Genevieve Bell Genevieve Bell

The Future of Mobility Through an Anthropologist’s Looking Glass

A conversation with Genevieve Bell, Distinguished Professor at The Australian National University (ANU), PhD in Cultural Anthropology and Director of the ANU School of Cybernetics  
June 28, 2024

As an anthropologist working at the intersection of cultural practice and technological development, Professor Bell shared with us her thoughts on the role human traits and technologies can play in the future of mobility.

She also shared her take on “freedom of mobility”, a concept at the very heart of the Freedom of Mobility Forum.

Freedom of Mobility Forum (FOMF): How would you define freedom of mobility from your perspective as an anthropologist?

Genevieve (Bell): Freedom of mobility is a human concept that can take on different meanings according to geographies and is undoubtedly a construct contingent on political, economic, social, and cultural premises but also ecological. For example, some spaces might be welcoming, inclusive and safe for some people but not for others. An individual can benefit from freedom of mobility but might, in the end, be somehow constrained in this freedom for a number of reasons:

  • People might not be expected or authorized to move freely in specific areas such as sacred Aboriginal lands, personal properties, mining companies, military bases, etc.
  • There might be limits according to individual characteristics such as gender. For example, years ago, female students of ANU called for improved street lighting to enable safe and free movement throughout the campus at night.
  • The way we design cities also creates limits. For example, American cities are mainly structured around highways that are impossible to walk through, leading to a level of freedom of mobility based on access to a vehicle. In other countries (e.g., France) much more room is left for pedestrians.  

The very notion of mobility itself is challenging as it is also culturally shaped: certain kinds of movements have been normalized, while others have not. For instance, one might find it perfectly reasonable to run around a soccer field, but not to run around an airport. We are in principle “free” and able to enact those movements, but the way they are defined or how we feel about them is intricate.

I believe one should be cautious and avoid asserting freedom of mobility as universally desired or understood. In a French context for example, freedom is a founding value dating back to the establishment of the French republic. Yet, cultures are diverse, so freedom might not always be perceived as a social good and can even sometimes be regarded as a rejection of the collective or a rejection of responsibility.

One can also challenge freedom of mobility’s legitimacy if it comes at the expense of a loss. Since humanity is facing a climate crisis, freedom of mobility – as the possibility to move anywhere with any mobility device – should perhaps be constrained. As our planet can no longer afford all kinds of mobile technologies, how do we determine – and who gets to determine – which freedoms are more important than others, which mobilities should be constrained, whose, and how?

FOMF: Looking more closely at this issue of shifting towards more sustainable forms of mobility, to what extent can people’s relationship to their cars impact the future of mobility?

Image of Young Mobility Image of Young Mobility

Bell: In all geographies, drivers’ relationship with their cars rarely seems entirely pragmatic. You would think criteria such as price, fuel consumption or carbon footprint would be the key factors influencing car choice. However, the choice also derives from emotional reactions such as self-satisfaction, peer approval, and a sense of belonging. As a result, the actual use and relationship with a car greatly differs from one individual to another and from one culture to another. A car can make people feel like they experience a fantasized life. It is an elusive promise we make to our future selves that one day we will be living that idealized life. For example, in some regions of Australia, people own vehicles equipped with Maxtrax vehicle-recovery boards more for self-image, in some cases, than for the actual usefulness in terms of mobility.

This symbolism around cars can be a true hurdle in the shift towards more sustainable forms of mobility as individuals build up emotional bonds with their cars. I believe that we failed to develop an emotional vocabulary for an affectionate, imagined connection to public transportation, as we did with cars. We should guide people towards a promise to their future selves in which public transportation is not only legitimate but desired.

FOMF: How would you describe technology’s impact on people’s mobility habits?

Bell: Technology greatly impacted people’s mobility, especially in the work sphere. “Work anywhere, anytime” was the tagline for the Intel Centrino platform, launched more than 20 years ago. Today, this motto is perceived as being at the crossroads of both promise and curse. Indeed, in the late ‘90s, the high-tech industry started giving people a certain degree of freedom: computing switched from being something you visited (desktop) to something you could move (laptop).

Image of shaping the future of mobility Image of shaping the future of mobility

Mobile devices were conceived so that people could easily move and connect, maintaining accessibility and usability. In continuity with this emerging enhanced connectivity, movements in cities became even easier through the development of an increased offer in terms of mobility devices.

However, in the advent of new technologies in the context of mobility, social challenges emerged, especially in the labor market, raising the question of how to deal with one’s job when it is not just a place to reach anymore but follows you all around (with computers being always close – at work, home or even next to bed). As a matter of fact, in multiple countries, boundaries between work and personal life have tended to blur. A permeability has slowly settled between being mobile (which initially relied on facilitated connectivity) and being constantly connected. Limiting the drift of constant connectivity – resulting from the need of increased mobility – often became essential, for example:

  • In Europe, the slots during which a company can contact employees had to be regulated.
  • The design of trains has also been updated, with quiet carriages where phone calls are forbidden.

FOMF: To what extent do new technologies enable intangible mobility and new social bonds?

Bell: There is no easy answer. On one hand, technology fostered human interactions, helped fight against isolation and created meaningful bonds. People – whether we consider a young child living alone in a village or new mothers suffering from post-partum depression and seeking judgment-free discussions – use technologies to reach supportive communities.

However, the flip side of this success is that those same devices also opened the door to bullying, tougher expectations, abundant injunctions, and almost systematic criticism. In addition, technologies created broader social issues, including the risk of misinformation: the accuracy and reliability of information circulating in those mobile spaces are extremely complex to prove, all the more given mobile networks’ ubiquity. The increasing complexity of our world and the development of safe, sustainable and responsible technologies need to be a focus.