The Power of Embodied Place: Mobile Media, Spatial Turn, and Sensory-Inscribed Users

To my fellow public historians: I know, I am totally unoriginal. And yes, I am very proud of ripping off Dolores Hayden’s brilliant The Power of Place in my title. I ask but one thing of you: please don’t be a copyright cop, okay? Speaking of cops, my quarantine streaming queue has dwindled to the extent that my Friday night consisted of a date with the 2009 classic: Paul Blart Mall Cop. Some highlights in GIF form:

To everyone reading: I hope that you are healthy, checking in with yourself regularly, and social distancing like the champs you are. I miss seeing you all very much. It has been really heartening to read everyone’s blog posts and comments; although we can no longer meet in person, carrying on with class restores some sense of normalcy in a world that is anything but.

This week, I am responsible for making sense of Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory and Durington & Collins’ “New App City.” From the outset, I have found that these two pieces–the former a book and the latter a brief article about an Android app–are wholly complimentary, so that will be helpful later on.

I mentioned Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place (and I may or may not have committed a copyright infringement in my title, oops) at the beginning, and I want to explain why. Hayden argues that we can learn a lot about public memory by negotiating the inclusive histories of diverse peoples & the vernacular landscapes they inhabit. Writing in the 1990s, her methodology for interpreting history was rooted in two fundamental concepts: people and place.

Farman, Durington, and Collins challenge us to update Hayden’s premise, to add a third consideration to her list: mobile media. In short, Mobile Interface Theory and “New App City” call for an iterative approach to the spatial turn movement–we are encouraged to think about the inseparable relationship between sensory-inscribed bodies, mobile media, & the digital and physical spaces they embody.

I would like to begin by summarizing Farman’s findings in Mobile Interface Theory, as this book is pretty foundational to all the readings and practicums we will be engaging with this week. I have divided this next bit into three primary sections: mobile media, people, and place.

Mobile Media

What do we mean by mobile media? Well, in addition to typical objects–mobile phones, smartphones, netbooks/laptop computers–associated with the digital age, we are also talking about print text, subway passes, and everyday objects that signify identity and create meaning in our lives.

For historical context, Farman challenges the notion that mobile technology is new; papyrus was mobile technology, for example, albeit rudimentary by our standards. Whether we are looking at the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 or the production of papyrus in the fourth millennium BCE, many mobile technologies share a distinctive feature: they often usher in fundamental changes in culture.

Utilizing mobile media tells us something about how spaces–both digital and physical–and the bodies that inhabit those spaces are related. Farman chiefly places focus on mobile media that is locative/location-aware, think radios or mobile phones that create a sense of intimacy between people that are far apart. Farman also concedes that some mobile media can have a cocooning quality–zoning out surrounding spaces/people with earbuds, for example.

Pervasive computing is, in part, represented by mobile media–such as smart phones–that has become ubiquitous and largely affordable to the masses. These devices serve as an interface, a conduit of sorts, through which we can transform/interpret ourselves, others, and lived spaces.

Place

Farman’s treatment of place is not significantly different than Hayden’s: place creates meaning, it preserves and modifies memory. However, place is also more abstract in this context: place can be virtual or physical. In addition, there is an inescapable interplay between people, the mobile media they utilize, and the spaces they occupy.

A novel way that Farman explains place has to do with historical notions of progress over time. Typically, new technology is seen as a form of acceleration/speed/progress. Farman sees this thought process as flawed precisely because it forgets the importance of select spatial moments in history. By linking linking mobile media, location (dwelling), and people, we do not necessarily move towards progress & later obsolescence, but rather a new understanding of embodied space.

People

On the most basic level, Farman sees people as bodies who are utilizing mobile media and inhabiting space. In addition, people are “sensory-inscribed.” What the heck does that mean? My understanding is that users of mobile media are attuned to material AND digital landscapes–they embody multiple spaces (real and virtual) and multiple identities, sometimes simultaneously.

Farman also posits that each body–each person engaging with mobile media spatially–has distinctive socio-cultural implications that must be considered. Further, Farman is an advocate for using mobile media to visualize place, to serve as an interface useful to community insiders and outsiders. And finally, locative storytelling through voice recording, texting, and site specific engagement is an excellent medium for inclusive/democratized history. This dovetails nicely into a brief discussion of the article “New App City.”

In their article, Durlington & Collins transcend Farman’s theory and show how it can be applied in practice. They focus on an app called “Chongno Alleys,” a GPS/mapping platform that takes users on a tour of various tourist highlights and lesser known locations in the Chongno District of Seoul. The app is a collaboration between the South Koren government, local tour guides, community organizers, and neighborhood residents.

The key takeaway from their experience with the app is that mobile media presents a wonderful opportunity for public historians, cultural anthropologists, ethnologists, etc. to collaborate with local communities and document spatial memory. In addition, the app’s emphasis on bringing users to places/spaces that only community insiders know about is an experiment in locative storytelling. The app makes spatial history accessible and useful to both insiders and outsiders of a community.

Finally, the app embraces creative misuse: the android app is full of errors, the GPS tracking sometimes takes you to unexpected/unintended locales, and textual information in the app often presents contradictory notions of what these spaces mean to different members of the community. Creative misuse isn’t a bad thing; rather, it is actually a form of resistance to archival silence and white-washed histories. Experiences like “Chongno Alleys” tell us much about how people, places, and mobile media interfaces create new meanings.

Many of us are in the process of developing a digital mapping resource as our final project. Many of us are also emerging public historians. What does all of this mean for our projects and our futures in the field? Marrying the theories and practices proposed in The Power of Place, Mobile Interface Theory, and “New App City” leads us to something of an answer: studying embodied spaces & using mobile media to meet communities where they are opens the door to democratized, inclusive history. The power of embodied place is that it opens our eyes to new meanings, communities, identities, and narratives.

These readings also left me with many questions that I would love to discuss with you all in the comments below. Is mapping necessarily the only way that historians can utilize mobile interface theory? What about text messaging, calling patterns, games, apps, etc.? It is problematic to assume that all communities have equal access to/interest in mobile media, so how do we overcome the problem of access? At AU and in the professional world, we are faced with the problem of time and budget: how do we create experiences that utilize embodied spaces and represent community interests with these constraints? Why, and how, would we utilize creative misuse on purpose? Do public historians need to possess an understanding of a community’s virtual and physical identities, its virtual and physical spaces, before working with said community? How do we embrace the notion that the interaction between virtual spaces and material spaces can change our identity as interpreters of history, and likewise the community’s identity?

Until next time, be well and take care!

14 Replies to “The Power of Embodied Place: Mobile Media, Spatial Turn, and Sensory-Inscribed Users”

  1. Hi Jack, thanks for an engaging and well thought out post! I also drew the connection between this week and The Power of Place from Seminar days. I particularly enjoyed the questions you raised at the end of your post engaging with the readings. As far as using mapping for mobile interface theory, I would think other options could provide equally compelling data for public historians. While mapping may be the first choice, things like games (especially Pokemon Go or Wizards Unite in my mind) could provide similar data in an entirely different way. It would also provide cultural historians something to work with in the future, by archiving data based on a game instead of just cold hard facts from a map.

    As far as your question of how we move forward to interact with communities and understand where they come from, I’m unsure of what the answer should be. As a budding public historian who wants too see the field do well and continue to make strides- I’m tempted to say that yes, we should absolutely understand the virtual and physical spaces to work within and with a community. However, understanding the practical barriers to that for every public historian raises more questions for me. How do we combat that? How do we use digital spaces when not every community has the same access to them and might not even understand what the digital space they could create is? I don’t know the answers to these, but I think they and the questions you raised are very important to the field we are entering soon and to the field of digital history.

  2. Thanks for another great post, Jack! Hope you’re all doing well out there.

    I’m once again going to connect this week’s readings to our current situation, because while reading, I couldn’t help but think about how we are using mobile/digital media to create place/space now more than ever before. Farman’s point seems particularly relevant, when often the only space we have with friends and loved ones is digital. I think these readings meant even more to me now that about 90% of my meaningful social interactions are online. For me, at least, that “space” now feels super real. We are all in this time absolutely occupying BOTH virtual and physical spaces — and virtual place may hold even more meaning for us.

    To address some of your questions along these lines, it will be interesting to see how historians will interpret the time of COVID-19 in the future. I imagine they will need to be VERY cognizant of the virtual spaces communities are (or are not — due to lack of access) occupying. At the Humanities Truck, we are thinking about creating digital space for the community members we work with to share how they are coping and sustaining their networks in this time. These readings (and your post) gave me new questions to think about as we approach this project. We will need to be very cognizant of how community space might look different virtually, and how community identity may change as we switch our interactions to online. And, of course, we will need to make room for those communities who do not/cannot occupy virtual space.

    1. Jenna and Jack– great points all around! I think that Jenna’s point about virtual space is super important at this point in time– and it also raises questions about preservation of these “spaces” for future historians. How many people are actually journaling or physically creating evidence about COVID-19? In fact, many of these experiences are logged in texts, tweets, and the impossible to preserve conversations over FaceTime or other video chat sites. Tying all of this back to our conversation last week about intentional preservation… I wonder how this time will be remembered.

    2. Thanks for your post, Jack! And Jenna, I was having the very same thoughts about how the Humanities Truck is attempting to connect with our communities during this time. One of the more baseline answers for both the questions Jack poses above and what we are considering for the HT is to ask the community members themselves. Access and use often do not align, and many communities that might have access to a certain digital space may find it more useful to their community to receive it in another format or on another platform. It is super important for us to be aware of systemic inequalities and cultural/social distinctions in our own research and interpretation, and so i think we have a good framework to begin thinking about how we think about “space” with those distinctions and considerations in mind as well.

    3. Thanks for your post, Jack! And Jenna, I was having the very same thoughts about how the Humanities Truck is attempting to connect with our communities during this time. One of the more baseline answers for both the questions Jack poses above and what we are considering for the HT is to ask the community members themselves. Access and use often do not align, and many communities that might have access to a certain digital space may find it more useful to their community to receive it in another format or on another platform. It is super important for us to be aware of systemic inequalities and cultural/social distinctions in our own research and interpretation, and so i think we have a good framework to begin thinking about how we think about “space” with those distinctions and considerations in mind as well.

  3. Jack,
    Great post and hope you are doing well! Like others before me, the connections to the days of Seminar and The Power of Place were strong in this post and I totally agree on the connections you drew. Sarah, I have been telling all of my friends and family to actually journal their Covid-19 experience.! None of them had even thought of writing anything down. Those journal entries would make for some great primary source material down the road when a class of historians (us) will be writing about the Pandemic of 2020. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic would be remembered without those sources. Great post!

  4. Hi Jack, et. al.! Maybe its because it was the article I wrote a post about, but I really associated this post and reading with Hsu’s digital ethnography article and project. I’m not sure what the gap was between the texts, but I think Hsu’s work is certainly applicable here, and vice versa. For example, Hsu was using Myspace as a source for IP addresses (or something like that, I think) and webscraping. Public historians, and researchers in general, could webscrape for information on how people use Facebook and Instagram on their phones. Companies get that information ALL the time and cater ads to us! It would be really interesting to see how these ads have shifted given the pandemic.
    On a related note – a girl I follow made a post on social media about cell phone activity and how it demonstrates if people are actually practicing social distancing. Basically there were hot spots of activity along beaches in Florida (curse you, spring breakers!), and clearly less active/dense areas. Sure, we get stuck with a new/slightly different kind of map, BUT it is a different kind of data. Love your idea, Jess, about Pokémon Go! and using the data from that app in a study.
    I think Jenna addressed your question on understanding a community’s virtual and physical identities quite well. In addition, I do not think it is necessary to know that identity/existence thoroughly before beginning to work with them. Familiarizing is a great approach to conducting background research. Like what kind of presence do they have? Are there conflicting sources out there? (Can I get a WHAT WHAT, practicum group??)

  5. Dear Jess, Jenna, Sarah, Jack, and Ani,

    Thank you all for your thoughtful replies & creating engaging digital spaces for conversation! I have been thinking a lot about your comments regarding apps/games, the implications of digital preservation, the digital world as space all its own, digital ethnography; and in particular, digital preservation in the age of COVID-19.

    On this front, I wanted to add a thought regarding some of the concepts we discussed in Historian’s Craft–chiefly agency. COVID-19 is an unprecedented force in how we make sense of our work as public historians. I don’t know whether we can even call it a social force…perhaps calling it an exogenous force is more appropriate? In any case, COVID-19 has the potential to tell us a lot about how social/exogenous forces can shape historical actors, or conversely, how historical actors (like us, right now!) can react to those forces w/agency. One day, we may well be responsible for interpreting the event unfolding around us & how people/entities are (and in some cases, are not) reacting as historical actors.

    Hope everyone is doing well! Take care, and thanks again for a great thread.

  6. Jack,
    Thanks for a great post!!

    I really appreciated the notion that technology isn’t something new!! I think we often forget that because it’s easy to see technology as things with fancy buttons and touch screens, or even inventing something like a radio or television we usually see as technology. If we don’t include technologies with all the fancy bells and whistles we might neglect things like papyrus. So I think the definition of technology as something that fundamentally changes culture is an important distinction to make in how we view what all technology encompasses. If we do this, I think we are able to do more than just mapping, to answer your question. While mapping is an incredibly useful tool, it’s obviously not the only thing out there. I feel like mapping and modern technology go really well together, making it a fairly easy and reliable option, but what about ancient technologies, like papyrus? It might be easier to trace this with something other than mapping.

  7. Very comprehensive post, Jack! The issue of accessibility/interest in apps like “Chongo Alleys” is very interesting to me. The fact that this app is exclusively in Korean already sets the stage for the target audience, but within that subgroup, who would be likely to seek out an experience like this? I’m not sure what the tourism looks like in Seoul from native Koreans, but I imagine that most people are either visiting friends or family, or are looking to hit up all of the regular tourist attractions, similarly to how people might visit New York City who are from the United States. To me, this would leave either native speakers who are interested in history and ethnography or feel like they’ve already seen all of the tourist attractions, or non-native speakers who want to experience the ~real~ Seoul. The latter seems like it could get problematic to me. Although a lot of dedication has to go into learning a foreign language, I imagine some of the historical sites and sites significant to the community are deeply personal. Although this history is important to preserving the lived experiences of this community, it may not be comfortable or appropriate to share with just anyone who knows Korean. This reminds of me of our discussion of Native American and Indigenous history where some of it is just not for everyone to know. Although for people visiting, it may be exciting to see the side of things that most people don’t, I think it’s important to keep some things just for the people who live there.

  8. Very much enjoying this post and subsequent discussion! Great to see everyone making so much use out of these readings as they are both somewhat dense but as I think we can see here they are also really rewarding.

    One of my favorite bits in the Farmen book is the moment he discusses how with landline phones you called a location and with mobile phones you call a body. I think it’s also really fascinating to think through all of the aspects of how mobile phones break up audio in very different ways. That is, land lines worked as plot devices where you literally hear the sounds of the place on the other side, but (in large part because a lot of the points that we learned about in the Sterne MP3 book) digital compression fundamentally changes the kind of relationship to what you hear through a phone.

    All of that get’s at some of what I think is so important about Farmen’s approach to mobile media. We extend our minds and our bodies through our media and in that vein our mobile media very quickly become part of how we inhabit the lived experience of our world.

    A lot of the value I get from Farmen’s work in this context is how his approach to embodiment and mobile media helps to reground our understanding of digital content and systems as always being connected to our embodied experience. In this context, I think some of the work critiquing the concept of digital dualism is relevant (https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/). That is, there aren’t so much virtual worlds or spaces as there are very real and material ways that people in bodies interact with each other through digital systems. If anyone is interested, some of these points connect very well with Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333213.001.0001/acprof-9780195333213 ) which is a really revelatory book at helping to shift thinking about how people interact with and engage with technology.

    In this context, I think a big take away for all of us is for any digital project you are working on to center the embodied experience of your users. Where are they when they use the thing you are making? What is the physical world and spaces they inhabit and how will they be able to interface to your project or initiative.

  9. Thanks for a great post Jack! Like Sarah mentioned above I was particularly fascinated with the way that Farman mentions that mobile technology isn’t new, it’s been around since papyrus essentially. I think that raises a great point about where and how people access and interact with information and how that influences the information being shared. From the early forms of being able to send out information to now where the troves of data on the internet can be accessed anywhere.

    To get to your question I don’t think mapping is the only tool historians can use but it is certainly a helpful one. For the practicums I had the opportunity to try out the ARIS Games and while that still relied on mapping, it also had other features that made me think about how learning history could become a more interactive process, kind of like a game as you had mentioned. That concept comes with its own concerns about how history is presented that would have to be worked out, but I think there’s a lot of ways that mobile media and mobile technology can influence how we learn and interact with history.

  10. Thank you, Jack, for this thoughtful post! I hope you and the whole group are well — I definitely miss meeting in person.

    I haven’t read Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place but after reading your post I think I should! Your post made me think of how researchers have used cellular data to track the extent to which people are social distancing by region.(https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/3/26/21192653/coronavirus-privacy-social-distancing-data-collection-unacast)
    While I found the analysis interesting, I think what this really highlights for me is the extent to which we are now connected to and identify with (and are identified by) our cell phone use. I wonder how public historians might use aggregate data such when trying to understand responses to Covid-19.

  11. Hi Jack,
    I think the long and thoughtful discussions that seem to be on each of your posts is a HUGE testament to how thorough and interesting your posts are.

    For me, personally, this was one of the most important and helpful readings of the semester. It was so relevant to my digital project, because mine is quite literally dependent on the ability to interact with and use the app while being mobile. in regards to your last question, I think it very necessary for public historians to have an understanding of the physical and virtual spaces within a community, but I don’t know if it is a requirement to work with said community. Rather, I think it necessary for the historian to learn about these spaces while working with the community because it will encompass the intricacies and levels of these spaces.

    Sarah F’s point about COVID being documented in tweets, texts, etc. is a really interesting thing for us to think about. It almost reminds me of the 9/11 repository we looked at earlier in the semester.

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