The Wireless Leash: Mobile Messaging Service as a Means of Control

Jack Linchuan Qiu


Mobile messaging, including short-messaging service (SMS) and multimedia messaging service (MMS), is an asynchronous mobile phone service that is too often deemed as a tool for entertainment and consumption at the micro individual level. This paper, however, examines the more structural aspects of mobile messaging being socially, economically, and politically shaped as a means of control. It first establishes conceptual connections between existing mobile communication studies and the historical tendency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) to be used for surveillance and authoritarian power projects. This discussion is substantiated by a brief global overview of related incidents occurring in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Hong Kong, all in 2005. The paper then focuses on mobile messaging and social control in China, where a massive IT industrial complex has emerged since 2000 to serve the control needs of the power elite, especially with regard to SMS. There is both macro institutional formations at the national and transnational levels and more specific organizational developments, such as in the workplace for purposes of labor control or at the interface between broadcast stations and audiences in order to reduce the political risk of phone-in programs. The overall argument is that, the political function of mobile messaging has to be understood as part of the existing institutional structures of a given society; and that only by fully recognizing problems in the political status quo, in power projects at micro, meso, and macro levels, can we seize the opportunity for social change.

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