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meet you at junction 17. a socio-technical and spatial study of car driving and mobile phones


CORE: This post-doctoral research project will construct a social and cultural analysis of cars, mobile phones and business in Britain which contributes to and complicates the ongoing accounts of human subjects, mobility (Shurmer-Smith 1994, Sibley 1981 & 1995) and technology (Latour 1993, Law 1994, Thrift 1996). Drawing no simple boundary between technical and social study, it will theoretically and ethnographically investigate the practice of car driving and mobile phone communication.

SEGMENT 1: It will examine the new alliances made between mobile communications technology and car travel as they are used by mobile workers.

SEGMENT 2: It will ethnographically investigate the culture of a business organisation out of the office and on the road.

SEGMENT 3: It will determine the importance of instrumental measurements and the particular struggles over speed, time and performance on the motorway

SEGMENT 4: It will map out the new spaces and places created by cars and their drivers, such as motorways, service stations, garages, car parks, road signs and how these have transformed everyday geographical knowledges.

Motivation for research:

'The car is the single most important issue currently facing our society. Demand for greater freedom of movement contrasts sharply with the increasing reluctance of the population to tolerate the damage to the environment that such freedom entails. Some way of resolving this conflict therefore needs to be found' (p3, Camus 1995) The above extract is from a report written for European Union member states on the importance, potential impacts and suggested regulation of telematics and road transport information (RTI). This research is motivated by a desire to avoid becoming trapped in a debate about road transport as damager of environments and to begin to consider the new environments created by the car and the road and how they are inhabited. In these new environments telematics already play a large part in the organising of drivers' social and temporal worlds, allowing drivers to act and be acted upon at and from a distance, thereby creating a network of actors and resources (Law 1994). Arguably in the late twentieth century cars and telephones are fairly antiquated forms of technology, yet their recent alliance has created many new possibilities for human communication and organisation. This alliance intersects with a massive expansion of the motorway system which has created new public spaces for leisure and work. 'Owing to the considerable practical difficulties involved in studying the various aspects of drivers' performance in the field, the majority of the available studies of mobile telephone use during driving have employed simulated driving in some form.' Briem & Hedman 1996 The combination of driving and phone use has been studied most extensively by psychologists (Parker et al. 1995, Guppy & Guppy 1995, Michon 1985) but their studies have tended to concentrate on multiple tasking and the prediction of road accidents through the modelling of driver behaviour. As studies of laboratory life have shown, much of what the psychologists are attempting to do in modelling the driver's behaviour is to separate her from the background noise of the outside world. Working with a driving simulator the intrusions of the outside world were restricted to those which had to form the basis of telephone conversations (i.e. somewhat bizarrely, the war in Bosnia, President Clinton's economic policies) and the controllable levels of difficulty on the simulated road (i.e. just two sets of variables).

The motivation for the proposed study therefore is to put the car and mobile phone user back into a disorderly social world out of which they make order, and to use an ethnographic method to overcome the practical difficulties involved in studying what happens there. To do this is both to reinstate practices in a situation which is open but directed and to put the researcher into a position that requires a view from a 'complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body' (Haraway 1991). The aims of the research then point away from the prediction of crashes (for the purposes of car insurance risk assessment) and toward an analysis of the socio-technical world of business on the road. To return to the Camus report, the mid-field between 'freedom of movement' and 'damage to the environment' needs to be explored, and this is a terrain criss-crossed and re-arranged by many maps of mattering (Grossberg 1992).

Description of themes:

As part of a previous ESRC and Science Policy Support Group initiative (Law 1994), important bridges were made between the separate spheres of social and scientific knowledge; scientists, laboratories and machines were studied as social actors, and equally the social sciences were implicated in the construction of divisions between nature and culture. The proposed project is not a study of 'engineers' or scientists' however but one of users of technology - mobile company employees. Technology is not treated as 'a celibate machine' since it is co-dependent on practices of consumption and urban everyday life. Tele-point's failure (a cheap variant on mobile phones that required the close proximity of a telephone box-like transmitter) demonstrates the unpredictable reception of technological devices (Littler et al. 1992), even though it was carefully engineered, designed, manufactured and marketed as a potential alternative to cell-radio mobile phones. Socio-technical studies have tended to use either historical narratives (i.e. adoption or development of technology) or, if contemporary to investigate either machines themselves or the work of scientists and engineers (Haraway 1989, Rabinow 1995). Notable exceptions have been the feminist studies of domestic technologies (Cockburn & Ormrod 1993) which have crossed further into what might be categorised as the consumption side of technology (Bocock 1993).

However, even as consumption studies have proliferated in the social sciences, they have concentrated on classifying and interpreting the purchases and uses of food, clothing, music recordings, art, household goods, housing, holidays, sporting goods etc. and their socially constructed status and further their part in the construction of social relations (Bourdieu 1988, Bocock 1993, McRobbie 1994). A significant absence from consumption studies has been the car, even though it is second only to property in terms of the proportion of private expenditure that it accounts for. Current car usage figures indicate the centrality of car use to everyday life in Britain (19,737,000 cars on the road in 1991), and the economic importance of the automobile industry has placed it at the centre of many economic and political research projects (retail sales of new cars alone were worth £16 billion last year). It is not the aim of my research to concentrate on household spending decisions (Town 1982) nor on the political economy of the automobile industry (Flink 1988). Neither will the proposed study focus on car models and their aesthetics, as have many previous books on the history of car design (Gartman 1994), but it will look instead at the transformation of space, everyday life and in particular day-to-day business interaction by car use (as part of an elongated process of consumption). This project will in fact examine for the first time in a British context (on the USA see Ling 1990, Wachs & Crawford 1992), the network of knowledges, practice, subjects and objects that guarantee the car's centrality in contemporary life through a case study of work done on the road.

'The meetings, telephone calls, and "quick" consults that make up the organisational day are all talk and (mostly) work. Moreover, they build the relationships, alliances, and coalitions that blend individual into collective, discrete actions into collective efforts people into collectivities,' (Boden 1994) As Deirde Boden puts it above, organisations are based not on the property they own, the office blocks they inhabit, but 'are taken to be locally organised and interactionally achieved contexts of decision making and of enduring institutional momentum.' Yet the material artefacts remain important for reproducing the organisation. The shift away from corridors and conference rooms hence both backs up Boden's argument and complicates it, since, as this research will demonstrate, organisations are changed by artefacts such as photocopiers, building designs, laptop computers and in this case cars and mobile phones.

1. Theorising practice and technology

Explaining the web of relations that acts in every trip in the car requires an extended study of a kind which draws on Pierre Bourdieu's (1988, 1991) logic of practice and Bruno Latour's (1992, 1993) prescriptive technologies. Given the lengthy examination which seatbelts alone require to describe their gradual programming toward freedom of movement and injury reduction (Latour 1992), the car has to be understood as a very complex assemblage of technologies which has inscribed in its machinery prescriptions as to how the driver ought to behave as well as how the car ought to behave. And Bourdieu requires us to investigate the field of power in which the users of such technologies occupy various positions in the course of exercising a range of practical skills. Two technological 'objects' have been chosen to avoid focusing solely on either the car or the telephone, and thereby fetishising them as in some way ideal types and timeless forms (as, say, is done with the Panopticon in the modern period, not in Foucault's work (1977) but by many that have been influenced by his theory of technologies of surveillance).

i. Extensive workers/intensive workers. The recent alliance between the mobile phone and the car has made it substantially easier for workers to do their work quicker and over greater distances. This research seeks to examine how this acting and being acted upon at a distance redefine the roles played by labourers. Akin to investigations in the French military (Virilio 1991, Delanda 1991), it will be assessing what this stretching and speeding up of the human subject implies for our understanding of everyday chronotopes.

'Road Transport Informatics (RTI) will soon emerge as the 'secret weapon' by which the growing traffic congestion in cities throughout the world will be contained if not conquered,' (National Economic Development Council 1992). RTI is a neat example, it has been planned for traffic management, safer driving and helping drivers communicate with the environment through which they are travelling. The applications that it is directed towards increase the semiotic congestion of the driving environment: traffic signals, vehicle surveillance for regulation, parking management, automatic vehicle location, in-car navigation systems and road tolls, computer and communication systems providing wider co-ordination of signals and other devices. Much of what RTI is doing is extending the horizons of the driver which are constricted by the nature of moving at speed, while intensifying the information being received behind the wheel.

Cantwell (1989) in an account of the economics of international competition and technological accumulation puts it thus: 'Technology is both embodied in new items of capital equipment, and disembodied in improvements in the way it is used.' In concordance with socio-technical theories (Latour 1993, Thrift 1996, Sadler 1995) the proposed project will be abandoning the hard-object idea of technology which is used in accounts such as Cantwell's, and instead researching technology as it is embodied in soft humans and embodied in their equipment, hard and soft. Embodiment will not be treated as a one way street.

ii. Manual/automatics. The car has had certain technologies built into it and driven through it, what Latour (1992) calls 'prescriptions', as has the mobile phone. The boundary between the agency of the non-human and the human in terms of task and skills is fuzzy, in the USA automatic cars have had gear control delegated to them, but this is fairly rare in the UK where manual gear changing is still the most common kind of control. A great deal of human activity is as automatic as cars (i.e. not requiring conscious thought), and in other words it is practical activity which is also social practice (Bourdieu 1991, de Certeau 1984). This research will seek to elucidate the logic of practice as a theory of joint action that allows the workers to make deals and arrangements through virtual spaces and landscapes of mobility. To make this clear, consider the example of the manager who leaves her voice as response and identifier on her mobile answerphone, and therefore allowing the business of talk to begin without her presence. Her 'being on call' (Ronell 1989) is delegated for periods during the day to a machine which thereby extends her availability for other workers. And consider also the tiny adjustment of civility (Elias 1978) made by central locking devices on cars and the speeding up of the ritual of entering the car.

iii. Breakdowns/crashes. What will be important to this research is the notion pace Goffman (1959) that maintaining normality is of prime importance to the workers, and that this requires a great deal of management. And to further emphasise the fallible and constructed nature not just of human activity but also of techno-science that it is susceptible to breakdowns and crashes - the research will provide empirical detail on the fixing, adjusting, reconfiguring and bodging that keeps things running relatively smoothly. The gaps and cracks where remedial dialogues are required between the team of workers, and equally between and through their cars and phones, will be used to consider the socio-technical background which is taken for granted until it goes wrong. Returning to the above example of the mobile phone, the answerphone service also serves as a back-up for the many time when phone batteries run out, the phone is out of range of a transmitter or the handset is broken. Equally the mobile phone is used to summon assistance when the car breaks down, or when the driver is simply lost it can be used to call on someone else's local knowledge to find out where the driver is.

2. Congested meeting grounds.

This second section of research themes seeks to address what could be called mobile geographies or simply 'mobility' (Thrift 1995) and maps of mattering (Grossberg 1992). Shifting on from changes in the subject of the labourer, the boundary between human and machine and the breakdowns in technical organisation, this section addresses the need to represent what in the UK is still an emerging form of landscape and set of identities that can be performed on this new(ish) stage. As was argued earlier, the social and cultural effects of the growth of motorised transport and motorways have been under-researched in the UK compared to the USA (Wachs & Crawford 1992). To do justice to what is constructed as one of the central social issues facing the UK and Europe today attention must be paid to the specifics of car driving to augment the statistical surveys that, like traffic jams, have accumulated lines of car users by fixing them in position. Studies of consumption and popular culture have alerted researchers to the dangers of treating culture as mass culture, and yet this is all too often the way drivers are framed - as passive consumers of a polluting product. On the other hand, it is not the intention of this research to celebrate the pre-RTI car-phone creativity of a team of travelling workers. The group to be studied (see below) are clearly implicated in the successes and failures of a large trans-national company (TNC), they wield power on the road and off it and sometimes probably not very often, they are offered a choice between taking their car to work or leaving it behind. For this reason the proposed research will be modest in its claims about how much information it can provide about 'environmentally sensitive' driving. Nevertheless, by showing that car driving and mobile phone calling are not carried out by homogenous groups but by rather heterogeneous groups briefly sharing practices, it will offer some open road and some meeting places in which we can see people dealing with working lives stretched over high mileages and large phone bills.

i. Learning from the motorway. Cars and motorways have figured unfavourably in many accounts of post-war planning and urban development. Critiques have been based around the destruction of public space, the destruction of communities and neighbourhoods (Jacobs 1965, Sennett 1994, Berman 1983) and at its most ecological extreme, the destruction of society and then the planet (Aird 1972). Latterly there have been re-assessments of mobility as resistance and disorder within a sedentary society and also of the crucial cultural importance of travellers and travel (Cresswell 1993, Clifford 1992) which have been articulated with theories of migrant identities, diaspora and nomadism (Bird et al. 1995).

Changes in the material geography of cities, their layout and their architecture (Venturi 1988, McCreery 1995) have been linked to the growing use of the car. Recent phenomena such as the edge city (Keil 1994) and the out-of-town shopping centre have been explained by the same factor in combination with changes in the structure of firms and the increasing globalisation of urban development. A much more complex network of actors produces a more satisfactory explanation which would include changes in architecture, the junction system on motorways, the rise of 'the edge city' as a discursive construction, growth in air travel, and the practices of driving and shopping. Accounts of the ways of moving through cities (Virilio 1991) and how this changes human perception, urban struggle and our very understanding of space and time are gestures towards analysing mobility and provide foundations for the proposed study. The problem of the latter is their common military orientation, since the proposed study is seeking to examine how 'work' rather than 'war' is organised on the road and structures mobility more generally.

'The attempt to map a structured mobility cannot begin by either reifying a certain knowledge of place or by dictating a particular organisation of movements through space. That is, the analyst cannot assume that she or he already knows the proper locations at which people should invest themselves and construct their belongingness. Nor can he or she assume that the connections between such sites are always given in advance, so that people's travel through daily life are predictable' (Grossberg 1992). This research proposes to follow the routes that it will find out about along the way, ones that the mobile workers it will study may well now take for granted. Yet theirs is a geographical knowledge which orders spaces and connects places in a new arrangement which is essential to their daily work, and it tells them where to go and how to find themselves and their clients across the UK.

Time-space convergence/compression ,it has been argued (Thrift 1996 Giddens 1990), works differentially through coupling constraints (i.e. how to have meetings (of various kinds)), through possession of and access to geographical knowledges and differing abilities to stop off at lodgings and places of rest. Time-space compression is largely understood through a progression of various kind of transportation, from walking, to horse and carriage, to railways, to motor cars and finally to air travel. The argument is made that it takes less time now to travel from London to New York than it once did to travel from London to Bristol, and therefore that the world is imploding, becoming a global village, local cultures are being erased by their proximity to global cultural industries, and so on. What this research seeks to examine, and thereby give some detail about, is the massive growth of intermediate scale and recurrent trips which transfigure the British landscape as people commute further to work and spend more time working out of their offices (and are neither conspicuously global or significantly local). The work done by these travelling workers is ever faster and stretches them to make new connections and re-place the everyday places they disrupt with their nomadic practices. Junction 17 offers a convenient meeting place in the way that the street corner once did, and still does for a society of pedestrians.

ii. Power, fashion and instrumentality. The measurement of acceleration, progress and performance be considered here. Linked to the other themes, this third theme deals discursively with the power relations in which automobiles are enmeshed and actively constituting (Haraway 1989). Driving as a practice operates in a symbolic field which divides and orders the 'traffic' of subjects on the road. This theme critically examines the shared nature of the instrumental measurements of success and performance secured in the car as object and in the practice of driving. Echoing the first theme, the discursive focus of the research would be on the pleasure and pain in the mobile workers which is produced by the program ming of the car and the experience of driving. Like cigarette smoking (Klein 1994), driving is moralised as a bad habit which pollutes the public sphere and yet most drivers will not give it up, and (as the comparison would suggest) the reasons are not purely practical. Equally the conscious crossing of speed limits and the breaking of the highway code (Guppy & Guppy 1995) has been shown by psychologists to be attributable to increasing socio-economic demands to be 'just in time.'

As an adjunct to previous work done on 'time consciousness' (Game 1991, Thrift 1996) which is a necessary technology of the self for the co-ordination and cohesion of large societies, speed consciousness (Virilio 1991) in the late twentieth century sets the monitoring of the subject under the question of not what time is it, but that of how fast am I going? This research will be examining just how important measurements of speed are to mobile workers, and equally it will recover the crucial requirement of timeliness for the co-ordination of meetings over space where clients and workmates are constantly coming and going.

Technological innovation as progress forms an important part of the discourse justifying the purchasing of new car models and telecommunications, and also prompting the abandonment of old ones. That organisations are dependent on a socio-technical system of quasi-objects is recognised in the popular business literature (for instance, Sadler 1995). This theme of the research will be focusing on how fashion and thereby symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1988) are equally as important; looking at for instance how choosing appropriate car models shores up positions in organisations and position in the social hierarchy (Bayley 1986). The self-fashioning which technology assists brings with it a series of discourses that then construct drivers and callers through its structures, and if it is instrumental or faceless, then these selves aquire those qualities.

Following on from the preceding arguments, we believe it is crucial to examine the rhetorics of speed, acceleration, progress and performance which demarcate the subject behind the wheel. Road rage we would suggest, is not just a creation of news-media hype (since its actual incidence remains fairly low) it has gained symbolic importance due to the shared subjective investment in being able to overtake, to 'progress' through traffic, and in the unfettered performance of the car. Road rage is also an indicator of both a form of civility existing for drivers and the rise of negative experience forcing breakdowns in that roadside civility.

Research practice

Given the difficulties encountered by behavioural scientists who have attempted to study mobile phone use and driving under controlled conditions, this research will shadow a chosen group of mobile workers while they are in action, rather than while they are acting out under simulated conditions. Grounded theory methodology (Strauss & Corbin 1990) will be used to elaborate and modify the conceptual framework that has been set out in the preceding sections. The applicant has done research on driving in the city in his previous research (Laurier 1995) and PhD. (Laurier forthcoming), which focused on developing theories appropriate to studying driving and urban life. Analysis was carried out using mainly documentary materials (i.e. planning and driving manuals) alongside an autobiographical account of the researcher's experiences as passenger and driver, in order to interrogate and reshape those theories.

Since actor-network theory (Law 1994) stresses the importance of quasi-objects as well as the texts of discourse analysis, attention will need to be paid to what the non-humans are doing as well as the humans. Doing justice to the 'Latourian multitude' will mean interpreting the semiotics of cars and mobile phones, dealing with their design and manuals and the interventions that they are making in the daily work of the 'humans' (Latour 1992).

Having secured access to a group of employees of the General Electric Company (GEC) who work for GE Capital, the researcher has already discussed potential benefits from the study for them in terms of assessing the effectiveness of their communication and geographical knowledge, and also in meeting the needs of their mobile workers (which it has been suggested may be very different from the assumed needs of office workers). GEC is one of the largest companies in the world and has shifted from being based around R & D and industrial production into the service sector, with the growth of its aircraft leasing company and more importantly its financial services branch. It is with the employees of a subsection of the latter - GE Capital - that this research will be carried out. The specific choice is the credit and store card section who are constantly moving between GE Capital's office facilities in London, Leeds and Bristol and the various department stores, chain stores and shops that use their credit/store card service. Unlike the laboratory based studies of much socio-technical ethnography (i.e. Law 1994) or office-based studies of business ethnography (Boden 1994, Despres 1996), this research will move along the transport networks with this spatially extensive labour force. It will examine how the car based credit sale team use their mobile phones and the places along the way on the road to solve the organisational dilemma of a lack of face-to-face interaction. In fact the sales personnel are frequently the most capable at face-to-face interaction and conversational skills in a company but spend a considerable time 'alone' in their cars, and so phones offer the chance for them to use periods in transit or in traffic jams productively.

Since the research is attempting to observe the social practices which combine people with technology, much of the work will be based on participant observation (Agar 1980). The researcher will sit in the passenger seats on a week of travel with each of the GE Capital sales team, the role of travelling companion is a relatively easy one to negotiate, and the researcher will not be in the way during face-to-face meetings with clients. One major difficulty with this kind of observational technique is that the sales people normally drive alone, and the individualised (perhaps lonely) experience of driving will thereby be lost. To deal with this, and to provide audio-visual material for recursive analysis, a video camera will be provided for each of the drivers to keep a video diary during a week of their driving. As has been done with photos (Harper 1987a&b), the video tapes will be used in elicitation sessions with the diary keepers to discuss their interpretations of what they were doing and communicating during and outside of their sessions with the video (Cook and Crang 1995). The videos are also likely to prove useful in the presentation of results to GE Capital as one user group, other groups of car-based sales and work teams, and at academic conferences and seminars. What is particularly innovative in this research is its shift from traditional site-based and therefore static ethnographies, to a mobile approach similar to the new multi-locale research strategies (Marcus 1992). Instead of tracing the lengthy chains and complex circuits through which commodities are produced and consumed this research will look at the composition of a network and particularly at the resources used to maintain its connections. What this entails is showing in this case how a variety of human and nonhuman actors can be organised into a team to work for a powerful corporation.

The proposed field research will progress in three overlapping stages

1. Entry and pre-definitions

Meetings with sales team, discussion of policy on equipment cars and introduction to themes of research. The researcher has the advantage of having met with several members of the group already. They are predominantly female and have a variety of class backgrounds. They will be briefed on the researcher's work, the purposes of the participant observation and the video diaries and given non-technical summaries of the research.

2. Travelling the network

a. Participant observation. As noted above, the researcher will accompany at least six members of the sales team on a week of their journeys. During the journey and stop-offs, open-ended interviews will be made on the basis of the use of the phone and the car. The researcher will keep a travel diary of his own.

b. Video diaries. A pilot video diary will be used with one respondent, and then changes will be made on the basis of discussion between the researcher and the video diarist on the success or otherwise of keeping the diary. In the pilot video diary and potentially in all of the diaries, the participant will be asked to leave the video running through ten of their phone calls. A series of subjects will have been given to them in stage 1 for them to talk to the camera about: 1. Speaking to the camera - things they want to talk about and things they will not. 2. Speaking on the phone - who with, what was achieved. 3. Driving their car - ability, comfort, satisfaction with the car's appearance and performance. 4. Incidents during each day - encounters with other drivers, significant events. 5. Destinations, why they are going and where they are going. 6. Meetings - who they will meet that day and what they will be doing. 7. Speed - are they in a hurry. 8. Congestion. 9. Finding their way about - how it is done, use of phone, maps, previous experience. The list is not exhaustive and is simply there to shape the drivers interaction with the 'dumb' camera. Each video-diarist will be given four three hour video tapes. It is thus anticipated that there will be around eighty hours of video to be viewed, edited and coded during the final stages the research.

3. Mapping the network

Once all of the participant observations and video-diaries are completed, the researcher will carry out elicitation and contextualisation sessions with the sales team individually. In each session the video tapes will be discussed in combination with the researcher's observations and consideration of how a diarist's driving fits into their wider understanding of their work and their use of phones and cars in non-work situations. The diarist will be given the opportunity to edit out sections of the diary which they feel are confidential or are more generally unhappy with. After the individual interviews, the respondents will be gathered together for an hour's encounter session, during which the group will be allowed to interact and respond to the research so far.

On completion of the fieldwork, the researcher will analyse the video-tapes, in combination with his participant observation and the transcripts of the interviews. For the video-tapes and transcripts, coding procedures (Strauss 1987) will be done using Hyperqual software (Cook & Crang 1995) in combination with multi-media software. A final report will be sent to each of the GE Capital employees that assisted in the research, and also to their records office. In consultation with GE Capital, a seminar will be given on using the car and mobile phones as extensions to the workplace.


This post-doctoral research is significant because studies of the social and cultural aspects of car travel have so far only been carried out in the United States. The car and the mobile phone have become an important part of the technological spaces of everyday life in the UK. Unlike the over-examined technological realms of cyberspace and virtual reality (which are frequently pictured by analogy to highways, congestion and traffic), driving cars and using mobile phones have become ordinary parts of Western and, in this case, working life. Though ordinary, they have extended the times and spaces across which people can act and have changed their logic of action in doing so. This research aims to bring the powerful insights from socio-technical studies into the examination of work and mobility through an innovative ethnographic methodology.


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