Mobile Media, Place, and Mapping

This week’s readings were all about space and how we interact with it mediated through digital technology. There was a mix of theoretical and practical reading, starting off with the theory bits that took me a million years to read, followed by several specific examples of implementation of mobile digital tools for historical institutions and projects. The readings all emphasized that mobile media isn’t creating brand new spaces or opportunities, but providing new ways to modify previous methods of historical storytelling and audience engagement. While mobile digital media allows new interactions with and in space and ways of practicing history in different contexts, they also do consistently point out possible shortcomings and places for possible investigation as digital mobile media continues to evolve at such a rapid pace.

Mobile Interface Theory, Jason Farman

First off, this book is dense y’all. I’m not the most theory-oriented reader and thinker, so it took me some time to get through and I may struggle at times to summarize his main points, so bare with me! The point of the whole book is to show how digital mobile technology has uniquely impacted the process of social and spatial meaning-making in and around specific locales. He provides a broad definition of mobile media, stating that it is clearly not unique to the digital era with examples like subway signs, identification cards, and more. The distinction that matters to this book is the connection between mobile media generally and the growth of pervasive computing and how this new connection has shifted how we interact in and with space.

The first chapter then lays out his theoretical framework of what exactly space and embodiment are and how digital technology is used to create space and facilitate embodiment. In his eyes, space isn’t just a neutral thing that exists, but is created through the use of space, and embodiment is the use of space by someone that creates meaning, both for the space and the person. Embodiment also doesn’t just happen in physical space because space isn’t just physical structures, so digital devices are used to create spaces that facilitate embodiment and meaning-making just as much as any physical location. The last major point he makes is that although embodiment is gained through sensory experiences, it isn’t objective and self-contained, but created in a specific cultural context that inscribe meanings, influenced by how our own cognitive subconscious filters information, how we interpret gestures, language, clothes, ethnicity, gender, etc.

The proceeding sections of the book explain how digital mobile media has influenced space and embodiment in different categories. First is mapping, where he explains how mobile mapping like Google Maps has seriously changed how we navigate and interpret space around us particularly in unfamiliar places, and how interactive maps that allow for community contribution facilitate new meaning-making for individuals and communities as well as constant redefinition of space. Next, he talks about how locative social media has created a new connection between space and personal definition, with social media now able to track and share where you are in a way that ties it to your larger identity. The fourth chapter covers immersive gaming, focusing on how AR games can essentially project new meanings on space that would otherwise not be there, but also how interactions in and around these games and how you play them are informed by your previous knowledge and interactions with that space. The fifth chapter is based on asynchronous time, how mobile technology creates forms of interaction like texting that aren’t based on doing something at the same time as the person on the other side of the interaction, and how that impacts what we consider “presence” in any give moment and context. The final chapter of the main body of the book is about mobile devices as reading interfaces that can be used in the spaces being written about, providing community history in a markedly individual way, creating both proximity and distance for the user.

The conclusion then focuses on obsolescence and how it is connected to the idea of progress and forward movement. He argues that continued and rapid obsolescence is encouraged by the idea that things need to keep somehow progressing and changing is a misunderstanding of motion in the first place. He argues that “dwelling” rather than constantly pushing for progress and growth is a form of movement in itself, just like how your arms are moving against gravity when you hold them still straight out in front of you. This, he argues, will allow us to further engage with digital technology as a positive space for embodiment just like any other space that we use.

“New App City,” Durington and Collins

This reading is also in a more theoretical lens, this time focusing on anthropology. While in South Korea, Sam Collins downloaded an app from the Chongno District Government called “Chongno Alleys” that had several tours meant to highlight lesser known landmarks in the district. The app is based on mapping and gamification, providing stamps for each stop the user makes along a tour and allowing the user to create a gallery for each location, comment on a specific location, and post directly to social media. While using the app, Collins noticed several unexpected occurrences. At times, his phone’s GPS would not accurately pinpoint his location, leading to a lot more blind wandering by Collins; and other times the map wouldn’t be entirely accurate, leading him to several dead ends or random gardens. Unexpected encounters with secret service agents surrounding the South Korean President’s house in the neighborhood undermined the sense of idyllic patriotism the app provided.

This experience les to Collins and Durington contemplating the usefulness of these sorts of apps for anthropologists and their ethnographic research and publishing. Apps provide a coherent structuring of narrative, space, and practice, and their imperfections when implementing those narratives as a mapped tour can draw attention to tensions and alternative meanings of spaces when considering differences between symbols on the map and physical structures in space. These apps also allow the broad use of different kinds of media in the same space. Once the maps are put together, analysis of how much people actually follow the paths set out for them serves as research in itself, providing instant feedback on your work, and space for collaboration from the prototyping phase through publication. Ultimately, apps like “Chongno Alleys” provide a path towards engaging public anthropology outside of print publication.

“What is the Spatial Turn?” Jo Guldi

Turning a bit away from anthropology towards a different theoretical current, Guldi starts off explaining what the “spatial turn” means, briefly explaining ways space was being considered and reconsidered between the 1840s and 1980s. Starting in the 1880s, scholars of several different fields began exploring space as something that is manipulated, rewritten, and experienced by communities, promoting terms like “commons” and “pseuodenvironment” to emphasize the collective, artificial redefinition of space. Moving to the 1970s, and who else could come into this discussion of collective space and power but Foucault (who I can never truly escape). His work along with that of many other French philosophers at the time began emphasizing the connection between power and space. This didn’t rewrite earlier concerns, but instead shifted their focus to interrogate the role of capitalism, surveillance, and power in and on space. Digital mapping tools that emerged in the 1960s and beyond allowed for even greater interrogation of space through these lenses by historians and social scientists, as this technology allowed them to broaden their scope to global patterns and hone in one local space in much more detail.

From this broader history, Guldi situates the first major “spatial turn” in this work between 1880 and 1960, when national boundaries, state surveillance, private property, and considerations and perspectives of landscapes were all in deep turmoil and constant change. This era, according to Guldi, deeply influenced the interdisciplinary developments in spatial theory and practice that emerged in the GIS (geographic information services) era that followed.

“The Spatial Turn in History,” Jo Guldi

Blessedly (for me anyways) turning away from the more theoretical realm, Guldi them explains the different ways landscapes have been constructed and utilized in historiography. Landscape writing that emerged in the mid- to late-1800s was integral to constructing the nation for audiences, painting the image of a single, monolithic shared space that was theirs as members of that same nation. These narratives were constructed by historians traveling throughout the nation they were constructing, doing deep archival research to provide their narrative the objective authority of an atlas. This process borrowed local histories that had already constructed local identities, tying them together and creating a larger national identity from those sources, emphasizing landscape rather than family to allow for more universal relatability across a wider audience. City histories emerged around the same time to challenge these national histories, providing a narrative that was more focused on middle-class actors and a more specific landscape. This split between national- and city-based histories remained in social science practice in the time that’s followed.

There are three main moments that are contenders for when representations of imaginary spaces were initially used to convince strangers they had a broad common experience. The first is the Renaissance, when phenomenology emerged and questioned when the modern landscape occurred, using linear narratives and idealistic representations of landscapes and cities to build the illusion of political consensus. The second option is focused around World War I, emphasizing not just the romantic construction of shared space but when that space was directly used by states to mobilize their citizens in the war effort. Notably, monuments to soldiers and national heroes were an important representation to encourage political mobilization. The third popular option is looking at the modern landscape through the economic and political influences under the modern infrastructure state, connecting the landscape changes that came with modern transportation networks, national parks, civil engineering, and modern urban planning as one broad political and economic moment.

Mobile for Museums, Leon, Brennan, Lester, and Odiorne

Moving away from both theory and historiography, this paper focuses on implementation methods for integrating mobile devices into museums, especially those working with a low budget, small staff, or limited technical expertise. Their first general pieces of advice are to focus on the experience you want to provide over the specific tech itself, and to function under the assumption that tech will become outdated within a few years so you shouldn’t drag your feet on figuring out and developing things for the museum for too long. A couple of things worth noting that interestingly illustrates this point for them in the time since this article has been written are that A) they emphasize the role of iPods specifically for audio work, while iPods have just recently gone entirely out of production, and B) they mention QR codes as something that may emerge as useful but is in early stages as of writing, while now museums, restaurants, artists, and all other kinds of spaces and creators use them as a major way of sharing info and work.

They then go into two main categories of recommendations, the first focusing on Infrastructure and Technology. First, they recommend developing for browsers rather than operating systems for easy cross-platform use, although it also comes with limited multimedia implementation. They also recommend making sure the content made for mobile devices isn’t just useful in that space and context, but can be repurposed for several different venues. The other major category of recommendations they make is content and implementation. First, they suggest having projects that aren’t just focused on in-gallery experiences. Second, they recommend that mobile elements aren’t just one-way—museum providing content and narratives to guests—but are used to encourage and solicit feedback on and interactions with the related displays and exhibits.

The final part of this piece is an outline of how they implemented these recommendations as examples for museums and other spaces that may want to use them as a starting point. Worth noting is that they did so using pre-existing software frameworks, allowing for a low barrier for entry for museums, and letting the creators share their code directly to further facilitate easier implementation and collaboration between themselves and museum developers using this as a jumping off point.

“A Place for Everything,” John Russnick

At one point, John Russnick considered comparing old-school curators with Rip Van Winkle in a post-mobile device, modern museum, but has since realized that they are, at worst, essentially just cranky Scrooge-types in the newer environment. In his own work, he’s seen how technology has positively impacted museums and audience engagement, so really his concern is not whether collections can or should work in this mobile space, but how. The opportunity he sees for collections in this space is how digital tools can make objects that need to be kept on a pedestal, behind glass and ropes, with tons of security safeguards more real and accessible while still following long-term preservation standards. Russnick sees AR as a particularly important tool to do just that, and theorizes it would reveal the shortcomings of the museum’s collection itself. By mapping where the objects they hold would physically belong or match up to, it would likely reveal the bias the museum’s collection has towards straight, white, middle and upper class communities and histories, but making that map public would also allow for users to fill those gaps themselves, making the museum’s collection a much more collaborative space. Ultimately, he concludes that digital technology doesn’t limit the usefulness of collections, but can create new avenues of thought by implementing that collection in new, more collaborative and thought-provoking ways.

“Listening to the City,” Mark Tebeau

While the last piece emphasized the use of physical collections in mobile museum projects, this article focuses on oral histories and their role in interpretive practices. Tebeau does this by focusing in on the Cleveland Historical Project, which is a mobile app and website that shows Cleveland histories through several types of media, especially sound, that can be explored as a tour or through searches and tags. It isn’t just based on a single person or institution’s research either, but instead with the help of hundreds of students, teachers, and community members who have contributed stories. This project emphasizes the use of oral histories to move away from an over-emphasis often placed on visual representations of history, utilizing understandings of the aural and how listening can evoke memories and a sense of place and space that is not possible through images or writing.

This has long been central to the theory and practice of oral history, but the emergence of digital and mobile technology has revolutionized the accessibility and usability of these oral histories generally and as part of more comprehensive projects like Cleveland Historical. Mobile tech in particular allows oral histories to even more effectively evoke memory and engagement with space through listening, by facilitating listening in the spaces the oral histories are about in the first place. This can draw attention to what has stayed the same in a space, as well as how much a space has changed over time, and can encourage listeners to consider their own personal connections to the space, narrators, and stories. While it can be useful to locate oral histories in that manner, it isn’t necessarily always a good move, especially when stories may be too broad to be tied to one location or that location may be physically inaccessible. They also implemented the oral history principle of “shared authority” in their collection methods, training community members in documentation methods—especially oral histories—so they could collect materials and interviews amongst themselves rather than having an outsider come to get them. This also extends to the curation of materials, which is a collaborative and dynamic process that allows for changes and reinterpretation after initial publication of materials. This project ultimately brings together and adapts oral history principles to function in a digital public project that wouldn’t be possible without mobile technology.

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