Mobile Interface Theory: New Frontiers for Art Projects & Historical Learning

Jason Farman, in his book Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (2012), explores how mobile media has changed / is changing how people interact with their worlds. Farman first establishes a theoretical framework of embodiment and sensory-inscription—which I interpret respectively (and simplistically) as space in direct relation to our lived experience and how we read the world. His approach to mobile communication, gaming, storytelling, and performance art all spins out of these ideas.


(Dr. Farman is on Twitter–betcha didn’t expect that…)

One of the quotes that distilled his big idea the most for me about all those things came in his fifth chapter: “Mobile technologies have transformed the categories of synchronous ‘presence’ and asynchronous ‘absence’ into simply a social proprioception of ‘continual co-presence’” (108). If we attempt to define proprioception as the recognition of one’s multiplicity in a place (physically and virtually simultaneously), I believe we can better begin to understand how to appreciate the possibilities of a mobile interface that can enhance our experience of places (physical and virtual). If we can see ourselves in relation to other things in the world that we cannot literally see, what does that mean for the things we interact with digitally via a mobile interface?
If “space is produced as a multiplicity of perception and inscription,” and “our mobile devices produce spaces that are experienced as a collaboration between information, representation, and materiality” then critically examining how all of that converges should help us better understand our current era (13). Farman is quick to point out, however, that technological obsolescence must be acknowledged as a limiting factor in these discussions, but these questions will most likely stay with us as long as most of us have some kind of mobile information device. Because we probably won’t do away with our phones anytime soon, and because we are still generally concerned with cultural progress, the ideas and questions raised in his book are worth considering.
Farman uses Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” in order to illustrate how “movement forward (progress) is a storm that leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake (obsolescence)” (136). And because Farman is interested in space he points to how digital environments will also become part of that technological wreckage once users feel as if the connections or incentives of a digital environment have “slowed or plateaued.”


(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin… I was expecting something more like a Gustav Dore illustration, but that’s cool.)

Farman’s invocation of Benjamin (which also a favorite passage of mine) made me also reflect on the other examples of mobile media practices he cited throughout his book that seemed to keep storytelling alive, or digitally dig up history. For example, how can we as conscientious citizens continue to interrogate power structures such as corporations or the military/police, while at the same time using products or methods created by them? The art project San Francisco ←→ Baghdad readjusts Americans’ geography while also acknowledging fallen soldiers, which resonates with critical thought about war and imperialism (49). Another favorite project of mine listed in the book is Streetmuseum, because of its ability to exploit the notion of “implacement” as a profound learning experience for students and citizens (check out the powerful image and caption on page 41).
If that kind of technological engagement found with Streetmuseum can be amplified, and perhaps gameified, I think there is great learning potential there. Similarly, [murmur], or something similar to it, seems like it could continue to proliferate as a historical community project—or, a fictional mystery based on local history?
Because computing truly is pervasive for most of us nowadays, it behooves us to explore and challenge the new meanings that are produced by our collective and historical interactions. Studying how information visualization interacts with locative media will continue to produce new ways to play with and critique the convergence of material and virtual spaces. I look forward to hearing about those kind of new projects.

5 Replies to “Mobile Interface Theory: New Frontiers for Art Projects & Historical Learning”

  1. So I’ve come a long way toward understanding Mobile Interface Theory in the last couple of days and one of the things I wanted to bring up was interdependency of the interface and the self.
    Once upon a time, I lived in Memphis for two years; I created a map

    The two apartments are the B’s above. The two Kroger grocery stores I frequented are the A’s and the routes to each in blue. As evidenced, when going from the first apartment on the left to the first grocery store, it was simple, one left turn and there was a traffic light to make the protected left.
    Despite that the first grocery store was technically still closer to the second apartment, the shift made getting to the first grocery store beyond hellish with badly timed traffic lights and no left turn lanes; getting to the second was a pleasant drive to a nicer part of town.
    What I found, upon going back to Memphis several years later for a wedding, was that my mobile interface (Google Maps) got really mad that I didn’t want to go to the first grocery store. It was closer (I was staying at the second apt. with my previous roommates who were still living there), it was better! It was a part of my neighborhood! Why did I want to be a part of my community?
    What I continue to find interesting is that the two apartments are less than a mile apart (it was exactly a mile driving) but that small difference affected my understanding of my locality completely without my trusted mobile interface recognizing the shift.
    I was wondering if anyone knows anything about how Google Maps (or AppleMaps or MapQuest or whatever) makes its recommendations. Can it learn? And if yes, how does it? Does it track people who have the app open and learn that while it suggested route X, the driver took route Y and got there in the exact same amount of time or it took 2 minutes longer, but the driver stopped 3 fewer times? Is that a part of the goal of the Street View cars?

    1. Catherine, your anecdote reminds me of the story Dr.Farman tells about the Haiti earthquake, where rescue workers were having trouble reaching victims in the area because Google Maps was incorrect. I agree with his point that we tend to not scrutinize automated resources (such as maps composed from satellites), because the more automated something is, the less human it is and therefore less prone to error. Your sense of betrayal over the Memphis Google Map fits in nicely here, I think. Maybe you wouldn’t have felt so betrayed if you hadn’t gotten used to the almost-perfection of the tool?

      1. I like that Jaime used the word “betrayal,” because it alludes to partly emotional logic that Catherine used to decide where she was going to go. And I think that is an interesting question about teaching the map app what you prefer–I think it depends on proximity and direction, but some apps can be programmed for preference.
        Dare I also say that your map app does not have the same sense of proprioception that you do?

  2. Catherine-

    I don’t see your map at all, and clicking on the text gets me an “access denied” message from google.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *