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Our recent history has seen an upsurge in Information and Communication

Technologies (ICT) supporting the mobilisation of computer-mediated interaction

in general and, during the past decade, the mobilisation of organisational

actors in particular. The ongoing mutual adaptation of work practices and such

mobile and wireless technologies has both resulted in new work and technology

practices and in the need for re-appreciating the perception of these practices.

Everyday working life is increasingly constituted of a heterogeneous mélange

where people, work objects and symbols, as well as their interactions, are

distributed in time, space and across contexts. When we then consider

interaction where participants, work, and interactional objects are mobile, the

challenges of supporting the fluidity of interaction in collocated settings are

immense. Many years of research and commercial efforts have sought to

establish technological means by which interaction can be conducted with the

same ease, or in the same fluid manner, as collocated interaction. However, as

argued by Olson & Olson (2000), distance does matter.

This chapter addresses one particular aspect of organisational life for mobile

workers, the constant negotiation of fluid work, based on the assumption that

an essential aspect of mobile work is the negotiation of desirable versus

disruptive interaction. We here take a closer look at mobile interaction in the

locus of the individual meeting the others. The purpose of the chapter is to

initiate a broader discussion of fluid mobile work by drawing upon social

topology and the study of ICT use in organisations, as well as experimental

research constructing and testing innovative interaction management technologies.

In order to initiate the debate we ask the question: What are the pertinent

issues involved in individuals negotiating mobile work? This is based on the

assumption of temporary asymmetry between individual mobile workers in

terms of fluid mobile work – what for one person is a perfectly justifiable

request can for another be a disruption.

Previous research has demonstrated the richness of means by which people

working “at arms length” negotiate fluid ongoing interaction (Heath & Luff,

2000). However, the increased mobilisation of work activities across temporal,

spatial and contextual barriers has placed localised technology practices at

the centre of the constant negotiation of fluid ongoing interaction. The need to

seek advice, inquire, coordinate, delegate, arrange and sort out implies that

mobile workers critically rely on ICT support for negotiating their interdependencies.

There is also a rich body of literature demonstrating new and

interesting ICT-mediated interaction practices, but mostly in so-called “stationary”

settings, i.e., where participants primarily work from a stationary


The chapter reflects upon the theoretical implications of advanced mobile work

practices for the ways in which we understand contemporary ICT use. The

numerous claims that we are entering an “always-on” society where people will

interact “anytime” and “anywhere,” is far too simplistic a notion. Mobile work

is often temporally, spatially and contextually dependent. Even when it is not,

the asymmetry of situated interactional needs and preferences imply, for the

individual mobile worker, an ongoing struggle to obtain fluid work practices. It

is concluded that the specific and theoretical study of mobile work practices

simultaneously highlights the relative poverty of current technologies in supporting

fluid mobile interaction and the need for rich detailed management of


In the following section we first outline mobile interaction, and then characterise

it in terms of the fluid topological metaphor. Based on a framework characterising

interactional asymmetries, we analyse the dimensions of struggling with fluid

mobile interaction, and conclude this chapter with discussion on the findings.

Mobile Interaction

It is obvious that during the latter half of the last century, our ways of living in

general has been transformed considerably. Among many vital drivers of the

transformation, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are perhaps

the most conspicuous in terms of the widespread impact upon our social

lives as a whole. There is no doubt that because of their pervasiveness and our

intensive use of them, ICTs have changed ways of living in virtually all realms

of our social lives.

Mobile work is clearly one of such most conspicuous emerging phenomena

induced by ICT diffusion in our modern lives. Traditionally, “work” has been

conducted in fixed formal places, such as an office in a building, a factory and

a laboratory, based on clear division of labour. However, we are now able to

do our job flexibly largely beyond geographical and temporal barriers and

contextual constrains by effectively using various ICTs such as the Internet,

email, personal data assistants (PDAs), mobile phones, short messaging

service (SMS) and instant messaging (IM), along with traditional technologies

such as fixed telephones and fax machines. In particular, contemporary “office”

workers are not just working in an office in a building, but also moving out from

it and doing their job remotely at various sites. We can also see the increasing

number of workers who do their job at home. It is this kind of work style, often

called telework, telecommuting or SOHO (small office, home office), that has

emerged since the 1990s clearly resulting from the widespread and a rapid

decline of the cost of ICT options for individual workers. As seen in these

examples, ICTs have diversified our working modes, not only working inside

the office, but also working remotely and flexibly.

Here, it is crucial to look at mobile work more carefully. In spite of the upsurge

of interest in mobile work in our social lives, current research perspectives into

it and, more specifically, the notion of “mobility” have been quite narrow,

dealing with it exclusively in terms of humans’ geographical movement. Much

of literature characterises mobile work as its flexible geographical movement of

people (e.g., Makimoto & Manners, 1997; Dahlbom & Ljungberg, 1998;

Fagrell et al., 1999; Kopomaa, 2000). It can be said that conventional

understanding of the notion of mobility has been clearly confined into the

corporeal characteristic of humans freed from geographical constraints thanks

to mobile computing technologies such as mobile phones and PDAs. However,

in order to grasp the significance of mobile work in our modern lives in general

and work settings in particular, we need to take a broader perspective and

rethink the fundamental aspects of human interaction and the transforming

notion of mobility, looking beyond human movement (Kakihara & Sørensen,


In addressing mobile work supported by various ICTs, we need to look also

at temporal aspects of human interaction. In a face-to-face meeting of two or

more people, for example, they do and need to share the same, constantly

proceeding, linear clock time. In a sense, the people are forced to “synchronise”

in a face-to-face meeting. Yet, using ICTs, especially Internet technologies

such as emails and IM, people no longer need to share, not only the same space,

but also the same time; their interaction can be “asynchronous” with regard to

efficiently using their time in their interaction. It is reasonable to say that such

a temporal shift, from synchronous to asynchronous, resulting from using the

Internet technologies, increases the mobility of human interaction in work

settings, since the people using such Internet technologies in their work become

largely freed from temporal constraints such as necessity of sharing the same

time and different national time zone. In this sense, mobile work clearly signifies

not just humans’ flexible movements but also the temporal transformation of

human interaction in work settings.

Furthermore, another important aspect of human interaction, which needs to be

considered in the debate of mobile work, is the contextual aspect. Human

action and interaction with others are inherently situated in a particular context

that frames and is reframed by his or her performance of the action recursively.

Such contextuality, or situatedness, of human action is critical for capturing the

nature of human interaction. Suchman (1987) argues: “The coherence of

situated action is tied in essential ways not to individual predispositions or

conventional rules but to local interactions contingent on the actor’s particular

circumstances” (p. 28). In this sense, it could be argued that in addition to

spatial and temporal aspects discussed above, contextual aspects where the

action occurs are of equal importance in organising human interaction. In

considering mobile work, such contextual aspects of interaction are significant.

We then could argue that contextuality plays a critical role in constituting human

interaction just as spatiality and temporality do. Contexts in which people are

immersed continuously reframe their interaction with others, including people’s

cultural backgrounds, particular situations or moods, degrees of mutual recognition,

exchanges of facial and bodily expression. Thanks to various ICT

applications and mediated communication, people nowadays can easily interact

with others largely freed from such contextual constraints, interacting with

people in largely different contexts. In this sense, the relationship between

interaction among people and the contexts in which they are is becoming

mobilised in terms of flexible patterns of interaction across different contexts.

It is also clear that such contextual, or relational, aspects of human interaction

are increasingly “uneven” among interacting people beyond neat time-space

conditions of interaction. Hence, when considering human interaction in mobile

work settings, we need to deal with contextual as well as spatial and temporal

aspects of human interaction.

It is worth pointing out here that from our extended perspective, increasing

mobility of human interaction in terms of special, temporal and contextual

aspects, does not necessarily mean that our interaction becomes totally freed

from spatial, temporal and contextual constraints of our everyday activities.

Many scholars, especially in computer science and engineering, tend to offer

the simple proposition that, using mobile ICTs, we are now able to interact with

others “anytime, anywhere” (e.g., Kleinrock, 1996; Agre, 2001). This is valid

in the sense that ICT, especially email and mobile phones, help us interact with

those who are in a different location either synchronously or asynchronously.

However, as Wiberg & Ljungberg (2001) clearly show, this does not necessarily

mean that we can interact with others “everytime, everywhere.” In their

analysis of mobile work at Telia Nära, mobile workers’ activities are in most

cases dependent upon particular place and time, sometimes significantly. As we

have seen in the discussion of contextuality above, every human action and

interaction is inherently situated in a particular context; so is it in the case of

mobile communication and interaction ensured by ICTs, including mobile

technologies (Kim et al., 2002). Thus it is clear that the notion of mobile work

itself is not such a simple concept as signifying working remotely or “anytime,


As we have discussed in this section, the emerging debate of mobile work has

been discussed from quite a narrow perspective, almost only dealing with

humans’ geographical movement intensified by effective utilisation of ICTs in

work settings. From the wider perspective we take, mobile work is not just

about a working mode or style to be done remotely from various sites; much

more importantly, it also signifies the increasing mobilisation of human

interaction in work settings in terms of spatiality, temporality and contextuality.

What has been freed by various ICT options, particularly mobile technologies,

in our modern work style, is not humans’ corporeal movement but interactional

pattern they perform (Kakihara & Sørensen, 2002), which we may call mobile


Fluidity of Mobile Interaction

In order to capture the complex and diversified nature of mobile work, or more

specifically mobile interaction in work settings, it might be beneficial to

conceptualise the significance of mobile interaction itself to contemporary work

environments. Here we want to take a metaphorical approach with ideas from

social topology.

Topology is a branch of mathematics that deals with various geometrical

properties and spatial relations. However, it is not restricted by Euclidean

three-dimensional geometry; it localises objects in terms of a variety of

coordinate systems. In topology the three standard axes, X, Y and Z, are no

longer a fixed or concrete geographical frame of reference. Applying the basic

ideas of topology, Mol & Law (1994) proposed three distinct “social topologies”

drawn from their investigation on the spatial properties of the medical

condition anaemia in which there are too few red blood cells in the blood. First,

the region is a distinct topology whereby objects are clustered together and

boundaries are drawn around each particular regional cluster. In short, this

topology can be characterised by “boundary.” Second, the network is a

topology whereby relative distance is a function of the relationship between

components constituting the network. Complex patterns of connected nodes

create the whole network structure. This topology can be characterised by

“relationship.” Third and most important to our discussion, the fluid is a

topology whereby “neither boundaries nor relations mark the difference

between one place and another. Instead, sometimes boundaries come and go,

allow leakage or disappear altogether, while relations transform themselves

without fracture. Sometimes, then, social space behaves like a fluid” (p. 643).

This is a particular image of the topology of anaemia discussed by Mol & Law.

Anaemia, like blood, can be seen as flowing in and out of different regions,

across different borders, using diverse networks.

Applying these metaphors from social topology, we can appreciate the nature

of mobile interaction in work settings more properly. The region metaphor can

be clearly applied to the traditional, geographically dependent human interaction

in the pre-ICT age. Even in the early computing era, the region metaphor

is pertinent to characterise that computational support then was limited to

mainframes with connected terminals. The network metaphor can characterise

modern life styles. Interaction among people via various media networks such

as telephones and the internet has been relatively mobilised in terms of symbolic

travel of data, images, sounds and so on. Computer installations comprising of

local- and wide-area networks are precisely characterised as networks, and

the metaphor can also be expanded to characterise the socio-technical mesh of

humans and technologies in organisational settings.

However, given the rapid diffusion and domestication of various ICT applications

including mobile phones, SMS, PDAs, laptop computers, and awareness

technologies such as ICQ into our everyday lives, a network metaphor seems

increasingly insufficient to explain our social activities in general and work mode

in particular. In the environment where people can interact with others by using

such emerging technologies as mobile phone, SMS, pagers, email, laptops,

PDAs, and ICQ, relational disposition of human interaction is becoming

ambiguous and transitory. Such a social topology can be a fluid. According to

Mol & Law, a fluid world is “a world of mixtures” (p. 660) and “variation

without boundaries and transformation without discontinuity” (p. 658). A fluid

world ensured by multiple mobilisation of interaction can be characterised as

“the remarkably uneven and fragmented flows of people, information, objects,

money, images and risks across regions in strikingly faster and unpredictable

shapes” (Urry, 2000, p. 38). This is clearly the world of the contemporary

mobile work mode. Mobile workers engage themselves in getting their job

done not only at their formal offices but at various sites such as home, clients’

offices, hotels, moving vehicles and so on. Looking at their nature of work,

there is no rigid boundary that determines whether inside or outside the office:

anywhere can be their office. They permeate across “regions” and “networks.”

In this sense, we can argue that mobile work is the fluid mode of working.

Fluidity of mobile interaction raises a variety of new issues to be addressed. For

example, due to increasing flexibility in interacting with others with various ICT

supports, people tend to be exposed to “interaction overload” (Ljungberg &

Sorensen, 2000), which inevitably provides them with various unwelcome

consequences. Whereas high fluidity of interaction in work settings offers

workers a wide range of benefits, such as interacting with people remotely and

flexibly, it also creates interruption and disturbance in their actual work

environment. By having a mobile phone, for instance, you can be disturbed by

anyone who knows your number regardless the level of your busyness.

Although email is basically an asynchronous communication way that does not

require you immediate response, if you keep storing emails without any reply

then you are “overloaded” by email. PDAs enable workers to check and send

email outside their offices, but colleagues who know that you have a PDA

would expect that you always check and reply to their email. As seen in these

immediate examples, high fluidity of mobile interaction offers us a practical issue

to be solved: the asymmetry of interaction (Nardi & Whittaker, 2000), which

will be discussed in the following.

Asymmetry of Interaction

In order to initially analyse aspects of mobile interaction, we intersect one level

further down from the notion of human interaction understood as a fluid where

attention and expressions in emerging patterns shift across time, space and

context. In this section we project this topology onto the operational level of the

individual desiring to interact or to be left alone. The overall goal is to analyse

the elements affecting the fluidity of interaction from the perspective of one

actor, acknowledging the inherent asymmetries of everyday organisational

interaction (Nardi & Whittaker, 2000), as well as the fact that much work

cannot be accomplished independent of temporal, spatial and contextual

constraints (Wiberg & Ljungberg, 2001). It, therefore, makes sense to take a

closer look at how individuals manage their interaction with others. This is

exclusively viewed from the perspective of understanding the struggle to

maintain fluid mobile interaction. The asymmetry of interaction occurs when

“the time and topic are convenient for the initiator, but not necessarily the

recipient. This asymmetry arises because while initiators benefit from rapid

feedback about their pressing issue, recipients are forced to respond to the

initiator’s agenda, suffering interruption ” (Nardi & Whittaker, 2000). A

distinct focus on issues related to establishing fluid mobile interaction will

inevitably place some significance on the initial phases of interaction, which in

particular can be characterised as outeraction, i.e., negotiating the communication

(Nardi & Whittaker, 2000). Current research characterise organisational

conversations as mostly being between two people, spanning brief periods of

time, opportunistic, containing multiple concurrent threads, and ongoing rather

than one-shot. Whittaker et al. (1997), furthermore emphasises issues of

personal desire as opposed to only studying organisational or functional

rationality. This leads to the inclusion of concerns for individuals improvising

and allowing their emotional disposition to affect decisions as to how they

interact and with whom. This concurs with Ciborra’s call for better understanding

of the role of improvisation and moods in meetings between people and

contemporary technologies, and to acknowledge these as a basic tenet for

analysing the relationships (Ciborra, 2002).

In order to analyse more closely the issues related to an individual maintaining

fluid mobile interaction in organisational conversations, we initially distinguish

between an individual’s desire at a given point in time to be interactive or

interpassive. Being interactive implies communication and collaboration

between two or more people around a shared object (Dix & Beale, 1996),

whereas interpassive is a state in which a person is passive in relation to others.

This distinction is essential since it precisely characterises desire to interact

versus desire not to interact. It does, however, not characterise the distinction

between being active and being inactive. A person can be interpassive whilst

immersed in his or her own individual activities. We can then for a given person

and at a given moment analytically characterise the interactional asymmetries

(Nardi & Whittaker, 2000) in terms of the individual’s desire to be interactive

or interpassive, versus the preferences of every potential interactor to be

interactive or interpassive in relation to this particular individual in a particular

moment of time. An interactor characterises a person that can initiate interaction

or respond to a request for interaction. The model, therefore, analytically

distinguishes between “you” and “them.”

The first scenario covers situations where there — at least instantaneously —

are no interaction asymmetries. Here both the person at the centre as well as

the surroundings are interpassive — they are left on their own, undisturbed and,

for example, involved in individual activities or reflecting. This relates to the

distinction between action and reflection (Schön, 1983), or Norman’s (1993,

p. 15) distinction between experiential and reflective cognition:

“There are many modes of cognition, many different ways by

which thinking takes place. The two modes particularly relevant to

my analyses are called experiential cognition and reflective cognition.

The experiential mode leads to a state in which we perceive

and react to the events around us, efficiently and effortlessly. This

is performance. The reflective mode is that of comparison and

contrast, of thought, of decision-making. This is the mode that

leads to new ideas, novel responses. Both modes are essential for

human performance, although each mode requires very different

technological support.”

It is, therefore important to be able to configure technology so as to allow for

sustained interaction, but also for non-interaction, to provide support for both

the experiential mode as well as the reflective mode of cognition (Wiberg,


Secondly, in instances where the person at the centre, in order to maintain a fluid

work pattern for example, needs to get hold of another person by the use of a

mobile phone, the person instantiates a potential interaction asymmetry when

contacting a person who may be interpassive. This invokes the subsequent

issues of managing the interaction, of session management and of the problems

of the central actor potentially by means of an obtrusive technology (Ljungberg

& Sorensen, 2000), forcing him or herself into the fore.

Thirdly, the opposite instance is characterised by the asymmetry being evoked

from outside and the interpassiveness of the person at the centre being broken

by someone who request interaction in order for that person to maintain fluid

mobile work. Here, the issue, from the point of view of the central actor is

managing temporary interruptions of one session for another or engaging in

interaction from being interpassive. From the point of view of the person at the

centre, maintaining fluid mobile work can be an issue of dealing with interruptions

(O’Conaill & Frohlich, 1995), even to the extreme where work can be

characterised in terms of constant interruptions (Rouncefield et al., 1995).

The fourth situation covers instances where the asymmetry of interaction is

resolved in interaction. Both the actor at the centre and people in the

surroundings desire to interact. If this is the case, then one of the primary issues

will be to prioritise between different strands of interaction. This implies that

interaction can lead to meta-interaction, or “outeraction” (Nardi & Whittaker,

2000): “Outeraction is a set of communicative processes outside of information

exchange, in which people reach out to others in patently social ways to enable

information exchange.” The negotiation of interaction here also involves thread

swapping where decisions to hold or wait relate to discussion and negotiation

of availability and relative importance of different threads involving different

configurations of involved actors.

Viewing the analytical distinctions between attempts to negotiate the interactional

asymmetries over time leaves us with a potentially ever-changing configurations

and negotiations. These changes can lead to fluctuations between

symmetry and asymmetry with potential consequences for the central actor

being engaged in both fluid and disruptive mobile work. From the perspective

of the central actor, the challenge is to manage the configuration so as to actively

encourage interaction when it either serves the purpose of contributing to fluid

mobile work, or when disruptions are deemed desirable by the actor in order

to establish interpassive situations at a later stage (Ljungberg & Sorensen,


If certain configurations between the central actor and others persist over some

period of time, or if the same configurations of interactors frequently experience

recurrent asymmetries, this in itself can raise essential issues of interaction

management. In the case of both the central actor and others remaining

interpassive, then there may be an absence of interaction over a prolonged

period. If the central actor persistently over time instigates interaction despite

others’ preferences for interpassiveness, the result can be fragmentation of

work activities on their part. To some extent, the work of the central actor can

in this situation be conceived as fluid. In the opposite asymmetry, the central

interactor constantly being interrupted can result in fragmentation of the mobile

work activities, but equally in perceived fluid work on the part of the instigators

of the interaction. However, if an asymmetric pattern is reiterated over time,

participants who constantly are disrupted, and therefore may not experience

fluid work, could desire to proactively affect the situation and for example

control it by switching off their mobile phones or avoiding reading email for a

couple of days. In the case where interactiveness is the primary preference of

all parties, it raises the issue of balancing the participation of all involved and the

need to maintain awareness of the interaction, its status and results.