Cell phone city : mobile phone use and the hybridization of space in Tokyo
Cities all over the world are rapidly changing due to a mobile communication technology revolution. All around us, screens are getting bigger and Internet is getting faster. Although the growth of mobile Internet is a global phenomenon, there are several urban agglomerations in East-Asian countries that rank particularly high in mobile Internet data consumption. Among those is Tokyo, the cradle of mobile internet technology, where people use their mobile phones anywhere they go, carrying pocket routers that make sure their Internet connection is strong, fast, and unlimited. Changes like these are bound to have impact on how people experience urban space, because it blurs the boundaries between physical and virtual space. The constant connectedness is transforming the city: streets become places for diverse social interaction, metros become workspaces, and crossroads change into arcade halls. QR codes and URLs that are pasted everywhere prompt the mobile phone user to visit the online. The concept of digital/physical space hybridization as a result of internet use has been studied before and studies often rightly emphasize the social environments in which internet technologies operate. However, leading theories on digitalization of the city have not included the concept of mobile phone internet use to the extent that is now showcased in Tokyo and other major East-Asian urban agglomerations. In order to keep this theoretical framework contemporary, hybrid space in East-Asia should be researched and provide feedback for existing theories about the relation between technology and the modern (mega) city. This study critically re-visits the existing theoretical framework on the influence of virtual space on the city and compares findings with anthropological fieldwork the author conducted in Tokyo. The research points out that the merge of physical and virtual space leads to an increase in online activity which fundamentally alters the way pedestrians behave in a city. It also reveals a platform for power dynamics since the hybrid digital/physical city provides new ways for profit-seekers to influence mobile phone users. The speed with which this has happened over the past two to ten years in Tokyo epitomizes the hasty development of the information technology revolution. While Tokyo is just one example of high mobile data consuming cities in East-Asia, it can help us understand a globally existing pattern of rapid increase in mobile Internet and how it transforms the city.