2.2 Personal Area Connections

We all have a natural desire to establish personal spaces. We buy homes, we have offices and we sit certain distances apart from other passengers on public transport. In an increasingly crowded and mobile society we spend most of our waking lives in the personal spaces we construct for ourselves in transit, whether walking down the street, sitting on a train or driving a car. When spending such large amounts of time in transitory personal spaces it is inevitable that cracks appear in the public façade with which we present ourselves.

[Please refer to my Bibliography for the sources of quotes.]

Erving Goffman describes this facade as a ‘performance’ to those around us in public spaces. We present a ‘front stage’, which is the performance we put on for the outside world. We hide elements of our true selves ‘back stage’. Goffman noted that however polished the ‘front stage’ performance there is an uncontrolled leakage of elements of our true selves, from ‘back stage’ (1984: 109-114). The information that does get through is called ‘stigma’ by Goffman and is the attributes that mark out an individual’s emotional and social status. It is our ability to pick up these clues that make us the successful ‘mind readers’ Johnson (2001) suggests.

The shrinking of our personal spaces to those we create in transit, and the majority of time we now spend in these transitory spaces, has resulted in an increase in the stigma we give-off inadvertently. This has been accentuated by the arrival of mobile personal communications devices, as highlighted by many people’s dislike of public mobile phone users (Ibid. 5). The stigma that are picked up by co-present others may not relate to interactions in the actual environment. As people can be continuously connected to their virtual social groups many alienate themselves from others in public spaces.

The space in which our social interactions occur is a very local one. Goffman (1984) labelled this the ‘Interaction Order’. Modern mobile communications devices are increasingly equipped with Bluetooth and other short-range radio frequency devices that create a sphere of connectivity within the immediate vicinity of the user. Rheingold equates this wireless 12ft information bubble around wearable computer users as a physical model of Goffman’s interaction order (2002: 171). Paul Rankin of Philips Research Laboratories describes these cybrid bubbles as ‘aura’.

Devices we carry are increasingly linking up to share our information, for example mobile phones can share address books with PDAs and laptops. The need for devices to connect to each other within our aura has led to the development of ‘personal area’ networking. Personal Area Networks (PANs) are low power, low range wireless networks that provide connectivity among devices within the aura space (Kortuem et al. 2001: 1). Thus our personal spaces become cybrid, and with that comes the augmentation of the information we give-off. PANs will augment our local interactions by allowing us to share information with any passer-by. When aura overlap, devices will be able to share information about users allowing matching algorithms to run for a variety of contexts, such as personal interests and common acquaintances. The ability of our PANs ‘to establish communication links among devices during a face-to-face encounter can be used to facilitate, augment or even promote face-to-face interaction’ (Kortuem et al. 2001: 3). Such ‘impromptu collaboration’ (Kortuem et al. 2001: 3), using only the devices we normally carry, allows the sharing of resources such as music and contacts and promotes conversation and cooperation with others with similar interests we would not otherwise meet.

Such an invisible bubble that stretches before us as we go about our lives could remove much of the guesswork around gathering basic information about others and leave us to engage in the higher order interpretation and reasoning at which we are so good. Of course all of this relies on all parties being similarly trustworthy. It is calculating whom we can trust and then sharing that information in the form of reputation that is an important building block on which mobile peer-to-peer networks shall be based.

Posted by Sam at April 19, 2004 05:24 PM

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