchy. In other words, it is here that the mobile is adjusted to, adapted, and implemented — that is, redesigned.



Redesigning the Mobile Phone

The creative activity that marks the mass consumption of the mobile phone recalls Marx’s discussion of workers’ creative intelligence in using machines. In his study of factory work he realized that it was workers, not managers, who understood how to reduce work time through the use of machines, acquiring that knowledge through experience. Later on, managers of Fordist factories attempted to use this knowledge to increase the efficiency of machines that had, by that point, become electro–mechanical. Under Fordism, the spontaneous shortening of rhythms of production was replaced with deliberate attempts to speed up the rhythm of work to increase productivity. The workers’ struggles that marked the end of Fordism led to a hybridization of the domestic sphere with the logic of industrial production. Over the last two decades, there has been an effort to transform domestic workers’ efforts with intellective technologies in households ICTs into a dependent developmental variable. The results of this attempt are still uncertain, just as it is also not yet clear how far the process of co–construction of ICTs and especially of the mobile will be of advantage to buyers/users/consumers or operators/manufacturers.

The co–construction of the mobile phone has come about as a result of being continually redesigned by buyers/consumers/users. Women, adolescents and children have pressed on the mobile phone market and created a second and third wave of users who have modified the physical features of the phone to make it reflect their needs and expectancies more. Both the phone and the services and functions it offers have undergone this process.

At the initial stages, users were highly targeted (generally white, male and adult) (Fortunati, 2003) and offered a highly specialized platform that was hostile to other kinds of users. Under the hammer blows of the following waves of users, designers were obliged to realize that it was not mmaximally effective to predetermine the nature of the services to be offered, and the relationship between particular telecommunications networks and particular mobile phones, too closely. In fact, the more flexible the platform, the more open it is to any transformation, and the greater its capacity to adapt also to the various kinds of buyers/users who will broaden the market in successive waves. This new kind of platform for third generation mobile phones, called OSA (Open Simulation Architecture), has a very low level of definition that allows anyone to freely choose their own operators and service providers. Specific services are no longer linked to a particular vendor, telecommunications company, or phone. The 3G mobile phones had this capacity built in at both the technological and the content levels.

The dimensions and characteristics of the mobile phone as a technological object have also been redesigned. Phones first became aesthetically attractive, and then actually fashionable, in response to pressure from women who rejected the tradition of the square black box and instead demanded colors, rounded forms, sustainable miniaturization, and other opportunities for personalization. The keys had to be modified and raised if they were to be used by women, who often have longer finger nails than men and as a result had problems using normal mobile phone keyboards. Once individual users were able to negotiate the identities and desires embodied in the mobile telephone, they were far more likely to incorporate this technology into their personal ecologies. Thus the redesign of the mobile phone as a material and symbolic object was one of the most important factors in making it more acceptable in society.

User choice regarding whether or not to adopt a particular technology can be considered a form of governance because it represents a counter–policy to top–down decision–making, with technologies emerging instead from the bottom up. It was users, not vendors or governments, who made the decision to privilege the mobile phone over the Internet in many developing countries. While much public debate over ICTs in the 1990s concentrated on either praising the prerogative of the Internet or denouncing and complaining about the persistence of the “digital divide,” citizens all over the world (including in poorer countries) instead chose to invest in mobiles.

The reasons for this preference are quite obvious. First, the mobile can be used by anyone (even by the illiterate or semi–illiterate) as it does not necessarily involve writing text. Second, it is much less expensive than computer access to the Internet. Third, it is simpler than accessing the Internet through a computer, for the latter technology requires formalized language, an excess of cognitivity, and mastery of unfriendly interfaces. Formalization is problematic because programming languages are not simple but, rather, are simultaneously rigid and limited [2]. The concept of an “excess of cognitivity” refers to the fact that use of networked computers is not direct and immediate, but presupposes some knowledge of ICT systems. If a hammer does not work, we change it or we find some other solution but, “If the computer, that is, your ‘servant’, does not work, it is you, its owner, that have to learn to use it.” [3] The result is that “there is an increase in stress and discomfort and situations of risk, elements that can have a serious effect on our work and our actions.” [4] By ordering you to follow certain instructions it imposes the principle of performance: you are considered capable if you are able to carry out the operations that it imposes on you. “The curious thing is that a bit at a time people are getting pleasure from this totally executive role.” [5] The interface is also far from being readily intuited. Lastly, IT systems are quite fragile and unstable and so presuppose a certain level of support for their maintenance and repair. In the West such support generally is derived — though not always very well — from a network of social learning (Williams, et al., 2005), but in developing countries this can constitute an often non–resolvable problem.

As evidence that the narrow vision of the digital divide still exists today among those involved with the spread of digital technologies from the top down, the United Nations launched a “Digital Solidarity Fund” ( on 14 March 2005, to finance projects addressed to “enabling excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society” [6]. This fund is based on the long sustained presupposition that the digital divide is a form of inequality that can be resolved by policies pushing the spread of computing. This position is fundamentally erroneous, however, for access to a computer is hardly useful to people who have no food, water, health, electricity and are illiterate. Neither will new technologies tailored for developing countries help to completely resolve this problem, whether those are the simple computer (simputer; see, which is a very low–cost device and can be used even by illiterate people, or traditional technologies that mingle with new, as the POst_Email, which combines letters and e–mail (Rawat, 2005).

Citizens’ practices evince a preference for a very different approach, for it appears that the most appropriate technology from the perspective of bottom–up development is generally not the computer/Internet, but the mobile phone. According to The Economist (2005), in developing countries the mobile phone has twice the impact compared to developed countries, and each 10 phones per 100 people stimulates economic growth as measured in GDP in a developing society by 0.6 percentage points. While this may not be true in every case — in India a sustained growth rate is accompanied by a very low diffusion of mobile phones — it is true in many cases. Multiple factors account for the mobile phone’s appeal: it costs much less than computers, does not require a permanent electricity supply, can be used immediately by those who are illiterate (Chipchase, 2005), can be managed at a simple level by those directly involved, involves costs that can be easily controlled via techniques such as prepaid cards, and is a technology that adapts easily to serve different communicative needs.

Again, it is worth underlining that this mass diffusion largely involves citizens of developing countries whose preferences, needs, and desires have been incorporated into the design of the mobile phone. If in India today there are already about 80 million possessors of mobiles [7], in China they have already reached 400 million (Law and Peng, 2005), and even in Africa the mobile is spreading very rapidly. In 2004 mobile subscription rates across Africa were 47 percent, and mobile subscriptions were 76.5 percent of the telephone subscriptions on the continent (Fifty–eight percent of users were concentrated in four countries: South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt). Packages tailored to local markets, such as subscriptions that are prepaid, post–paid and business–to–business, are the most effective. Mobile payphones are also very popular in Africa, where it is not rare to see a mobile subscriber setting up a stall in the street and charging customers for every call. In Bangladesh they have the Village Pay Phone, where mainly women, who have acquired a handset by means of micro–funding by the Grameen Bank, go to more than 20,000 villages in rural areas and hire it out to local callers (Aminuzzaman, 2002, 2005).

Why do citizens of developing countries push for mobile phones? First, research conducted in China (Law and Peng, 2005) and Japan (Kim, 2005a, 2005b) shows that mobile telephony is a technological structure that has helped many people in course of great migrations, both internal and external. They make it possible to maintain affective and love relations between those who have departed and those who have stayed behind. The recent history of the massive shift in China of many millions of workers from the country towards more industrialized areas, for instance, is inextricably connected with the spread of the mobile. Second, in developing countries, much more than in developed ones, this technology is also importantly used not only for communicating with friends and family, but also for work. For example, mobile phones are used not only to look for employment in highly industrialized areas of China (Law, 2005), but also as an instrument used in the course of work to conduct transactions and distribute goods. They are used to buy and sell — often using cashless payments — on the African continent, for example.

Thus it comes as no surprise that people in poor countries spend a large proportion of their incomes on mobile phones. Buying and using a mobile is the best investment that they can make with their wages because it serves important social functions as well as producing or guaranteeing access to an income. The use of wireless networks has in turn given rise to important economic changes in many developing countries in recent years, supporting small business very effectively (Donner, 2003, 2005) and facilitating transactions in fishing and agriculture activities. In general, the very circulation of information on supply and demand, prices, etc. enables people in “low–trust societies to better organize collective action beyond the extended family or the village.” [8]

To conclude, in developing countries people use the mobile phone for a wide range of activities, including reducing transaction costs, broadening trade networks, conducting business, reducing travelling, and staying in contact with families and friends. Recently Motorola produced a mobile phone expressly for developing countries which costs only $US40 and which will no doubt contribute to the penetration of the mobile there. In developing countries the rate of penetration is destined to grow rapidly, given that, as a report from the World Bank notes, 77 percent of the world’s population lives within range of a mobile telephone network today (The Economist, 2005).



The Mobile Phone and Civil Society

We have already mentioned the necessity for merging studies of the mobile with those of political economy. Another equally important connection is with political studies on governance. Over two decades have passed since Ithiel de Sola Pool’s book Technologies of Freedom (1983) first appeared. This book made explicit and responded to the great implicit question: what relation is there between the new electronic technologies and freedom? This question is based on the rights to information and to communication without censorship that were embedded in the law with great effort over the last 500 years by Western citizens.

If it is a question of face–to–face communication, we can say immediately that this right to speak without being controlled is anything but spread evenly over society. In fact, the individual exercise of this right is related to the level of power that the various social strata have. As examples, to make children keep quiet we impose a game of silence, the communicative activity by women within the family nucleus is given the name of chatter, and the minutes that an employee has at his or her disposal to speak to the boss can almost always be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Generally “others,” whether they are family members, relatives, friends or acquaintances in the private sphere, or our colleagues, bosses or underlings, constitute various networks of control over us. In the context of interpersonal relations with family or friends, the various forms of control that are put into place and which we have to put up with represent the dark side of intimacy. In the world of work, control can be considered one of the survival strategies of power and serves to re–establish the social hierarchy, sanctioned by the rigidity of its various forms of ritualization. It is such forms of micro–control over individuals that the use of the mobile as a technology of the word has affected, and in some cases removed. The telephone — especially the mobile phone — has allowed some escape not only from control by others, but also from self–control and communicative self–censure. Wives and children who do not appear in the telephone directory, for example, can have their own telephone numbers with the mobile, offering for the first time the possibility of managing communicative networks individually, and thus extending their access to communication (Fortunati, 2002). The result encourages the development of individualization and the liberalization of individual sociability. In combination with the availability of the mobile phone to those of low socio–economic status, this feature of the technology has meant that, of all ICTs, the mobile phone has had the greatest impact in structurally widening the possibilities of communication among the historically more disadvantaged segments of the population.

There is no lack of research to support this analysis. A first example is made up of a qualitative inquiry carried out in Italy by means of non–structured interviews with adolescents (Fortunati, 2001a, 2001b; Fortunati and Manganelli, 2002), where it emerged that the social lives of adolescents are now consumed entirely by the mobile. This technology has helped children hide from their parents where they are going and whom they are meeting. Another study that supported this conclusion involved more than 700 young people attending two lyceums in the North East of Italy. The main thrust of this research was to investigate the relationships between fashion and the mobile, but it emerged that parents try to check up on children by means of mobiles (in many cases giving their children phones with the illusion that their use would enable parents to check up on children more easily) — though rarely with any success (Cianchi, et al., 2002).

It also appears that, as documented by frequent news items, the diffusion of the mobile facilitates the maintenance of parallel love stories, outside matrimony or established couples. Since use of the mobile makes it easier to prevent one’s partner from checking up on one’s communications with the outside world, this technology has helped create extra–conjugal relations. Ironically, however, in many cases exercising undue control over a mobile phone used for this purpose itself betrays the behavior that one is attempting to hide.

In conclusion, individuals across the population have certainly profited first from the telephone and then from the mobile to weaken or even defuse communicative and relational control at the family or affective level and to recover space for self–determination and communication. Individuals have used the telephone to remove self–censure, re–dimension the super–ego and develop different forms of affection. The “weak subjects” of society have been able to use the mobile to promote their communicative, and hence social, profiles more effectively.

All these social processes can also be described in another way: as democratic liberalization of the communicative and relational networks surrounding an individual. The same effect can also be found at other levels of the social structure. Let’s take for example the question of the public sphere. It is obvious that public exercise of this right is in the hands of a few. Many public spaces inhibit words, whether because of an interiorized form of communicative repression that agglomerates of people are expected to respect or because the social actors able to speak in public spaces are always few, making the many a silent public.

How have the new technologies been used to democratize the public sphere? First, as other articles in this special issue of First Monday demonstrate, unexpected uses of the mobile phone as an instrument of counter-governance have emerged. Moreover, citizens have begun to use the mobile phone for organizing demonstrations and other processes critical to political movements (Nyíri, 2003; Rheingold, 2002). Audiences have also begun to use the mobile phone to interact with the traditional media, especially by means of text messaging (Kraidy, 2006). This interaction is obviously minimal, reduced to short formulas, but even so it enables citizens to give voice to their opinions in some circumstances. In a certain sense, then, the mobile phone has broadened the potential for public participation in discourse within public spaces, and for communication among members of the public in ways that were not available historically.

Second, the mobile phone is also being used to support e–government functions, including faster and easier access to information that are critical to governance. Such processes are only beginning to be put in place, but they are quite various and multiplying rapidly. Examples include both local information about traffic circulation, cultural happenings, and health and school issues, and national information reminding us of what we can or must do, as exemplified by messages sent out by the Italian Civil Protection Agency on the occasion of the Pope’s death to regulate the flow of people from all over the world to Rome [9].

Third, the mobile has been used to attain a higher level of social inclusion and a broadening of democratic rights to communication in the sphere of its use and consumption. It is as if the fight for democracy had shifted to an unexpected and unusual plane for politics, the consumption of goods. The activities involved in consumption, however, have a strongly political and strategic nature. Because the persuasive mechanisms of public opinion are affected by the fragmentation of the places and times of social discourse, the use of communicative technologies in complex societies increasingly mediates the right to communication and information. For this reason non–access destroys the right to communicate, inform and be informed. Defending and reinforcing this right of access becomes indispensable for the ever more individualized citizens of the post–modern age if they want to keep a sort of connective tissue with others or to influence in some way those who run the media. However, success in sustaining this connective tissue only goes so far as to defend a pre–democratic space in which the citizen has neither a face nor a name and is confined to peripheral political and communicative spaces; online newspaper forums, for example, do not have as much influence as front–page news. It is important to properly underline the ambience and limits of the use of the mobile, as of other ICTs, if only to debunk the very dangerous myth that the latter provide such support for the democratization process that they provide a panacea for problems regarding political participation.

Indeed, research on the mobile phone suggests that today’s political battles are most effectively fought not on the front lines, but in the rearguard, and they are more likely to be mass behaviors than organized mobilizations. These behaviors appear in a space that is not generally recognized as that of civil society so much as the sphere of the everyday, a sphere with no political representation or visibility. It is not in the sphere of traditional politics — the mechanisms and structures of delegation and political representation — but in possibly silent acts of resistance to the logics of the system, that the real power relations over governance are developing today.

Finally, the mobile phone, along with other ICTs, has helped to concentrate information in cyberspace. This concentration results in a kind of “doubling” of reality, an artificial equivalent of the real, which obliges us to have a life that is at the same time human and inhuman. Everything starts, explains Baudrillard [10], from an exchange that is fundamentally impossible. On one hand, the uncertainty of the world derives from the fact that it does not have an equivalent. On the other, the uncertainty of thought stems from the fact that it cannot be exchanged either with the truth or with reality. This uncertain thought is the double life of the world. Thought and writing double the world, which does not exist without this doubling. “The world,” writes Baudrillard [11], “lacks nothing before being thought, but afterwards it cannot be explained except on this basis.” While this doubling of the world in virtual space is among its attractions, it also creates problems. The fact that these intellective machines — again, machines that are not only intelligent in themselves but also stimulate intellectual work in their users — offer the spectacle of thought more than thought itself, the spectacle of information more than information itself, the spectacle of knowledge more than knowledge itself [12], introduces some ambivalence into how we interpret the impact of the use of mobile phones on civil society in balance.




This article has attempted to provide a sense of the conflicts and social negotiations in progress today around the mobile phone, as well as the most important bottom–up processes of governance put into motion by it. The mobile is indeed a technology that is strategically used both in developed and developing countries as a tool for facilitating and implementing the flow of communication and social relations in the face of an increasingly complex society in which such flows are less and less fluid and more and more difficult. It facilitates rationalization of organization and work processes, especially in developing countries. Citizens use it to extend the right to information and communication, working within the fundamental premises of the democratization process.

Certainly neither the mobile nor other ICTs can resolve the problems raised by the crises of politics and democracy. But analyzing the social use of the mobile phone, the co–construction of its design, the variants made by citizens to its functions and services, and the paths of its actual, symbolic, and affective consumption, provides some understanding of how people are engaging in political battle. At the same time, however, the mobile participates in the construction of a double reality with which we do not yet fully know how to deal. End of article


About the author

Leopoldina Fortunati (University of Udine, sociology) conducts research on the user impact on ICTs and on capital formations in the digital environment. She is the author of The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1995, translation of L’arcano della riproduzione: Casalinghe, prostitute, operai e capitale published originally in 1981) and co–editor (with James E. Katz and Raimonda Riccini) of Mediating the Human Body: Technology, Communication and Fashion (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003); co–editor (with Leslie Haddon, Enid Mante, Bartolomeo Sapio, Kari–Hans Kommonen, and Annevi Kant) of Everyday Innovators: Researching the Role of Users in Shaping ICTs (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005); and, co–editor (with Peilin Luo and Shanhua Yang) of New Technologies in Global Societies (London: World Scientific Publishing, 2006).
E–mail: fortunati [dot] deluca [at] tin [dot] it



Thanks to Sandra Braman for assisting with the translation of this article into English.



1. Cf. for the telephone, Fischer (2002); for the mobile, Fortunati (2003, 2005).

2. To explain this we refer to the Italian epistemologist and mathematician Giuseppe O. Longo (1999). According to him, the computer doesn’t simplify the description of reality but, rather, makes it more complex; a problem easily understood in terms of everyday life becomes obscure when translated into abstractions. Furthermore, the attempt to reconstruct the world by means of the instruments of mathematical formalism encounters various limits. Thought processes don’t always conform to logical structures. Because the rationality of computers cannot provide full accounts of the body, the unconscious, or the feminine, it provides an inadequate image of the world. Finally, treating the subject as if it is outside of the conceptual framework raises the risk of transforming the world (and ourselves in the world) into a trivial “machine” (according to the definition of von Foerster).

3. Zingale, 1999, p. 27.

4. Ibid.

5. Bonfantini, 1999, p. 45.

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10. Baudrillard, 1999, p. 15.

11. Baudrillard, 1999, p. 144.

12. Baudrillard, 1999, p. 112.



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Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, Leopoldina Fortunati

User Design and the Democratization of the Mobile Phone by Leopoldina Fortunati
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),

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