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Betwixt and between here or there. Not fully transitioned from one thing to another. A doorway is a liminal space, because it marks the boundary between inside and outside, between one room and the next. A caterpillar undergoes a liminal transition period when wrapping itself in a cocoon. A highway is a liminal space between starting point and destination. An airport is a transition point between here and there.


In 1967 Victor Turner defined liminality as a state between states, a ‘betwixt and between’, a beginning state and a final state. [1] He developed the idea of liminality from observing rituals of the Ndembu tribe of central Africa. He writes, "a ritual, especially a rite of passage, involves some change to the participants, especially their social status".[2] Turner used the term liminality originally to talk about the transitional state that rituals represent. It involves stages transitioning out of and back into ordinary life: pre-liminal, liminal (during the ritual), and post-liminal, or reintegration into everyday life. An adolescent can be considered as existing in liminal state, since the adolescent is no longer fully a child and not yet an adult.

Applications to Technology and Mobile Telephony

The intersection between face-to-face interaction and cell phone conversations is a 'betwixt and between' social space, in which a caller is neither fully engaged with those who are physically co-present, not fully mentally co-present (except for the technically mediated auditory connection) with the person on the other end of the line. Sadie Plant calls it a 'bi-psyche', and points out that “in a way the mobile has created a new mode in which the human mind can operate”, or that the cell phone user is operating as though in two worlds in the psychological sense”.[3]

The difference between cell phone use and the traditional rituals Turner had in mind when using the concept is that the caller is not joining with others. Instead of going through a ritual transformation like a puberty rite or wedding which accomplishes a state of special connection Turner called 'communitas', the caller is both connected and detached; a solo situation, since the call-ee is not in the same physical space as the caller. The pre-liminal phase of the cell phone user is face-to-face interaction, and the luminal phase is the transformative period that makes the human into a technosocial hybrid.

Additionally, “the transitional-being or ‘liminal persona’ is defined by a name and a set of symbols” (Turner 1967:95). The ‘cell phone user’ is the name of the transitional-being, and the user is defined by a set of symbols that designate the cell phone user as a cell phone users. The phone is a symbol, as well as how the device is placed against the ear. The non-verbal actions performed by the cell phone user are also symbols.

The cell phone itself a liminal space because it is a space that exists as auditory signals in transit. It exists in between lived realities, and is a transitional communication medium. The signals constantly transition from other caller to the call-ee and back again.

What differentiates the Bluetooth user from the normal cell phone user is the reduction of the liminal state that signals the transition between face-to-face interaction and cell phone use to an almost instantaneous moment. The absence of liminality catches observers off guard, because they don't see the normal transition period that characterizes the hybridization of the human to a technosocial actor. Bluetooth users experience shorter distances between pure technology and pure 'humanness' when they accept a call.

Norwegian cell phone researcher Richard Ling (2002) used Erving Goffman’s theories of gesture to study the nonverbal cues that signaled a cell phone user's transition into technosocial conversation. Goffman points out that "a set of significant gestures is also employed by which one or more new participants can officially join the talk, by which one or more accredited participants can officially withdraw, and by which the state of talk can be terminated".[4] With normal cell phone use, the actions of withdrawing and termination of the states of talking can easily be seen. When a normal cell phone user engages with the device, a change in posture signals the entrance into the liminal state. The subject must first grab the cell phone, open it or press a button to accept the call, and then press the phone to the ear. Once placed, subjects tend to turn inward, lean the head towards the cell phone, and look away from the public. These nonverbal actions signal to the onlooker that a subject is about to begin a cell phone conversation.

The use of a Bluetooth device does not require the user to preform and of these these actions in order to enter into a hybrid technosocial state. The Bluetooth device is already attached to the ear. There is no need for the user to hold anything or press any buttons. Thus, a Bluetooth user can simply speak into the device without turning away or touching anything. This difference is what causes cell phone users to seem more introverted and take more ‘spacemaker’ poses, while Bluetooth users are more likely to be seen in ‘speakeasy’ poses, since they are able to carry hands-free conversations while walking down the street. They face forward, their shoulders and heads up. They can participate in other movements while still maintaining a conversation.

Liminality, Technology and Society

In 1965 Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistor on a chip would double every two years.[5] If cell phone technology continues to follow Moore's law, then technosocial networks and capabilities will only become less tethered to place. As communication technology progresses, the technosocial relationships between humans and technology to other humans and technology, or the speed of Actor Networks increases. A high-functioning technosocial assemblage would be one that would allow for the optimum speed of social communication and development of faster ways to receive communication. The online social networking site Facebook is one. Cell phones are another. Instead of interrupting and fragmenting social spaces, cell phones and other technosocial assemblages will connect them together. Mobile technology is the initial technology that will allow all other technosocial assemblages to go wireless and detached from place. As technology and humanity continue to produce each other, the dichotomal differences between humans and technologies will continue to blur.

The era of globalization is one characterized by the shrinking of time and space. As part of the greater Actor Network of human communications, each cell phone upgrade reinforces globalization, and hypermodernity. If the current trends of technosocial co-production continue, the future relationship of humans and technology will resemble a massive technosocial assemblage that takes the matters of time/space compression into its own hands, colonizing every public space and making it public on a private network. Instead of the paradigm of old, ‘heavy’, modernity, or the rush of civilizations to develop larger and larger technology, cell phones are part of the new, or 'light’ modernity, in which computers that used to be the size of basketball courts are now being compressed into smaller and smaller devices. In this new modernity technologies will shrink so small that they will be able to integrate into every aspect of the real world, so that the real world will be interconnected at every point, and everything felt in the real world will also be tallied virtually.

Humans are becoming a single superorganism with a technosocial heartbeat, constantly updating in order to compress time and space closer and closer together. The world itself is exists in a liminal state 'betwixt and between' humanity and technology. A new liminal 'communitas' is emerging with technology as the framework for all social interaction and communication. When this liminality is resolved technology will be free to colonize all human interaction. With the space and time of the world shrinking, the distance between humans and technology will decrease until they are can no longer be understood separately from one another. When the public sphere becomes completely private the social sphere will become public again, but the field of interaction will be global instead of local.

Additional Reading


  1. (Turner 1967:97)
  2. (Turner 1967:93)
  3. (Plant 2005:50)
  4. (Goffman, 1982:34)
  5. (Moore 1965:2)