Mobile interfaces in a tethered world

What is the spatial and locative experience of a person in the digital age? Can we fully appreciate a place, thing, or experience for what it is, or by making it possible to network in real-time and thereby augment our reality, do we embody it as part of our full sensory experience that makes us present? Jason Farman looks at this complicated reality in Mobile Interface Theory, presenting us with a relatively novel way of engaging with our mediated realities. Embodiment, Farman points out, is the sum total of personal and cultural experiences of one’s body (p. 31). Thus, a mobile interface is increasingly a mediation that creates a new meaning of the immediate. How, then, does this work in practice? Farman offers ideas, the first of these is the ideas that create the interface.

Conceptually, an interface is a personally-directed tool or manner of information transfer that is specific to that object in its current manifestation in space and time. In practice, however, Farman notes that the reality is far more complex, especially in the context of embodiment. For Farman, the interface is where the senses and culture collapse into a coherent and understandable social space (p. 64). As an example of this, Farman points to the SixthSense system. In this system a projection of relevant details is placed on the person to whom the wearer is talking—in this case, a word cloud of what the other participant may characterize themselves with (p. 57). This example shows how a person’s senses, visual, primarily, can augment their current space and place, and indeed their embodiment of data, but it also demonstrates how one’s sense of identity can be transformed by mere engagement with this interface. By drawing in the other person to be a physical part of the interface the SixthSense system is creating embodiment. It’s an even more poignant realization when the viewer notices that the system is by extension creating a physical change in the participant’s self-image and thus creating a mediated experience of embodiment that flows through the interface of two people and a social data system. Furthermore, as Farman later explains, this interface mimics a present reality, that most meetings are mediated through what people already have gathered from, say, social media or otherwise about the person (p. 98).

Farman dissects other types of media as a method of creating embodiment and other cultural experiences. Locative social media, media that uses location as its core interface, is one form that has blown up lately. Systems that track and thus physically situate a person against an existing network are now pervasive: geotagging one’s location when writing a social media status is common, and it thereby extends the capacity of others to interface with you on various metrics, be it existing proximity, former hometowns, and the like. Notably, it can also create embarrassing situations, such as the harassment of a homeless woman through the game Momentum (p. 77-78). Training people through these interfaces can become problematic when social cues and reality are blurred—something also doubly recognized in the motion-based Wii interface that at times can include miming the action of stabbing a person, which, without the correct social context and understanding, can be a training of children or others who might not necessarily be equipped to handle such training. What happens when a child finds a knife? Without proper understanding it’s possible that the worst possible outcome, a child utilizing the knife, can be prompted without the correct social cues and context in place (p. 80).

Applying Farman’s work practically, we can look at what it means in real-world applications. Sherry Turkle reminds us that we exist as a “tethered self,” and is further quoted by Farman as saying “[t]he self, attached to its devices, occupies a liminal space between the physical real and its digital lives on multiple screens” (p. 108). The digital, then, is a relevant factor in what constitutes the physical for many people. Making a digital experience integrative of the physical is no longer a matter of theory, it is the basis by which most digital applications are created. To that end we can easily draw this into a maxim, that all digital media should be cognizant of the general physical reality of a user. Digital media evolves on the macro, and therefore, it should be fluid and capable of the micro relations with users as well: more tools for more needs exist, and more capacity for innovation arrive daily, so having a broader understanding of the “who” behind the user is important. How do you make sure that the media is geared toward the user, and not simply a training of these now digitally-dependent people? This question is why equity and accommodation are vital in digital spaces: not everyone can use your app, whether it’s because they lack the technology or physical ability. Asking yourself beforehand who will be able to use your mobile technology is key, especially now that your app exists in a world that is all but completely enmeshed in the digital.

Applying the theoretical underpinnings of Farman’s work, Public historians are a group that should ask this question and more regarding one topic in particular: access. Contributing new knowledge and interpretation to society creates a conundrum of gatekeeping: whether recognized or not, the selection of audience is deliberate and can exclude many. In most cases this selection of audience is key, for example ensuring your geotagged tour of a city is not incorrectly interpreted as any other kind of guide by tourists or is marketed in such a way that someone in another city downloads it without understanding its geographic focus. Furthermore, as a primarily visual medium, digital applications present a high bar for accessibility by the disabled. As such, asking whether your application will be capable of interfacing with disabled users is vital: it already presents a fundamental barrier. Do you open the gate, or do you continue on with your underlying mission?

This question creates a major point of critique of Farman’s work: his eliding technology and society but glossing over the reality of who uses and how. His theory is fundamentally one of reshaping reality and social fabrics through the impact of new technology on one’s embodiment, but by keeping vague about how his theoretical framework applies writ large to the multitude of society, including the disabled, those outside one’s audience, and so on, Farman corrupts his own message. The physical reality of potential users, be it physical removal from the site of focus for a mobile interface, or physical limitations that prevent usage of such an interface, is a vital fulcrum on which his argument rests, and it is unsatisfactorily addressed. While the bulk of his theory is sound, this weakness is profound and cuts against his usage of broader social philosophy as a basis.

2 Replies to “Mobile interfaces in a tethered world”

  1. Thanks for this great post, it addressed some great ideas about applicability to Farman’s work and where Farman falls short. I think you make a really important point about considering the users on the other side of the mobile/digital experience. Often, when popular apps like facebook or snapchat update, it’s a blanket update and the changes apply to everyone who uses the app. But, not everyone experiences said apps in the same way, and so it seems sort of silly that an app has the same cookie cutter interface for everyone. Sure, there are some settings you can change but often they don’t do much to actually change the interface and therefore user experience.

    One example of this which frustrates me in my own life is the tumblr app (for android). The reblog button is on the right side of the screen, making it annoying for left-handed users (like myself) to quick-reblog anything. This is obviously a small, and somewhat trivial problem but I think its representative of your larger point. There needs to be different user interface options as everyone’s embodied experience is a little different. Particularly this is important for people with disabilities, as you mentioned. These types of people are often not considered in the general audience when the app, of digital experience is being designed.

    I think this is an important conversation to bring into how we go about exhibit design, especially as they becoming increasingly a digital experience or have various digital aspects to them.

  2. Thanks for this post, AJ! I find many aspects of Farman’s points, as well as yours, very interesting.
    Farman’s connection between “embodiment” and “interface” is (obviously) that of the twenty-first century. However, I wish he would have made a connection to “embodiment” and a non-digital example prior to making this one. This would have connected the non-digital age with his research, and chronologically brought his audience into a technology-based world.
    Also- I enjoyed Farman’s point that the “system is by extension creating a physical change in the participant’s self-image and thus creating a mediated experience of embodiment that flows through the interface and a social data system”. To put it simply, this point connects the digital world with reality as effects of digital embodiment are being felt in the physical world. As you mentioned, social cues and reality, as well as many other aspects of life, are being blurred. So I wonder, what is the sum of the effects that the digital age is taking on the physical world? Are these effects more beneficial or detrimental to society? How far and to what degree will we let the digital world effect the physical?

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