Theory-heavy post incoming! If you haven’t thought much about our experience of space (the physically-existing-in-the-world kind and not the planets-and-stars kind) as historically contingent, you’re about to!
Jo Guldi’s multi-part blog post, “What is the Spatial Turn?”, follows the trend of academic disciplines thinking about space and how space is experienced. GIS, she argues, opened up a new conversation about space that allowed for larger scale questions that could be answered using digital resources.
In the section on “The Spatial Turn in History”, Guldi begins with the importance of landscape descriptions in 19th century historical scholarship. She explains how this trend in writing tied in with the nationalism of the moment. To do this type of work, historians generally had to actually travel the land about which they were writing. Guldi writes, “So from their birth, modern historians were travelers and specialists in landscape[.]” A focus on the urban environment in the second half of the century and beginning of the 20th privileged one type of landscape over the other and changed whose agency was most politically and economically important. Still, the nation–held together by its landscape–was central to historical writing.
Then, landscapes shifted from those with national boundaries to imaginary spaces of shared experiences. These landscapes, according to the various camps who sought to explain them throughout the 20th century, “expanded the horizons of engineering, politics, and scholarship,” “manufacture[d] an illusion of political consensus,” was “a tool for creating identity and marshalling citizens to work and to war,” “intervened between humans and their sense of reality,” and/or “charts the modern struggles of economic and political centralization.” In this context, the spatial turn took place in the postwar years and created a new focus on “the description of space, its experience and management.”
A great example of one of the spatial turn’s products is Jason Farman’s book on technology and space, which mainly sits in the realm of seeking to understand how people understand their reality through changing understandings of their environment. In Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media, Jason Farman examines how mobile interfaces “work in tandem with bodies and locales in a process of inscribing meaning into our contemporary social and spatial interactions” (1).
Farman begins his study by providing the interesting historical context of mobile media using the example of the pocket watch. Pocket watches, especially after the creation of an international standard, allowed individuals to have “a sense of global space and time while changing what it meant to travel and live in local space” (4). Technologies such as CB radios and smartphones created similar cultural shifts that helped connect (or sometimes disconnect) individuals with society. Ultimately, Farman notes, the exact form of the technology is not important; rather, it is its effect on conceptions of embodied space. This allows Farman’s theory to apply not only to current technologies that will likely become obsolete within a few years, but those that come after as well. By focusing on theory and not on the practical uses of current technology, Farman’s book becomes evergreen — a smart move in the digital history field!
This book’s most interesting contribution is Farman’s conclusion that technology = movement and movement = progress. Basically, people have always complained that the latest development was creating distance between people and their community. Farman argues that instead of thinking about movement as progress, it is more useful to think of movement and dwelling, which allows us to understand stillness as a type of movement as well. Like the historiography of spectacle, Farman’s book helps us to understand how our objects (which now include the nonmaterial object of data) and our relationships with them affect our concepts of identity and reality.
In what contexts is the personal computing interface still preferred to the pervasive computing interface?
How do movies, video games, and other types of media influence how we understand space? If we play or view them on a portable console or phone, does that change things compared to playing or viewing on a couch at home? Does this differ from reading books that describe location?
Farman discusses embodiment and text messaging in Chapter 5. Is the practice of embodiment different in text messages than in handwritten letters?