Monday, 4 October 2010

The Sociology of Immobility I


Mark Featherstone

It is entirely fashionable today to talk about the sociology of mobility, but I wonder whether this discourse is already more or less out of date. The theory of mobility turns off the idea that processes of globalisation have resulted in unprecedented levels of interconnectedness across the world, resulting in the emergence of what is normally called the network society. This process of global interconnectivity relies on information communication technologies to achieve the integration of financial markets and complex transport infrastructures to allow flows of people to move through global space. Ironically, this process of integration and networking, which we might imagine would lead to new levels of sociability, has also resulted in the emergence of a new brand of what we might call asocial hyper-individualism, whereby those linked into the global network are simultaneously sunk in networks of co-operation, but also provided with enormous levels of freedom.

Although it may seen strange to talk about asociality or a lack of social interaction in the context of networks of co-operation, it is important to remember that one can exist very well in society and be quite unsociable in terms of how one thinks about other people. The key here is, therefore, that processual co-operation does not necessarily entail deep social interaction. Instead I think that what continues to happen in the contemporary global society is that the high levels of co-operation demanded by the network in order to enable mobility are endlessly undercut by the kind of hyper-individualism produced by the desire to move, what we might call the will to mobility, and that it is this that means that the potential sociability written into the form of the global network continually collapses into a kind of manic individualism, whereby everybody is set on making it big and escaping from the constraints of the very social form that creates the possibility of making it in the first place.

But before we move on, let’s slow down and take stock. What we must recognise from the above is that the sociology of mobility is not simply about flows of money and people around the world or the technologies that make movement possible. Instead, I think that we have to understand that to a large extent mobility is in the head and a psychological condition. This may, in large part, be a psychological condition created by the explosion of ICTs in the final decade of the 20th century. What do ICTs do, if not allow us to let our imaginations run wild and explore the world of the mind in the fantasy space of the net?

In many respects, then, it is possible to say that the entire world is available on the World Wide Web. Moreover, the strange philosophical consequences of this statement, which revolve around the emergence of a form of spatial short circuit that shrinks the global to the level of the local and makes the macrosphere totally available to the cybernaut locked into the delimited space of microspherical PC terminal, are that it is absolutely not metaphorical to say that the internet makes the world available to everybody without the need for movement. On the contrary, what the internet, the hard infrastructural technologies that make the WWW possible, achieves is the telescoping of the entire world, or the entire networked world, into every individual node or terminal connected to the global network. According to this logic, there is no need to travel anywhere or be mobile in a physical sense, since I can go anywhere and be everywhere, without leaving my PC terminal that plugs me into the global network. This is precisely what the French writer Paul Virilio talks about in his works on globalisation, speed, and ICTs. Virilio talks about ‘the terminal man’ or the last man who gives up his body to his PC in order to inhabit the new global network. Recalling science fiction films such as the Matrix he tells us that an ethics of 21st century should be about saving people from becoming sedentary no-bodies who never leave their house, but rather travel through the interface between their mind and the globalised network.

Is this science fiction? Although the above arguments sound like the plot from a Phillip K Dick novel, consider the Japanese phenomena of the shut-in and the net addict. In both cases the globalised network starts to take over from reality rendering the body, what Virilio calls the last vehicle, an archaic irrelevancy. For the shut-in, a figure closely related to the NEET who withdraws from the public world of education and employment, the entire social world becomes a frightening place to the extent that even the family becomes an alien institution. Thus the shut-in’s world contracts to the space of the bedroom, which often becomes a kind of cockpit for connecting to the wider world through ICTs.

Herein we enter the strange world of net addict who spends his entire life in cyberspace, often neglecting to attend to the basic physical requirements of human life, eating, drinking, shitting, pissing, sleeping, and gradually losing the ability to differentiate between the fantasy space of the net and the hard materiality of the real world. Surely the classic example of this phenomenon is the recent case of the Korean couple who allowed their 3 month old baby to starve to death while they surfed the net, raising a cyber-child in the process. It would, of course, be hyperbolic to suggest that this is a generalised condition today, but the seeds of the problem of voluntary immobility and the consequent wasting of the obsolete body are clearly present in our contemporary globalised society.

After all, who has not spent their entire day sat in front of a computer screen, surfing the net, sending e-mail to people sat at PCs in far off places, and moving about in the globalised network that collapses mobility into immobility in the light speed it takes to connect to the world wide web? My wager would be that the majority of the people reading this short piece have spent days like these. It is for this reason that I would suggest that we counter the sociology of mobility, which seems to me to be largely celebratory in its view of the value of movement and dynamism, with a new dire sociology of immobility, which recognises that the flip side of the explosion of kinetic energy that has resulted in processes of globalisation is a implosive force that exerts an enormous gravitational pull on every one of us, commanding us to stay put, don’t move, because the only way to really move is to live in the wires of the net.

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