Pedestrian Movement as choreographed by the smartphone

Key terms: space, place, mediated interaction, co-presence, private, public, performance, attention, seamless, disjunctures 

INITIAL QUESTIONS: How do cellular phones affect pedestrian movement? Do various people navigate the streets with their phone in unique ways based on their race, gender, age, etc? How do I translate my footage into something more static, and keep it compelling? How do I draw out effective data and descriptions from my footage? What previous research has been done on this topic? Why is everyone on their phones in the streets? What takes precedence in people’s attention– the physical or virtual world? 

Interactions Separated: two places – virtual and physical – in one space


The development of technology repeatedly increases the use and functions of cell phones. With this development, new realms for human interaction arise, and social scientists are constantly adapting the potential ways humans can interact with one another. Initially, communication separated into two categories of ritual interaction: co-presence or mediated interaction. In 2006, Sherry Turkle writes a book entitled “Always on: The Tethered-Self” which discusses these two communication variations in a different light describing the self in a space, instead of a stage; this space can be private or public, but there is a new human capacity to maintain a private bubble with a cell phone in a public space. She develops the idea that we must begin to balance our physical self with our online self in this public, physical space. 

Sherry Turkle writes about the culture that technology, and especially smartphones have created, of being “always on.” In the article she defines the difference between space and place, two spheres that smartphones separate. Sherry Turkle writes, “In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a café, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other.. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal.” In this way interactions and places are two different places that have to be mentally switched between, and the physical space is the only thing that unifies everything. She discusses how phones have transformed the meaning of place and their creation of more places for people to escape to when in the same space as others. An anthropologist, Denise Lawrence-Zuniga differentiates the two by writing, “Space is often defined by an abstract scientific, mathematical, or measurable conception while place refers to the elaborated cultural meanings people invest in or attach to a specific site or locale.  Another article by Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, writes, “Representations of space in the social sciences are remarkably dependent on images of break, rupture, and disjunction.”

In 2008, Rich Ling, wrote about these two interactions in “Handbook of mobile communication studies.” He says there is a stage for interaction where humans perform different rituals of interaction differentiated by two sub-categories: mediated interaction and co-presence. The stage in this case is the sidewalk. Co-presence is either communicating or being present face-to-face with other individuals, and mediated interaction is communicating via technology (i.e. messaging or oral phone conversation) or simply being present in a virtual world. From this viewpoint, interactions are separated; you talk face to face, check your phone, and then re-enter the physical interaction– in a disconnected manner, physically and mentally. There is a certain gravity that mediated interactions have in co-present situations. Ling writes, “While the individuals being observed pay heed to the co-present, the material indicates that the mediated interaction has an equal if not superior place in the minds of the individuals.” In the article, there is a description of a woman who is walking while talking, and who giving a navigation glance up from her phone, avoids running into another individual on crutches moving beside her. The article reads, “the woman balanced between an engrossment in her texting and at the same time a minimal but adequate awareness of her co-present situation.” 

Cell phones allow pedestrians to create a virtual place that can temporarily separate them from those around them while in a public space. Ling writes, “We see that the mobile telephone is not simply another object that we have on our person as we move through the urban sphere. rather, it is a conduit through which we have physically and often temporally removed contact with others.” In this way, we choose to be a part of one or the other and can freely (and sometimes awkwardly) move between the two conditions. On campus last week, I had my headphones in and was switching the music I was listening to walking down the sidewalk by the library. Another girl was exiting the library texting on her phone and coming down a sidewalk that would soon intersect with my sidewalk, but this movement was unbeknownst to me. As we both reached the intersection, we quite nearly ran into each other. She exclaimed sorry, I calmly adjusted my path, put away my phone, and kept walking. Both of us had been knocked out of our virtual world that we had allowed to take precedence to the environment around us, upon physical impact, I awkwardly transitioned into a primary presence in the physical space around me. 


In one of Rich Ling’s books, The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society, he discusses this separation in regards to Portes and Hardin’s respective works on balkanization and the tragedy of the commons:

“On the one hand, the mobile telephone can lead to ‘balkanization,’ in that we can escape our immediate situation and interact with only like-minded persons (Portes 1998). In the process, we do not just drop out, but we also colonize a part of the public sphere and reduce it slightly by our willingness to participate. Hardin’s (1968) concept of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is seen here, in that the device provides an advantage to the individual while slightly diminishing the public sphere.”


In an article entitled, “Augmenting public urban spaces: The impact of the digital future on the design of public urban spaces,” Kirralie Houghton writes of this division between virtual and physical, and humans inability to participate in both at once. She shares, “as the user’s focus may be split between those within spatial proximity and co‐present at a distance. Standing on a street corner the person engrossed in the conversation they are having with the distant other at the other end of the call is oblivious to the passers‐by and only vaguely aware of their location and context.”


Seamless Interaction: public and private are inseparable 


But, to counteract the above ideas of two separate spheres that must be navigated between, the ideas of Licoppe arise, and state that things cannot be a divided as we originally thought (find his other article from 2008 communication/media studies book-The Mobile Phone Rings** can’t find anything relevant). The co-presence and mediated interaction, the public and the private, the space and place, all become collapsed into one. These paradoxes actually are more intertwined than previously thought into a constantly connected presence. Look up connected presence model. Within this model, we are looking at the relationships between three concepts: self, behavior or ritual, and the place or space we choose to be a part of at a given time. In an article written in 2004, entitled “‘Connected’ presence: the emergence of a new repertoire for managing social relationships in a changing communication technoscape,” Licoppe discusses the idea of connected presence. Licoppe describes this idea as: “copresent interactions and mediated distant exchanges seem woven into a single, seamless web” and that “the boundaries between absences and presence eventually get blurred.” From this perspective, we are seamlessly switching back and forth between our phones and the person or people we are with, physically and mentally.

In another article, “The emergence of portable private-personal territory: Smartphones, social conduct and public spaces,” written in 2012, Tali Hatuka and Eran Toch discuss the restructuring of the public sphere, and the unification of the public and private. As we walk through a park, we are engaged in other spheres of work emails, private conversations, and the like. Hatuka and Toch write, “By temporarily disregarding one’s physical environment and ignoring the people around, it is expected that the device will take attention and focus. This condition raises questions: how does this state of mind influence social interactions in a place? How does this dynamic shape behavior in public spaces?” They begin to discuss the smartphone’s creation of PPPT (portable private-personal territory) so that as pedestrians we can maintain our private space through mediated interaction while also simultaneously being a part of co-present interactions. In this case, they write, “public and private are also understood as inseparable” and “rather than looking at the tension between public and private as a divide or dichotomy, we suggest tracking the shifting fluid and permeable boundaries between the two.” This article seems to take a shift from the divided view of individuals moving between the two communication practices to one that is fluid and a natural transition for people in public.

In this fluid movement and tearing up of boundaries where private is present in public, and a phone’s ability to extend our personal space; there is an inherent cultural trend disregarding privacy. People don’t seem to mind the public and private melting into one another.


Delving into the movement and performance 


The movement of cities attracts me– especially in the form of pedestrians. There is a pedestrianized haze that forms along crowded street corners and as a choreographer and dancer, I am entranced by the patterns of movement that ensue from the chaos and order that results from moving people. The architecture and physical design of a city dictates this movement just as much as an individual person, as does the environment and culture of the area within the city– in this case, New York City. Kirralie Houghton writes, “The choreography movement within public spaces has notably changed as a result of the mobile phone.” The pedestrians within the urban landscape of New York City that I observed in over 10 different locations were filled with disjunctures as people switched from phones to what was directly in front and around them, and back and forth over again. The other day, while on campus in Lexington, VA, I watched a student walking from an academic building while texting and looking down at her phone. She was walking towards the grass between two sidewalks, but didn't realize her whereabouts. I observed her to see where she would go, and when she would recognize the path that she had set herself on. She got right to the edge of the grass realizing something had changed in her environment, and looked up from her phone, adjusted her course to the sidewalk and kept walking with her face to the phone. I am struck by how unnatural this movement is, how inhuman it feels to me. From a choreographic standpoint, this movement from phone to being present in the world around you or an interaction with another person in the same physical space is not a seamless switch, and instead filled with awkwardness and fragmentation. There are incomplete motions, pivots, and readjustments that individuals repeatedly make. None of the movements are smooth or natural: there is a shift of an individual’s head down to up and around as they keep remote awareness of surroundings. There is a jerk of a head as a person realizes they are about to run into something or someone. Similarly, pedestrians often unexpectedly change their pace when switching their attention from a phone to the physical space; this causes their movements to be clumsy and hard to read by those around them.

I would like to argue that all of the paradoxes (co-presence and mediated interaction, the public and the private, the space and place) are too interconnected to separate communication into two realms, much like the discussions of Hatuka, Toch, and Licoppe. As humans move through space, they make moment by moment switches depending on which reality they want to take precedence– the virtual or physical. However, the physical switches between these realms, however you would like to identify them, are a conscious choice that can be seen by the outside world, and that movement is what I want to hone in on. I believe that these switches between types of interaction involve a lot of disjunctures. There are flaws in the ease of moving between these two realities, virtual and physical, that can be observed in the physical movements of humans as they walk with their smartphones. These jerks, pivots, and repetitive head movements are prescribed by the culture of the individual, or rather by the interface of social norms and physical constraints. This switching not only manifests itself in the movements of an individual, but can also affect their interactions with others. In the first section, I described a scenario in which I physically ran into another individual on their device, but I have observed and experienced a variety of similar encounters during the past couple months of observation. As a dancer and choreographer, I was intrigued by the way that the pedestrians navigated space with their devices, and how they phone effected their interactions with others as well as the physical space around them. 

Homogenized Movement: cyborgs and androgynous movement

As I was trying to differentiate the movement styles of pedestrians with phones, I analyzed the videos for some kind of difference in the movement classifications based on gender, age, or race. However, I was intrigued by the lack of differences between these social classifications. Cells phones seemed to actually flatten out the distinctions between people into a homogenized movement style that wasn’t obviously unique to any specific group. Cell phones are standardized and offer physical constraints to movement that trump the social norms we normally perform.  


Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, claims that humans are cyborgs because of the way that their daily life and sense of self is so intertwined with technology. She writes, “I would like to tell you all that you are all actually cyborgs, but not the cyborgs that you think. You're not RoboCop, and you're not Terminator, but you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices. So what's a good definition for cyborg? Well, traditional definition is ‘an organism to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.’” 


There is often a view that cyborgs are masculine, because of this association with Robocop and Terminator, however, what I find compelling is that this fails to be true in my observations. Cell phones have created a social norm to be “always on” which constantly causes us to switch between the virtual and physical worlds by holding and interacting with our phones. These interactions and switches generate movement that has become homogenized and androgynous. In other words, the cell phone takes primacy over the way you consciously display yourself.  

Breaking down the movement system that the smartphone creates

Movement systems and style  

The movements can be indexed into a choreographic progression from phone down by your side to phone by your ear, with and without headphones. All of these movements interfere with an individual’s physical interactions with their environment and those around them (random individuals as well as companions).











excerpt from Drid Williams’ “Style in the Dance and Human Movement Studies”

“Whether we look at games, marching drills or dancing, it is important to know that no single game, drill or dance in the world incorporates all theoretically possible human movement. Not only is the human body thus limited in the amount of moves it is able to make, the body operates at all times in an abstract orientation and displacement space based on three fixed and three moving axes [Figure 2]. The small ‘‘cube’’ represents the performer; the larger cube represents the space in which the performer moves. Having some kind of model representing a performer’s personal space embedded in a larger space is important because much of the meaning that occurs in any movement system is a result of gestures and moves that pertain to the larger space, for example, gestures that indicate ‘‘place’’ in space=time such as here, there, now, then and so on [Urciuoli 1995]. 

Relevant to our discussion is the fact that all movement systems in the world are limited by the degrees of freedom available to the human body-instrument itself, thus to the movements it is able to make in space=time. Because of these, it is relatively easy to identify the differences between technique (the actual repertoire of movements that comprise a game, a dance, a ceremony or what-you-will) and the style (how the moves are executed) of the performance, whatever it may be.”


Drid William’s ideas on movement systems influenced the way that I thought about classifying the movements of the pedestrian performer moving through the street with their device. The technique is indicated by the physical constraints of the environment (i.e. the street) and the technology (i.e. smartphone), and the style is more influenced by the social norms. 


Cell Phone Movement System Classifications

Without Headphones

1. the walk and hold (arms move back and forth by sides)

2. the walk and text (arms extended from body anywhere between waste and eye level)

3. the walk and call (have more range of hand motion) 

4. pause and snap (hands extended)

5. baby can’t stop me (baby carriage or holder paired with phone)

6. sharing is caring (shared viewing of a phone)


1.    Look mom, no hands (lots of range of motion, but headphones in) 

2.    the headphones and hold (less motion because of headphones restricting arm swings)

3.    headphones in, walk and text (even less motion)


The classifications are part of the movement system and are influenced by the technique and the style.

The Technique: Physical Constraints

In observing pedestrians in NYC in various locations, I made the above designations as a progression of movement from phone in your hand all the way up to your ear, with and without headphones. I didn’t observe anyone to my knowledge that was interacting with their phone while their hand was extended below their waste, nor above their head. There is a limited index of movement due to the physical constraints of the phone, and these constraints are pretty standard from person to person. There is a homogenous movement technique in public  An individual’s phone is part of the public space as it becomes an intermediary between one person to the next. Technically your intimate space is defined as any length below 18 inches, so holding the phone to your ear or out from your waist as many people do when they are walking is still in the realm of your intimate space. However, rarely if not never did I see a person with their phone all the way up to their eyes while they were walking or stopped on the side of the street. Given the physical constraints of the phone, it must be somewhat extended from your body to be able to see the screen. On the other extreme, an individual wouldn’t have their hand extended at a 90 degree angle walking around as it would cause problems while moving through a crowd. Other than taking a photo, where the hands are often both extended sometimes out from the head or a bit above, it is often fairly close to the body. The phone must be kept somewhat within yourself to maintain a certain speed. In terms of speed, the physical and attentional demands of a phone often required some pedestrians to slow down and speed up randomly do to whatever was taking their attention on their advice; this can make it hard for those around them to judge their trajectory as well as their pace. 

In terms of baby strollers and wrap baby carriers, the individual multi-tasking would often have to be creative about holding a phone as well as the stroller. One woman I observed had both hands on her stroller while keeping her phone between her ear and her shoulder requiring her to walk with her head at an angle. Some women kept one hand on stroller and one with phone up to their ear making it appear harder to navigate their stroller. One woman I observed in this position, attempted to turn the corner without giving a warning glance to the individual next to her, and so that individual had to stop and step backwards to let the woman with the stroller pass. Lastly, some held their phone on the stroller looking down at it while walking.


When holding a coffee, a bag, or some other object in one hand and a phone in the other, the motion is again limited as you cannot easily switch the phone from hand to hand. It also makes you a bit more vulnerable as you have no hands for protection against others or from falling. There is a certain awkwardness that manifests in juggling these two items as people try to adjust their belongings, or switch from using their phone to storing it away. For example, one man while texting in one hand was attempting to adjust his bag on his shoulder while also looking up and down to maintain his space.

Without headphones, an individual making a call has the other hand free to express their conversation or simply swing it by their side. In texting, people often keep both hands on their phone and then swing it by their side while looking up and walking a few feet and then return back to the texting position at their waste. When individuals are wearing headphones, this automatically limits the range of motion of the phone as it can only move as far away from you as the headphones can reach. However, when putting the phone in a pocket or bag while using headphones you automatically free up hand usage. 

The Style: Social Norms

Some of these movements are dictated by social norms. The vast majority of people I observed on their devices had their own phones, and weren’t sharing with the person walking next to them. Although, there was a couple of situations where two people paused to look at a phone together or compare something on each other’s devices. In that same vein, there were many instances where people pulled away from the main path of movement to stand and communicate by text as well as by speech. In this case, I sometimes saw groups doing this together, pulling away from their conversations with those right in front of them to communicate via cell phones and often they would switch back and forth between these two forms of communication with a simple up and down of the head (keeping their phones at the ready). 

In terms of gender, I’m trying to decipher major differences, but struggling a bit to see obvious ones. I feel as if some women holding their phones want to make a fashion statement; it’s part of their identity, maybe the have a nice case or one of those pop socket grips to make it easier to hold. They also may work to portray themselves as glamorous or poised while holding their phones. The women seem to be more conscious of the way they appear while on their phones versus their male counterparts. However, overall, while on a phone, most people are not paying attention to how they appear or how others appear around them because their attention is focused on their phone. When glancing up or around this self-awareness comes back, and adjustments are made to a bag, object being held, a part of their outfit. 


Performance & Gender 

I compare a pedestrian’s use of a smartphone in the public setting to the performance of a dancer. In dance, there is a choreographer who creates a set piece of movement to be performed often with the accompaniment of music. The music set to pedestrian movement is simply the sounds of the streets– the cars, honks, voices of the people, dogs barking, music from street performers, silence, etc. The movement of the pedestrians is choreographed indirectly, by the environment and social or cultural norms of that environment, and directly, by the responses of the pedestrian to those determinants. The smartphone becomes a partner within this choreography, an aspect of the public performance that ensues from moving through streets, parks, and sidewalks. During a performance, a dancer is expected to be aware of the other dancers on stage as well as the audience. As a performer, you must be mentally present and thoughtful. There is a moment, when exiting the stage during a dance while other people are performing, that you have this odd break where the audience cannot see you anymore. Subconsciously, you keep track of timing and when you must re-enter the stage. But, you are allowed a moment of mental break when you can check out for a second. This break in performance, and reentry on to stage bears a certain similarity to this switch between attention to phone and physical environment– although in public you cannot hide from the audience. It would be like a dancer staying on stage solitarily and casually while others are still performing their part. ​


I began to look at writing on performance that could be tied to my research on pedestrians. The reason behind looking into these sociologists/philosophers was to gain a better understanding of movement before or it was effected by technology, and specifically at how movement is 1) gendered and 2) a public performance. Each writer has caused me to question how their theories have changed with the constant presence of phones in our movement vocabulary. 


The ideas presented by Mauss are rudimentary, and precede some of the discussions of Goffman and Butler. Mauss’s main argument in this article is that the way we carry our bodies is culturally inflicted repeated until it became naturalized– not as natural as we once thought. Mauss distinguishes the 4 techniques of the body, one of them describing techniques of adult life. Within adult life, he describes various movement activities– which simply indicates the absences of rest. He writes that walking includes, “the habits of the body being upright while walking, breathing, rhythm of the walk, swinging the fists, the elbows, progression with the trunk in advance of the body or by advancing either side of the body alternately (we have got accustomed to moving all the body forward at once). Feet in or out. Extension of the leg” (82). He says that peculiarities of walking are due to cultural differences, race, individual mentality, and collective mentality. Mauss writes of the distinction between male and female movements. He states, “And everyone knows that a woman’s throwing, of a stone for example, is not just weak, but always different from that of a man: in a vertical instead of a horizontal plane. Perhaps this is a case of two instructions. For there is a society of men and a society of women. However, I believe that there are also biological and psychological things involved as well” (76-77). In this way, he is recognizing the differences in human behavior and ability by gender– that it is not only a physical capability that separates male and female public identity, but also their perceptions of their social identity. Another notable aspect of Mauss’s paper that relates to my study is transmission of the form of the techniques. Movement is sometimes adopted naturally, out of necessity, but can also be taught and is heavily influenced by cultural traditions. He says that movement is generally standardized and passed down within a culture. However, he writes, “cases of invention, of laying down principles, are rare. Cases of adaptation are an individual psychological matter. But in general they are governed by education, and at least by the circumstances of life in common, of contact” (86). I wonder if cell phones are this rare type of invention, a new set of principles set down to be followed and adopted by society. It is a new index of movement that has been formed by the collective over the past two decades until now when it has become so ingrained into our culture that it is present in a variety cultures, races, genders, and ages. The movement is not limited by the physical abilities of males and females, like Mauss’s example of the throwing rocks. 


Of particular interest to my research is one of Mauss’s final comments: “It is thanks to society that there is the certainty of pre-prepared movements, domination of the conscious over emotion and unconsciousness.” Does the amount of energy and attention we given to our phones make unconsciousness more important than consciousness in these pre-preprepared movements? Does the emotional connection they allow between people represent emotion outweighing consciousness once again? 


In Goffman’s book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he writes, “When an actor takes on an established social role, usually he finds that a particular front has already been established for it. Whether his acquisition of the role was primarily motivated by a desire to perform the given task or by a desire to maintain a corresponding front, the actor will find that he must do both” (27). I believe that being on your phone is a new task within Goffman’s theories within the presentation of self. It is a task that allows you to put on a common social front that temporarily implies the avoidance of co-presence. This specific performance is socially accepted. In all of my videos, there was excessive phone use while in public– potentially making it not only accepted, but perhaps, expected. Goffman talks about idealization which is, “one way in which a performance is ‘socialized,’ molded, and modified to fit into the understanding and expectations of the society in which it is presented” (35).


Goffman compares the movements that individuals make in public versus private to that of being on stage or behind stage in a theater environment. With his perspective, social life becomes a performance that takes place: front stage, back stage, and off stage. Appearance, setting, and manner are all indicators of the individual’s stage mindset. In other words, time and place effect social interaction just as much as how the performer believes the audience is perceiving them. In regards to appearance, certain accessories are often used to indicate one gender or another, for example clothes, jewelry, make-up, hairstyle, bags, etc. However, phones are an accessory that does not indicate gender, except for cases when an individual chooses a gender-specific phone case. 


Goffman believes that how we behave backstage is not effected by the norms and expectations that normally control our front stage actions and behavior; there are things we would never do in public that we do in private when our guard is down. As I think back to Mauss’s discussion of gendered movements and Judith Butler’s theories on gender performance, I wonder if we are less attuned to the culturally impacted performance of gender while in private. I formed a few questions from Goffman’s theories that contradicted what I found in my research: does the phone represent a portal that transports you to back stage or even off stage while you're still on front stage? Does the phone make you less concerned with your audience? If you are less concerned with your gender identity when off or back stage, and phones transport you to that space mentally when you are on front stage then is this why there are so little differentiation between genders in watching pedestrians interact with their phones? 


The last writer I looked into was Judith Butler and her essay on phenomenology and feminist theory. She writes that: “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency form which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time– an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” First of all, this repetition of acts is essential to this study of cellular phone use specifically in the writing by Sherry Turkle in “Always On.” Phone usage, whether it’s texting or calling, is repeated constantly throughout a day. Butler goes on to say, “Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gender self.” Butler believes that the way we move and use our body is influenced by the gender norms that we believe to be true; we act within a movement index given to us by the social world around us. However, my question with Butler’s perspective is whether phones neutralize this stylized repetition of acts imposed on us by society? If the gendered self is an illusion, do phones allow us to melt away the subconscious portrayal of a specific gender? If so, are phones as extensions of ourselves making our movements, and therefore, us more androgynous in the public sphere? Butler continues, “[the body] is a materiality that bears meaning, if nothing else, and the manner of this bearing is fundamentally dramatic. By dramatic I mean only that the body is not merely matter but a continual and incessant materializing of possibilities.” In this way, I think she is implying that we are constantly adapting how we express ourselves in accordance to the changes of popular culture and societal norms.