Lost in (mobile) Space

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Twas a dark and stormy Tuesday afternoon and the University of Wollongong was swarming with malnourished and impoverished students. I was tiptoeing slowly in the shadows. I heard footsteps behind me; my pace quickened. The footsteps broke into a run.

I look around at the gloomy corridors of building 19; where do I run? “Hey Claire, what’s up?” says a friendly person I had a tutorial with last semester, when they finally catch me. I turn around and scream as death closes in on me . . .

 ***

I have an irrational phobia of the awkward silence. Maybe it’s because I’m the most awkward psycho to ever grace the planet we call home, but I’d actually rather avoid a social interaction entirely than engage in small talk and

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experience an awkward silence as the conversation runs flat. If two people who began a conversation stop talking and kind of just stand there, it becomes super awkward. Conversely, if those same two people avoid the aforementioned conversation, pull out their phones and cease to acknowledge other, the awkward silence risk is eliminated and life is good (trust me, this is science).

In this sense, personally I am all for having your smartphone out in a public arena. It doesn’t actually bother me when the people I am with are on their phones – but I know the same is not true for everybody.

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We’ve reached a point in society where it’s borderline abnormal to not pull your phone out on a regular basis. There’s a stark division (which is usually generational) in the accepted use of mobile devices in public, however.

I do think that in some circumstances, pulling your mobile phone out in public could be deemed rude, but I place the dependence of that on context. If you’re ‘alone’ (with nobody you know) in a corridor waiting for class or on a train, I’d say it’s perfectly acceptable. If you’re at an important meeting or a family dinner, I’d say not so much. It becomes a little more complex in a group of friends; there’s an interesting balance between us all being glued to our phone screens and having expectations of each other as to when to put them away.

Here is an image I took earlier this week, of a mobile device being used in a semi-public space. A space is constituted of the context upon which it exists. It is made up of the people who occupy it; more specifically their values, ethics and the occasion for their gathering (ibid). As technology plays an increasing role in our everyday lives, various ethical challenges become apparent. The use of mobile phones – particularly their cameras – at concerts and crime scenes are two such examples.

Public space ethnography is the use of a public space to measure social behavioural patterns. It involves observing the way people use a public space, such as a park or café. Photography often assists this. It looks at where people sit and why, and draws trend-based conclusions from the data collected. Ethnography allows researchers to interpret and analyse how and why a social process occurs.

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Greta and Pantelei using their devices whilst eating lunch beside the duck pond at UOW

Photography in a public space creates several ethical dilemmas. Colberg argues that the public’s perception of acceptable photography has changed over the past few years. People seem increasingly wary of being photographed without permission, although Colberg notes the  irony of surveillance cameras doing just that. Whilst it is technically legal to photograph somebody in a public place, it is not necessarily ethical. Colberg states that it is on the onus of the photographer to communicate with his or her audience about their wishes. Street photography is necessary for artistic purposes and for the tourism industry and it is often impractical to obtain permission from every party present in a photograph. However at the end of the day, if a person does not wish to have their picture taken, a photographer should respect this.

When asked to capture a photograph of mobile devices in use in a public place, I overcame the ethical conundrum by asking two of my friends to model. I asked their permission and explained that the photograph would be displayed on my blog.
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-Claire

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