Critically examine the concept of ‘mobile lives’ as described by Elliott and Urry in their book by the same name, and analyze how the film Up in the Air (2009) concerns some of the dynamics identified by Elliott and Urry. Make sure to refer to both the text and the film in your response, and to draw on appropriate criticism and theory.
The concept of mobility and mobile lives is certainly multiplicitous and continues to evolve as technologies develop, allowing us to be in more places at once, experiencing different times across space. We are living through an era when development in systems -specifically infrastructure and communications- allows us to inhabit and move through space in record time. How much of us is in each place, be it virtual or geographical, is called into question when we consider the concept of ‘mobile lives’ and the effect such a lifestyle has on relationships, as is demonstrated by the character of Richard Bingham in the film Up in the Air. In this essay I will consider the concept of mobile lives as outlined in the book of the same name by Elliott and Urry and examine the elements that they identify as being fundamental to such a phenomenon. I will illustrate these factors by highlighting how Richard Bingham, in the film Up in the Air, operates through and adopts miniaturized mobilities, mobile intimacy and interacts with immobile systems, in order to construct his particular mobile life.
One element that Urry and Elliott strongly feature in their book detailing the many facades of ‘mobile lives’ is one of miniaturized mobilities. ‘Miniaturized mobilities’ are the technologies, the “mobile phones, laptop, computers, wireless connections” that allow people to communicate, schedule, forecast, cancel, commute, orientate; to move and do whilst on the move. These miniaturized devices, which “American adults spent about 3 hours and 30 minutes a day using” (Molla, 2020), are a major tool in what Tim Cresswell describes as the ‘time-space compression’ “the effective shrinking of the globe by ever-increasing mobility at speed enabled by innovations in transportation and communications technology” (Cresswell, 2006, p4) which allow people to communicate and coordinate movements instantaneously across time and space.
In the opening scene of Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham asks for the keycard of a newly fired employee. Directly after this, Bingham moves through a sequence of locations using prominent mobile devices: cards. The card is a piece of highly portable technology that represents and designates access. Striping the keycard of the fired employee is a security measure and a restriction, without which he is denied access to the space certain ‘allowed’ bodies are able to gather: the workplace. Later, Ryan Bingham uses a card to pay for his Hertz rental, which we later find out comes with certain privileges, as he and Alex debate over which car rental company is better, with Bingham noting qualities such as being able to ‘park and go’ (Reitman, 2009) with instant check out, highlighting his preference for systems that increase fluidity.
The card Bingham uses to check in with at the airport also allows him access to certain lanes. These are so-called ‘priority’ check-in lines at airports where he is greeted with “customised friendly touches, that keep my world in orbit” (Reitman, 2009) but in reality are automated human responses or as the character Alex puts it “simulated hospitality” (Reitman, 2009), similar to what we could imagine a hologram would look and sound like. We could say that human beings that aid him on his commute are devices for his mobility. Whilst there are systems in place to allow Bingham to move undeterred through space, it is miniaturized mobilities (cards) that signal his legitimacy to be in that space. The card, as we will see later in the film, is more than just a tool, it is in itself a status symbol onto which he maps several aspects of his identity, so that it not only facilitates the mobility of his life but is a very extension of the self. His mobile self is contained within the cards. The person, along with their devices that facilitate fluid movement and travel, becomes a sort of portable geotag and what occurs is an untethering of the body from restricted locations, which unties the “self...and reconfigures identity as dispersed, adrift, ‘on the move’”(Elliott & Urry , 2010, p30) for the purposes of work but also, life. Urry refers to this process as portable perhonshood: “the psychological bridging of spatial fragmentation between self and others that unfolds in conditions of intensive mobilities.” (Elliott & Urry , 2010, p.23) that is made possible through miniaturized mobilities.
In the mobile lives that Elliott and Urry underscore in their book, miniaturized mobilities play a central role in modern mobile lives, becoming a second brain and extension of the self and relationships more generally. A mobile phone, with its many communications and social media apps, is a conduit to further spaces that store data, for example icloud or Google drive, which “can function as a form of emotional containment, the storing of affect for subsequent retrieval, processing and thinking" (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p40). Songs can transport a person back to a certain time, triggering particular emotions. Mobile phone apps become the means through which people express themselves on social media or in conversation with others in a different location, facititaling “forms of emotional containment” and “the opportunity to express and explore anxieties, doubts, worries or dangers" (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p34). Later we will see how miniature devices facilitate intimacy and connection. First we will consider how immobile objects, systems and people facilitate mobile life.
Just as miniaturized mobilities depend on the immobility of large physical structures such as data storage hubs, satellite dishes on earth and in space, as well as large swathes of human resources that remain immobile in offices dotted around the globe, so too do highly mobile individuals rely on immobile entities to support the “flowing work worlds” (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p72). Experiences of mobility depend heavily on “interdependent systems of ‘immobile’ material worlds, and especially exceptionally immobile platforms (transmitters, roads, garages, stations, aerials, airports, docks)” (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p72) and ‘immobile’ labour- the checkout attendant, the office clerk, the security guard etc. For one to be mobile, another has to be immobile. The central conflict in the movie is represented in the interplay of mobile/immobile entities and systems, which is performed through the emulous dynamic of male and female characters: Ryan and Natalie.
“If there’s one word I want to leave you with today, it’s this...: GLOCAL” says Natalie (Reitman, 2009) in her debut scene as Ryan is called back into the office, where later he learns that he is ‘grounded’. Natalie presents an idea to her colleagues- to use technology to travel to destinations around the globe, in lieu of flying in person. In this moment we see unearthed the central transaction of mobile lives: for one to be mobile, something has to be immobile. The employees in the company can either be immobile (in one location) and in multiple places at once, over a short space of time- thus digitally mobile- or mobile but in significantly fewer places and over a longer period of time, and dependent on greater amounts of immobile systems.
Subsequently, Ryan bemoans a loss of substance and “dignity” by using online means to fire people instead of in person. He correctly identifies a loss of something meaningful that comes with being present, that Urry and Elliott refer to as meetingness. (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p63) “According to Putnam” they write “ it is ‘good to talk’ face-to-face, as this minimizes privatization, expands social capital, makes people live longer and promotes economic activity, in mutually sustaining ways”(Elliott & Urry , 2010 p80). Meetingness is integral to human social life and has high human value (Elliott & Urry , 2010 p81). Meeting face to face has been shown to enhance human quality of life (Lee et al, 2011) which Ryan instinctively identifies having spent many years meeting people face to face in highly vulnerable situations. Meetingness is an element of mobile life that is highly coordinated using miniaturized mobilities such as laptops and phones, and is often the purpose of much mobility-business people travel from one place to be ‘in meeting’ with others, as is the case for our protagonist Ryan Bingham. In fact, his entire lifestyle is constructed around it.
The mobile life and portable person, at least in the case of Ryan Bingham, demand a sort of weightlessness which includes the sacrifice of human relationships. Ryan tells his audience that this is what “we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move” (Reitman, 2009) as he displays a backpack to a crowd of seminar attendees, mostly male, who have come to hear about his life on the road and how he does it. It is clear from the get go, that Ryan relishes in root-lessness- not in the cruelty sense, in the sense of elimination of human relationships and other immobile entities that weigh us down ‘until we can’t even move’ (Reitman, 2009). Ryan is an example of what Mason refers to as the ‘individual, reflexive author’: ‘a highly privileged minority of white middle class men, apparently unencumbered by kinship or other interpersonal commitments’ (Elliott & Urry , 2010, p98) who make up the majority of portable persons because these systems are molded for the mostly male, white bodies that occupy the seminar halls, the business waiting rooms in airports and the pilot’s chair.
The film thus explores another aspect of mobile lives: mobile intimacy. Urry and Elliott identify four main ingredients of mobile intimacy: ‘diverse contingencies and coincidences’(Elliott & Urry, 2010, p101), continuous organisation of family life and relationships (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p101), dependency on mobile devices (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p102), and moving back and forth between relationships (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p102). The organisation of family life and relationships are what we are most interested in here, although we may touch on all aspects because they are interchangeable and interdependent in differing proportions. Urry and Elliott highlight the lives of cis, heterosexual, married couples with children who to a degree maintain traditional markers of ‘family life’ whilst also adopting new modalities of worklife that require at least one parent to be a mobile individual. There is particular attention given to how miniaturized mobilities work to bridge the gap between the stationary family and the in-flux parent by use of songs, SMS messaging, video calling, emailing and other methods. As a note, this large concentration on families with children in the analysis of mobile lives by Elliott and Urry, overlooks other arrangements that people may have, leading to a qualification that at times reads as a disapproving and pessimistic view of this type of living because of its impact on family life and traditional notions of intimacy.
The discord between the mobile and immobile complicated with the demands of intimacy and relationship, is mirrored in the film Up in the Air and aired through mostly female characters who question Ryan’s lifestyle choices. It is the female characters who introduce ‘baggage’ to Ryan’s life in the form of relationship, beginning with his sister. At the beginning of the film, Ryan is blissfully happy with his lightweight, perfect fit suitcase in which he carries nothing but the necessities. He embodies a lack of intimacy, including mobile intimacy- he doesn’t call or text his family, nor does he want to be contacted by them. Ryan considers being ‘up in the air’ as “bordering into a world of bliss” presumably because in planes at the time, there was no phone or internet connection.
He is then asked to bring a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancé with him on his trips and to take pictures of it in front of monuments around the U.S. His relationship is now being carried around with him, in cardboard form, but still it serves as an emotional reminder as photos on a phone would. It has become a type of mobile intimacy. As Ryan is packing for his trip, the cut-out won’t fit into his baggage, representing a new addition to his life that doesn’t necessarily fit into it, and also of the messiness of relationships illustrated by the contrasting shapes of the black, slick, ‘high status’ hand luggage and the almost rural, working class, amateurish look of the cut-out, peeping out of the top of the bag. This represents how human relationships may not fit neatly into a well organised, scheduled, mobile lifestyle.
The reality of a mobile lifestyle is certainly met with some hostility in the film by, as mentioned, mostly female characters. Natalie questions Ryan about his desire to have kids and tells him it’s ‘weird’ he doesn’t want to have any. His sister sounds and looks disappointed in him and repeatedly comments on his not getting in touch. Natalie calls Ryan an ‘asshole’ for referring to his relationship with the similarly mobile Alex as ‘casual’ and tells him he has constructed “a cocoon of self banishment” (Reitman, 2009). However all of these characters are engaging with his lifestyle from what seems like a fixed notion of what ‘life’ can and should look like and judging Ryan’s choices from this perch and I would question if Elliott and Urry’s sampling of couples in ‘Mobile Lives’ also doesn’t take off from this normative vantage point.
The “continuous organisation of family life and relationships” is negotiated and well organised in the film through scheduling, which is a central component to mobile intimacy. When Ryan meets Alex, they set up another meet up by coordinating their schedules. The digital means of coordination allow them to adapt to each other's lifestyles easily and the transactional nature of their relationship is clean and concise albeit the emotional investment is low. Miniaturized devices allow for contingent and responsive mobile intimacy to unfurl with examples of ‘sexting’ appearing in the film. However, just as technology can be used to connect people, it can also divide and be used to sever connections which result in practices that are of a ‘disembodied’ and ‘dematerialized’ kind (Elliott & Urry , 2010 p51). Natalie receives a text message from her boyfriend that severs their relationship “I think we should c other people” which is noted by Ryan and Alex to be quite cold and an inappropriate way to break up with someone. The same could be said for the business model that wants Ryan and Natalie to fire employees over webcam.
As Elliott and Urry note, the benefits of mobile intimacy may appear to be sufficient and a “perfect fit for the global mobile economy” however it is “in fact rendered unfit for purpose as it is eaten away or hollowed out of emotional content” (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p110) as Ryan attempts to articulate as he asks to be allowed tell the about-to-be fired-over-webcam employees that he is physically present as “it's comforting to know we're in the next room”. Regarding “continuous organisation of family life and relationships” (Elliott & Urry, 2010, p101), tools such as miniature devices and both mobile and immobile transport infrastructure permit intimacy and closeness at-a-distance allowing a return to the family, be it virtual or physical, in record time. There is a sense that whilst mobile intimacy is a great tool method to upkeep connection, a certain amount of presence or meetingness is needed to maintain relationships: Ryan’s relationship with his sisters has deteriorated significantly over time due to lack of communication, physical or digital.
In this essay I have demonstrated three major components of mobile lives that interlock heavily and which are clearly represented in the film by Jason Reitman, Up in the Air. Miniaturized mobilities such as cards, phones and laptops play a central role, in negotiating work life, gaining access to spaces, and maintaining connections with others in the pursuit of intimacy, which in the world of portable persons becomes by necessity mobile, flexible, and adaptable. The dynamic of mobile and immobile structures and systems are core to the make-up of mobile lives in order to transport, connect, inform and organise further activities and connections which we learned through the film are in constant relationship with one another to maintain a fluid order and connectivity. Up in the Air represents these facets of mobile lives which interplay to connect a complex system of mobilities, which depend on every part, big and small, mobile and immobile, to function.
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