Christine Lohmeier examines media-free zones within the context of ontological security. Christine is an Assistant Professor at the University of Munich and former CGCS visiting scholar. Her research interests relate to inter/transnational communication, media and collective memory and identity and belonging.
The recent New York Times article Step Away from the Phone!  describes the growing trend of device-free-zones, a movement where people make a conscious effort to not use their mobile phone during designated times. The omnipresence of media has long been established among communication scholars. Many will not have missed the irony  of letting a mobile phone, and perhaps in past decades a camcorder or camera, get in the way of ‘real-life’ face-to-face interaction.
There are many studies, theories and approaches to drawn on when trying to assess the value of media or device-free zones. Think of Sherry Turkl e ’s warning inquiry of whether we expect too much of technology and too little of each other. Or the insightful research by Melissa Gregg in Work’s Intimacy  where she demonstrates how constant connectivity seems to make people feel obliged to work on a constant basis. One of the underlying questions, of course, is why is it so difficult to step away from the computer, the mobile phone, or the TV? One explanation for our media-saturated life might be the need for a sense of security and belonging, of community.
The paradox of the mediatization of everyday life is that it gives us both a sense of security as well as an immense sense of insecurity. The safety and danger of being constantly connected and reachable can be seen as a vantage point for revisiting the concept of ontological security. Giddens (1990) defines ontological security as, “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.”
Giddens also states that this sense of security is an emotional and unconscious state of being. Ontological security is central to trusting the people and things around us.
The complexities of mediated life are reflected in our fluctuating sense of ontological security. While Roger Silverstone (1993) makes a persuasive case for television adding to our sense of ontological security, the permanent mediatization of everyday life has – to a certain degree – turned this argument on its head.
Silverstone has pointed out television’s eternal presence and embedded nature in everyday life. When accessed through an old-fashioned television set, television is a cyclical medium, both in terms of its consumption (in the house at certain periods of the day) and in its programming strategy. This does not hold true for digital media, especially when media is consumed through mobile devices. Silverstone considers television as an object, television as a medium and television as an entertainer and informer. All these functions and descriptors equally apply to mobile gadgets. We use these gadgets, however, not only for entertainment, but also for relaxation, socializing, and work.
Referring Christmas television programming, wedding videos and the broadcasting of crises and catastrophes, Silverstone suggests that, “[a]ll these events are expressions of the medium’s capacity to mobilize the sacred and to create what anthropologists have called ‘communitas’: the shared experience, however fragile, momentary and synthetic, of community.”
The collaborations between mobile users during the London riots, as well as the political activism during the Arab Spring, demonstrate digital media’s capacity to facilitate collective action—the creation of a communitas. However, there is a definite sense of individualism in digital media’s use. Mobile phones, for example, are hardly the hearths for social spaces that the television used to be. What we see are new communities forming and deconstructing at a much faster pace. Drawing on the work of James Carey, this means that the values, beliefs and collective agreements underlying our communication are much harder to decipher. What are they and which community exactly do they belong to? The currents between ontological security and insecurity demand much greater skill to keep afloat. Perhaps here lies part of the answer why people seek to create media-free zones, if only for a limited amount of time.
Carey, James (1989). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Giddens, Anthony (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.
Silverstone, Roger (1993). “Television, ontological security and the transition object”. Media, Culture & Society 15:4, 573-598.