Notes on: Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media

Hi team! Get your big kid pants on – we are diving into some self-reflection on how we move through the world. Jason Farman takes a theoretical approach to discussing how mobile media influences our connection to place, meaning, and the world around us. In Farman’s words, Mobile Interface Theory is diving into “…the production of social and embodied space through practices with mobile technologies.” This book employs a lot of new concepts and funky words, so I did a little digging inside and outside the book to try to get solid definitions for concepts he uses. The concepts below come from the introduction

Mobile media: digital devices (cellphones, tablets, etc), print texts like metro cards, credit cards, “everyday objects that signify elements of our identity” (1)

Embodied space: the location where human experience and consciousness takes on material and spatial form (definition from here)

Ubiquitous Computing/Pervasive Computing: (definition from Wikipedia) “a concept in software engineering, hardware engineering and computer science where computing is made to appear anytime and everywhere. In contrast to desktop computing, ubiquitous computing can occur using any device, in any location, and in any format. A user interacts with the computer, which can exist in many different forms, including laptop computers, tablets, smart phones and terminals in everyday objects such as a refrigerator or a pair of glasses.” Farman asks – How can the surfaces around us become screens? Should they?

“While VR attempts to bring us into the computer, ubiquitous computing actually brings the computer outside, into our daily, lived experiences.” (11)

Wearable computing is the manifestation of ubiquitous computing think Juni’s glasses in Spy Kids or the Apple Watch. (Others are trying to take this further– look at the example of page 9 about crisis response.)

This first chapter, Embodiment and the Mobile Interface, sets the “theoretical foundation” for his discussion of mapping tech, social media, video games, and storytelling throughout the rest of the book. He spends the entirety of the first chapter telling us what and what is not embodiment. Personally, I found this concept quite up in the clouds and spent some time looking outside the book for a beginner’s definition. At its most basic, embodiment is the first-person experience of the body, “what it means to function as a being-in-the-world.” (34) I kind of like to think about it as connection to yourself/awareness of yourself in the world around you. It often comes up in reference to anthropological studies. The quote below summarizes the connection between embodiment and Farman’s work:

“By spending the entirety of this chapter focusing on my definition of ‘embodiment,’ I hope that my theories of a ‘sensory-inscribed’ body help illuminate what it means for us to experience moments like seeing our location mapped on a mobile device, interacting with others via locative social media, playing games that change our perceptions of a city, experiencing site-specific art and performance on a mobile device, and interacting with spatial histories and narratives with mobile technologies.” (17)

For a long time, people thought that embodiment, or connection to yourself and others, came from physicality. Farman states that the digital age has changed that. He argues that embodiment does not always need to be located in physical space. For example, people have meaningful connections everyday through FaceTime, texting, Snapchat, etc. This is all “…evidence that embodiment is not dependent on physical space.” (22)He also says embodiment comes from culture and biology, our five senses and subconscious. This is what he calls “sensory-inscribed,” we move through the world both by taking in the world around us and acting on the world around us. This is especially poignant in the digital age, for example, as we can be on the phone talking to someone in one state while checking out at the grocery store in another, carrying on multiple interactions and moments of embodiment at the same time. Still with me? 

Over the next five chapters, Farman applies this understanding of embodiment to mapping and space (chapter 2), location-based social media (chapter 3), locative video games (chapter 4), time (chapter 5), and storytelling (chapter 6). We learn that there is power in location on a variety of levels mirroring the complexity of how people experience embodiment/connection.

Questions for Discussion:

Chapter 2 is all about mapping – how we do it, how we interact with digital maps and physical places, etc. How might Farman’s theory impact mapping projects or how we might portray a map/place within an exhibit?

Farman says “by using locative social media, location does become meaningful for the construction of self-identity.” Chapter 3 focuses on the power of ‘checking-in’ on social media – whether that means you are close or far in proximity, in a familiar or unfamiliar place, or you don’t let people know where you are at all. How could this translate into our work as public historians?

How can a mobile media and/or a digital tool create tension or distance from an experience rather than pull you in like it’s supposed to?

What were some of your biggest takeaways from this reading?

The two following questions come from previous blog poster Sarah Adler – I thought they were really interesting and wanted to include them – see her post for an additional take on this book.

“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?”

One Reply to “Notes on: Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media”

  1. Hi! I really enjoyed your colloquial post because, like you stated several times in your post, Farman’s work is a bit…out there and difficult to grasp at a beginner’s level.
    I was especially curious about the role of video games and the idea of embodiment. Your last question kind of touches on it when you ask about portable video games vs. playing at home and honestly it’s all still a little confusing to me.
    I guess my main question is if there are tiers to embodiment or how we understand space? Is one realm of understanding more potent than the other (e.g. does physical connection via FaceTime hold more significance than sitting down playing a video game)?

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