The space of a mobile phone conversation is a real space as well as a node on a technological network. These communication spaces used to be architecturally defined, such as Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic ‘K2‘ red phone box. With mobile technologies this architectural referent disappears, and the zone created by switching your attention from a social public space to a private call or message is defined by product design and gesture, neither of which have effectively replaced architecture as a commonly understood social protocol.
The zone also describes the cell-like structure of mobile phone networks themselves, explored very effectively in the work of Dunne & Raby at the RCA. This technological boundary is more fluid than physical architecture, moving dynamically with you as you walk between zones, but can still be used as a way to locate the user within physical space.
However, boundaries of communication spaces are not only defined by architecture and technology. Erving Goffman also describes the way in which we use social conventions of inclusion and exclusion to demarcate these boundaries – what Goffman calls situational closure. This describes the way in which we communicate, or pretend to communicate, our participation in a conversation. Depending on our familiarity with the participants or the context, we can take a number of positions in relation to a conversation, from active to passive, from bystander to focal point. Goffman investigates these positions, and most importantly into the transitions between them, in great detail:
One example of this is small enclosed spaces like elevators, where individuals may be so closely brought together that no pretence of not hearing can possibly be maintained. A similar kind of issue seems to arise in near-empty bars, or with cabdrivers. So too with the individual who is momentarily left to his own resources while a person to whom he has been talking answers a telephone call; physically close to the engaged other and patently occupied, he must yet somehow show civil inattention.
In these examples Goffman is describing how intimate conversations affect the status of the observers in the immediate vicinity. Instead of a singular connection between the people participating in a conversation, there is a fall-out amongst everyone in hearing distance, with the consequence that they must somehow signify their inclusion or exclusion from a discourse that they are not in control of. A similar set of relationships occurs when one person takes a mobile phone call in a public space, even if the surrounding audience arent necessarily known to the person taking the call (for example on a train).
The zone in this case does not describe a kind of cocoon that temporarily separates the individual from social space, but a kind of wave that affects everyone within the vicinity of the communication. Yet again, the moment of intimate communication is not merely an exchange between two people and the technologies that connect them, but a complex social environment with a large number of participants, each of whom has to play a role, whether voluntarily or not.