Mobile Intimacy

Theories on the Economics of Emotion with Examples from Asia

How to Cite

Raiti, G. C. (2007). Mobile Intimacy: Theories on the Economics of Emotion with Examples from Asia. M/C Journal, 10(1).
Vol. 10 No. 1 (2007): 'mobile'
Published 2007-03-01

So here is one of the paradoxes of mediated globalization: at the same time as it connects people, it also distanciates them. (Rantanen 10)


Mobile technologies are changing personal relationships and intimacy. While many authors critique the benefits of globalization from either corporate or cultural perspectives, I follow Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman in assessing globalization from the standpoint of the personal. ‘Mobile intimacy,’ the ability to be intimate across distances of time and space, is a global phenomenon. Oddly enough, the sociability of mobile telephony is not homogenous across the world. How the mobile phone is used to extend personal relationships in Asia/Pacific is unique compared to the rest of the world. As Misa Matsuda notes in her discussion of mobile phone (keitai) phenomenon in Japan, this technosocial dynamic is creating a dependency of ‘fulltime intimacy.’

At its crux, this essay applies Giddens’s cornerstone of time-space distanciation to research on mobile telephony to demonstrate how globalization threatens some personal relationships. An ‘economics of emotion’ arises where capitalistic uses of technologies alter power within personal relationships. Love becomes a commodity which is subject to economic rules of supply and demand. Love, however, is not synonymous with intimacy; it is only a component. Ultimately, I see globalization leading towards not a homogenized identity (Schiller) but an obfuscating of identity, where some individual float through a consumerist abyss marked by the acquisition of goods (Lasn). If the non-linearity of late modernity has transformed love into a commodity, then how does the commoditization of love into the realm of the mobile affect how one negotiates intimacy?

This essay begins with a summary of time-space distanciation literature. From there, it challenges Giddens’s (“Transformation”) postmodern concept of the ‘pure relationship’ and how it differs from Victorian intimacy. The main argument then expresses how technologies like mobile phones sever some emotional relationships while solidifying others. Last, this paper concludes by analyzing how globalization has created what I term ‘stable instability,’ whereby the ‘disjuncture’ of modern times allows some cosmopolitans to establish emotional order through being in constant flux. In short, the utopia of global communications, particularly in Asia, is to some extent a fallacy when one considers how new technologies hinder some personal relationships.

Time, Space, and Place in Globalization

The reallocation of time, space, and place through new media is the bedrock for mobile intimacy. It is necessary to summarize some key theories to contextualize my argument. In The Consequences of Modernity, Giddens coins ‘time-space distanciation’ as a prerequisite for modernity. He describes it as “the conditions under which time and space are organised so as to connect presence and absence,” (14). Critical to his argument is ‘disembedding,’ which he defines as “the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space” (Ibid: 21). Similarly David Harvey (“Postmodernity” 201-308; “From Space to Place) writes of ‘time-space compression’ where new phases of technologies decrease the space between places and thereby reduce the time between those places. He adds an economic stance by incorporating Baudrillard and Ford as examples of how commodities’ origins cease to matter as time and space compress and give rise to global markets. John Tomlinson, Terhi Rantanen, and Malcolm Waters critique the differences between time-space distanciation and compression. Distanciation remains a crucial theoretical gripe for Tomlinson because it overvalues the need for proximity within both identity and communication. Although Waters presents a valid argument over the connotation of “distanciation,” for the purposes of this paper, the terms will be used interchangeably. Place becomes less significant because the time traditionally required to cross a distance shrinks, removing the added value an action receives when it takes more time. Time remains a commodity which adds emotional significance to place. Proximity therefore becomes a crucial variable in the economics of emotion.

New media yield different types of communication. For place to lose significance, mediation must gain value. “Mediation is therefore seen as, fundamentally, a matter of bridging time and space in communication” (Tomlinson 152). John B. Thompson (81-118) demarcates communication into three types:

  • Face-to-face interaction (henceforth FtF) – dialogical, spatial-temporal co-presence multiplicity of symbolic cues.
  • Mediated interaction – dialogical, spatial-temporal distancing, limited symbolic cues.
  • Mediated quasi-interaction –monological, spatial-temporal ambiguity, limited symbolic cues.

While the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought increases in mediated quasi-interaction like newspapers and television, the twenty-first century charges towards interactivity. There is now an eruption in dialogical and multi-flow communications rather than the traditional one-way flow of mass media dissemination. Through new technologies like instant messaging and VoIP, people (with access) are increasingly redefining their interactions in mediated space. Rather than adopting a technologically deterministic view like Walter Ong and McLuhan whereby the technologies themselves denote the societal effects, Silverstone (“Sociology of Mediation”) argues that digital communication provides more choices which require ethical decisions. In short, Thompson’s three types of communication are necessary to have a sense of place and identity.

In The Transformation of Intimacy, Giddens surveys how late-twentieth-century love has evolved from Victorian ideals due to time-space distanciation. Do changes in love also affect intimacy? Gross and Simmons (533) agree with Giddens’s argument that trust has become the more valued commodity as mediation places greater emphasis on “physically absent others.” Unlike Giddens, Gross and Simmons’s study empirically evaluates how ‘expert systems’ affect personal relationships and that trust is no longer a necessity (534). Giddens argues that globalization has brought about a volte-face from ‘romantic love’ to the ‘pure relationship,’ which he defines as:

A social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only insofar as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it. (58)

His view of Victorian ‘romantic’ love as a supernatural extension of eroticism is limiting as it only focuses on one facet of love. “Giddens’s… treatment of the transformation of intimacy in modern societies focuses on personal ‘face-to-face’ sexual and love relations and has nothing to say about mediated experience,” (Tomlinson 170).

Surprisingly, Gross and Simmons’s research concurs with Giddens that the ‘pure relationship’ offers the potential for greater happiness; however, their data do not support the dystopian risks Giddens advocates:

Our study failed to turn up any evidence that the transformation of intimacy is in fact a double-edged phenomenon. People in pure love relationships are, so far as our data indicate, happier with their relationships and no worse off on a number of psychological measures than those in more traditional relationships… We suspect that Giddens may be overestimating the psychological importance of habit, routine, and predictability in people’s lives. (551-2)

Although their study bears its own methodological limitations, it provides a counterexample to Giddens’s argument. Despite their results, I am skeptical to discount Giddens’s argument so quickly. Some of the research in Asia indicates that habitude is epicentral to intimacy. Mobile intimacy decreases habitude for many people. In Habuchi’s discussion of technologies in Japan, he notes that this reduction of the habitual is creating a phenomenon of shrinking social capital which he dubs ’telecocooning.’

The Battle over Proximity

Proximity remains important around the world, and new corporate technologies like HP Halo and Cisco Telepresence typify the desire to have digital communication simulate FtF communication. In Harold Innis’s pioneering work on types of communication, he demarcates ‘orality’ as the first form of communication with FtF as the primordial communicative medium. Innis understood that proximity is essential to many facets of life. Similarly, Thompson acknowledges that FtF communication allows for the subtle reading of body language. On the other hand, Tomlinson believes that people overvalue proximity because they consider only its sexual nature (163-4). He prefers to consider proximity from the point of view of the ‘global village’:

[Proximity] describes a common conscious appearance of the world as more intimate, more compressed, more part of everyday reckoning – for example in our experience of rapid transport or our mundane use of media technologies to bring distant images into our most intimate local spaces (3)

The quandary arises over whether proximity facilitates the communication of emotion. For example, saying “I love you” and texting “I love you” have different connotations based on body language. One cannot discount the value of nonverbal cues.

Within corporate cosmopolitanism, global nomads seldom gain proximity to local culture because they are constantly in a ‘new floating world’ (Gergen) or in a bubble of global consumerist culture of Hilton hotels and McDonalds (Tomlinson 7). Tomlinson (111) disagrees with Augé, arguing that non-places like airports, train stations, hotels, chain restaurants, cafes, and shopping malls create new ‘authentic’ places for experience and intimacy. For Bauman, “The difference between one place and another, one set of people within your sight and corporeal reach and another, has been cancelled and made null and void,” (59). Likewise, Giddens advocates that if one is in the same room as a person who is on the telephone, it does not mean that the two in the room are more intimate than the two on the phone:

A person may be on the telephone to someone twelve thousand miles away and for the duration of the conversation be more closely bound up with the responses of that distant individual than with others sitting in the same room” (“Modernity and Self-Identity” 189).

The interpersonal connection with which Giddens writes may represent an extension of love, but can one define such mediated presence as “intimacy” proper? It seems that “intimacy” itself does not sufficiently denote these new levels of mobile connections. There remains a difference over mediated versus non-mediated intimacy. Perhaps mobile affection or mobile love or mobile desire are more germane terms than “mobile intimacy?” To argue that mediated and non-mediated intimacy are both forms of intimacy is pluralistically limiting. While this paper focuses on ‘mobile intimacy’ the term itself is an oxymoron because intimacy cannot be mobile. Technologies can aid in simulating intimacy or they can replace some components of intimacy. The lexicon itself is therefore limiting.

Gergen (237-8) believes that mobile telephony strengthens endogenous relationships. In other words, the cell phone allows one to simulate proximity (i.e., ‘absent presence’) with one’s circle of friends, family, and co-workers rather than to foster new intimacies at distance. On the other hand, Thompson writes:

In the case of mediated interaction, such as that sustained through the exchange of letters or thorough telephone conversation, individuals can establish a form of intimacy which is reciprocal in character but which lacks some of the features typically associated with the sharing of a common locale (208).

This assessment is less pluralistic than that of Tomlinson because it reiterates that different forms of mediation bear different benefits and limitations.

How Mediation Affects Power in Relationships

For some personal relationships, ‘the medium is the message.’ In the case of the mobile telephony, one must negotiate who calls whom, when, and how. Although international long distance rates have reached their nadir over the last decade, they still remain more of an economic hurdle than local calls. If one lives in New York and one’s acquaintance lives in Sydney, only a small window of time exists that is convenient for both parties to communication. Distance and physics still matter; time zones cannot be conquered.

Negotiations over these time factors affect relationships in some cosmopolitan intimacy. A sense of imbalance arises if one party is always initiating communication. The timing of such communications also bears significance. A shortcoming of cosmopolitan intimacy is that proximity can lead to more dialogue as Matsuda’s aforementioned notion of “fulltime intimacy” demonstrates. Shared events, just as in ‘imagined communities,’ become the bedrock for relationships. When one inserts distance into the equation, a cleavage forms between the capacity for sharing mutual daily events. For instance, if intimacy can be sustained at distance, then the lack of tactile intimacy could cause an individual to be adulterous. In such a scenario, although globalization allows for intimacy at distance, it could also allow for heartache due to infidelity. Again, these are not new phenomena – only an intensification of issues that otherwise could occur at the local.

Many aspects of intimacy are derived from media portrayals. Hardly anyone is taught how to behave on a date or how to kiss or what gifts to give or that a person typically gets down on a knee to propose marriage (Jagger). These symbolic goods and ‘cultural capital’ (Couldry) come from Hollywood depictions, word of mouth, and popular literature. The negotiations over the commodification of emotions are not different with distance relationships. In Asia, the mobile phone arguably communicates symbolically as extension of one’s identity and community as much as it is used literally for actual communication (Hjorth). Media teach us life behavior, and people are consumers of media’s education.

Cosmopolitan Intimacy and the Mobile Phone in Asia

There is a wealth of literature on new ICTs and how they affect sociability. These studies typically focus on a single country or demographic. Sometimes the studies sample groups from several countries to simulate a global representation. The research often focuses on uses and gratifications, adoption, domestication, fashion, content, customization, time management, and sociability. Love is almost always absent. When personal relationships are considered, it is often from the guise of peer networks and parent-child relationships. Few studies exist on ‘cosmopolitan intimacy’ (Beck), which is the crux of this essay, with the exception of Gerard Goggin’s (126-140) ribald chapter on infidelity and text messaging. Some of the findings in Asia are worth noting because they contradict common findings in North America and Europe. In addition, it is important not to forget that of the nearly 2 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, over 790 million come from Asia where China Mobile is the world’s largest provider (Goggin 2).

Hjorth and Kim summarize some of the fallacies about mobile telephony in Korea. For example, prolific cell phone adoption and use increases sociability with old friends while allowing opportunities to meet new people as well, despite the common belief to the contrary. Katz and Sugiyama (2006) continue Katz’s research on Apparatgeist, ‘The spirit of the machine that influences both the designs of the technology as well as the initial and subsequent significance accorded them by users, non-users and anti-users’ (Katz et al. 305). They observe many correlations between fashion and mobile adoption, most notably that fashion is preferred over battery life for active users. Wei studies mobile use in Taiwan and concludes, “Those respondents who were motivated to use the cell phone to express affection and to take advantage of its access, but not to socialize or to make a fashion statement, tend to call their loved ones more frequently,” (64) and that “Female users tend to use the cell phone for expression of affection and to take advantage of the mobility of the wireless technology, whereas male users appear to use cell phones to seek information” (64-7).

Yoon also studies Korea where he finds that youths take traditional values and cultural practices and extend them through mobile telephony rather than taking on a culture of “individualization.” Humphreys finds Yoon’s conclusion to be true worldwide and not just in Korea; she goes on to examine how people use mobile phones in public spaces and how that affects sociability. In China, Wei focuses on the growing upper-middle class and yuppies who seek to distinguish themselves from their countrymen by having mobile phones as status symbols. Ling, Elwood-Clayton, and Ito et al. have studied the effects of mobile telephony on (youth) cultures in Norway, the Philippines, and Japan, respectively. Their findings demonstrate that users have a degree of technological ‘domestication’ (Silverstone and Hirch; Haddon) and that in many cases youth cultures have adopted mobile telecommunications almost ubiquitously leading to a recalibration of youth power within the domestic sphere. Tomita’s (2005) study of Japanese mobile telecom or keitai (‘something you carry with you’) discusses how new ICTs have facilitated new interpersonal connections and what he calls the ‘interpersonal stranger.’ Although mobile telephony allows for ubiquitous connectivity, not all relationships should be sustained. The proxy of mediation can allow some relationships to be sustained where they typically would not be in the proximate. While many of mobile telephony’s benefits include coordination of social activities, there are some negative consequences like dependency and addiction (Park; Snowden; Wilska; Benson; Ling).

The Case of the Distanciated Identity

Both Tomlinson (134) and Giddens (“Modernity and Self-Identity”) write of a “distanciated identity.” By this, they mean that time-space distanciation creates an era where cosmopolitanism and the global mobility of individuals threaten identity. This is what Giddens posits as ’ontological insecurity’ and Meyrowitz labels ‘no sense of place.’ Constant travel physically displaces individuals. Identity was formerly place-bound; as place devolves, identity transforms. In addition, most people develop a rapport with locations and places. Even if one has an ‘oppositional’ (Hall) view towards Los Angeles because of its crime, urban sprawl, and celebrity superficiality, one still has a relationship with it. Places provide significance which mediated environments cannot. Traditional intimacy becomes more problematic once it has been distanciated because intimacy then bears an inherent fear of abandonment. For one with a distanciated identity, to love is to love for only a short while or to disembed a lover from a locale. Both results are polemic. To be a cosmopolitan, therefore, is to sometimes experience intimacy at distance or through simulations of intimacy (Baudrillard; Bauman).

In The Consequences of Modernity, Giddens outlines how modernity is not a linear process but one of constant change. Progress and globalization are not necessarily beneficial; something newer is not better than something old – only different. The Victorian ideals of linearity still permeate emotions. Thompson (215) describes the linearity of emotion in terms of a ‘coherent life-project.’ Even in the most picaresque of settings, love is a commodity that one acquires as a pivotal point along the journey towards introspection. Media convey that love is necessary for happiness. If this linear course begins to erode in the globalizing world, then love can no longer be a ‘critical juncture’ en route to self-completion. In a disjunctured, mosaic world, if love becomes nonlinear, then it can occur at various points in one’s life. Love no longer partially defines life.

Intimacy becomes segments in a complex sphere of relationships and events marked more by the consumption of goods (i.e. education, employment, real estate, automobiles, jewelry, etc.) than by the passing of time. All these factors contribute to why there is an increase in clinical depression in the West, particularly by teenagers. New technologies lead some to emotional spires of depression and loneliness. Studies by Ling and Stivers do not support that the Internet creates emotional disorders, but that it exacerbates those disorders for many people. Similarly, Thompson writes of the ‘double-bind of media dependency’ whereby “the more the process of self-formation is enriched by mediated symbolic forms, the more the self becomes dependent on media systems which lie beyond its control,” (214). The studies indicate that people who are social tend to use new ICTs for coordinating social activities and expanding their scope of interests by linking with other individuals of shared social interests. Conversely, those more anti-social individuals use facets of the World Wide Web to regress from the physical world but that they actually tend to foster intense relationships with online individuals (Caplan). In this capacity, the Internet creates a space where people with little physical community gain virtual forms of community.

Stable Instability

At this time, I would like to put forth the notion of ‘stable instability’ as it pertains to ontological construction. For some people, to have a stable sense of self is to be in constant instable flux. The increase in the nonlinearity of time is affecting some traditional views the world. Akin to chaos theory where chaos is necessary for order, instability is now sometimes necessary for stability. An underlying factor I attribute to the growth in emotional instability is that globalization places more emphasis on the individual. The Becks (72-3) have written on the growth of individualization as a corollary of globalization. One should not misinterpret the Becks’ discussion of individualization as being about individual selfishnessm but rather as a restructuring of time around personal rather than communal schedules. Bugeja correlates this to a reduction in the value of FtF communication: he explains that time-space distanciation has led to a decline in communities, which can only rely on FtF communication to sustain themselves. In order to establish a sense of self within a vast array of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson), one must put identity in flux. When Appadurai applies his notion of ‘disjuncture’ to personal relationships, the concept of ‘imagined worlds’ (33) arises. According to Humsinger (40), it is only through a sharing of imagined worlds that an ontological global sense is born and that “people experience stability through ceaseless movement.” Some cosmopolitans experience disjuncture in ways where the stability of ‘traditional, structured’ life is unsettling. For this reason, Gross and Simmons partially contradict Giddens’s claims about the ‘pure relationship’:

Whatever one thinks of claims of affinity between contemporary culture and post-Fordist production regimes… it is not hard to imagine that people today, having become connoisseurs of experiential variety, might feel stymied by personal relationships they view as standardized and utterly predictable (552).

Like McLuhan’s explanation of how the mechanical clock brought worldwide chronological order, the compressing of time mandates instability to traditional systems.

Ling (181) explains how the sociological change from collective to individual complicates one’s overall role in the global system: “From the perspective of the individual, there is a freedom associated with this development [of customizable technologies], but there is also the need for the individual to do the job of placing him – or herself into the social order.” This plethora of customizable choices correlates to a disembedding of emotion whereby to gain stability as an individual is to create one’s place within an instable realm of emotional choices.

New technologies allow individuals to time-shift communication. For instance, although the mobile phone facilitates ubiquitous connectivity to others, Ling explains that there is an increased desire to decline phone calls. In a consumer culture where services migrate towards ‘on demand,’ from TiVo to iTunes, the same demand-based mentalities seep into the psychology of emotions. A consumer culture has been the American mindset since the Second World War, but with a burgeoning aristocracy and middle class in China that is equally consumeristic, the need to question what constitutes emotional stability and happiness becomes paramount. Ultimately, schedules, regularity, and order challenge the mindset of the late-modern cosmopolitan. As advocates of thematic messages in TV behemoth Sex and the City elucidate, the show empowers women and puts them on equal playing ground with men by objectifying men in the ways that men have traditionally objectified women in media representations (Kim). While such an argument in the confines of female equality is both valid and crucial, a potential consequence is a group of men and women unable to construct meaningful relationships. Elina Furman recently wrote a journalistic piece “Women Who Can’t Commit?!” who outlines seven criteria why some women are as equally unwilling as men to commit to another. This disjuncture of emotion creates People On-Demand, so to speak. Click. Friendship. Scroll. Sex. It is the crux of the difference between Giddens’s (“Transformation”) Victorian ‘love of romance’ and his modern ‘pure relationship.’ The disposability of commodities in everyday life, particularly in the West but also now in the East, facilitates why some people create a disposability of intimacy. This disposability allows for instability to arise.

A disjunctured, nonlinear world can no longer expect individuals to have linear love. As video media migrate to ‘on demand’ formats, it is reasonable to presume that commodities like intimacy will become equally fragmented. Stable instability arises as digital mediation eradicates FtF communities. At its crux, I am proposing that the growing instability of placelessness, distanciated identities, and ontological insecurity requires a constant nonlinear view of affection. One would then expect love to be on demand in whichever given place the cosmopolitan citizen temporarily resides. Since love and affection cannot be on demand in the same way as iTunes, there is a rise in loneliness and addictions, which Stivers elucidates.

What happens when love enters the equation of the displaced cosmopolitan? There arises a discord between the stable and the instable. As Ellwood-Clayton notes in her study on mobile technologies and constructions of intimacy in the Philippines, technology provides a vehicle for already existing localized notions of love. This is also elaborated on by Raul Pertierra in his ethnographic study of the use of ICTs to establish and develop intimate relationships (particularly amongst strangers). As Pertierra observes, “CMICTs have consequences on notions of individualism and cosmopolitianism… [but] contrary to expectation, cellphones also encourage authentic relationships,” (59).The tenets of consumerism and individualism do not concur with the reciprocity and ebb and flow that traditionally exist within Victorian intimacy (Altick). This argument is not to romanticize the past; the present is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ – only different. Part of the reason there is less happiness is because lives are more dependent on mediation (Lupton 1998) and the discord of stable love discombobulates the instability of cosmopolitanism and globalism.


Although examples have been made to demonstrate how globalization creates opportunities to threaten personal relationships, this paper does not advocate that globalization is eroding personal relationships. The goal has been to elucidate how the compression of time and space has led to an intensification of mediation, best visible through new ICTs. The optimistic possibilities of globalization also carry numerous emotional pitfalls like Internet-related depression and loneliness, as well as the formation of ‘stable instability.’ Negotiations over which medium one employs affects relationships in late modernity.

While this essay poses some new concepts, the ideas themselves are not so much new as redirected. The ubiquitous consumer-based lifestyle that typifies some twenty-first-century cosmopolitans has aided creating an atmosphere of disposable relationships. The once-venerated Victorian love ceases to function in this ‘disjunctured’ cosmos of ‘imagined worlds’ where mediated interactions lead to an increase in placelessness and an erosion of ‘ontological security.’ This paper has argued that the non-linear nature of globalization mandates a recalibration of personal relationships. Future research featuring both ethnographic studies and quantitative surveying must examine how globalization is altering the ways people interact at intimate levels. In short, the globalizing forces that have intensified corporate, political, and cultural moves over the last century have also attributed to changes in emotion. I assert that globalization brings an intensification of communication, as well as pain and pleasure, relative to the physical distance between two bodies.

In memory of Dr. Roger Silverstone whose guidance, friendship, and academic support helped steer the early stages of this essay. Special thanks to Shan Wickramasinghe, Stacey Malo, Jean Miller, Sarah Banet-Weiser and Dina Matar.

Author Biography

Gerard C. Raiti