I went to the bank today, to cash a cheque. The cheque was written in US dollars which meant that I could not cash it directly: instead, two separate forms had to be filled and sent to the central bank office, where the cheque would be negotiated or sold for US currency. The whole matter would take one to two weeks, and likely involve several levels of bureaucracy for an amount that would buy me one decent pair of shoes. I experienced the same issue when trying to transfer money from Canada to the UK: for personal banking between two countries, paperwork and tax laws multiply to confusion. The thing is, I have three chequing accounts, in three countries. In the past year I have earned money in four different currencies. By all rights I should be one of the “network elites” moving fluidly around in the global space of flows (that’s Manuel Castells – 1996 and 2001). After all, international finance companies are transferring billions of dollars across the world every second in a network of operations constructed from transportation, information, and communication technologies.
But as I (and presumably others in this situation) find, the network flows are not always so easy to navigate at the personal level. Oh yes, we are mobile – but we can be suddenly made immobile by bad weather, human error, mechanical breakdown, passport control, banking imbroglio. I wonder if other frequent travellers find, as I have, that multiplying one’s identity is easier than carrying a continuous self through the flow? So my addresses multiply to minimize transfers overseas, and each jurisdiction is likely unaware of my identity in the other. In many ways, this makes me painfully aware of where I live at any moment (for example, I’m quite incensed about the bad planning for cyclists in West London) and also ferociously interested in what’s going on elsewhere (I read much more Canadian news when living abroad).
Mimi Scheller thinks that mobility and democracy don’t recombine in a network or flow. She argues that things like mobile people and communication devices make up more of a gel, where some movements between public and private are smooth, and others are held in place and space. Public life doesn’t suddenly appear in “official” public space: instead it emerges around and through and alongside people’s movements through all kinds of spaces and in all kinds of places.
I think Scheller’s right about the gel – for individual people, the flows of mobility and capital don’t move smoothly. We keep getting caught in the sticky parts of the gel, where we are reminded of where we are and challenged to make the actions we take as citizens relevant. Castells’ main criticism of the network society is that it isolates the influence of actions in local places. But if what connects us is not a rigid network but a slippery gel, maybe we can determine a way to connect local actions to global events. For those of us with different lives in different places, maybe this means thinking about the connections, not the barriers, between these spaces and places.