The Web and Beyond: Mobility (2) – the others…

[…continued from last post]

Thursday May 22 2008 I visited the CHI conference The Web and Beyond: Mobility in Amsterdam. Keynote speakers were: Adam Greenfield (Everyware); Jyri Engeström (Jaiku); Ben Cerveny (Playground foundation, Flickr); Christian Lindholm (Fjord, Nokia).

Jyri Engeström talked about how mobile technologies have become social objects. Social network theory is good in representing links between people, but not in the nature of these links, what their content is, or through what media these links are actually established. Jyri used the term “social peripheral vision” to describe how we are co-present with others through our mobile media that enable us to be aware of what’s going on elsewhere. Jyri sees games, such as World of Warcraft, as playgrounds to experiment with the use of media for social ends.

photo by kaeru
(From left to right: Ben Cerveny, Jyri Engeström, and Christian Lindholm. Photo by Kaeru)

Ben Cerveny talked about “Geomorphic organisms”: how networks of people/users together come to function as an organism. He used lot of biological metaphors, but frankly I kept wondering what insights do we gain by this paralel? There was one interesting thing I picked up from his talk. Similar to a flock of birds or a school of fish, in such a collective it isn’t necessary to have a total overview of all that is happening. A little local trigger can be enough to get people moving in a certain direction. This point by Cerveny challenges the dominant idea of rational total control over technologies and puts in place a more instinctive micro-view. It shows how often we are reacting to technological triggers without fully understanding what is going on. This observation seems particularly applicable to the field of “background computing” in which the computer doesn’t take up all our attention but really only works on an ambient level, or – using Greenfields’ talk – its workings dissolve into everyday behavior. Cerveny ended by saying something interesting to my own research project about “Playful Identities‘: “We are constantly at play within the stream of possibilities in the city”. We are “playing the model”. According to Cerveny, these mobile technologies afford a certain playfulness in the way people reappropriate their environment, their lived space. Unfortunately Cerveny did not give much attention to the other side of this: the fact that often we are ‘being played’ by those same technologies.. It is not all about playful mastery of city-space through media.

The last keynote speaker, Christian Lindholm, gave a very entertaining speech that however didn’t really transcend the kind of well-informed techno-babble you encounter on websites such as Engadget, Appleinsider, Digg, and what have you. He talks a bit about handphones, why the Apple iPhone has become so successful, and the race between who puts the biggest screen in a phone. Lindholm sees a big future for the Asus Eee, the very small UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) weighing under 1 kg and costing less than $300. This device is especially attractive to women and children, he says, groups that have largely been ignored by the nerdy hardware marketing bizz. Lindholm’s most interesting point in my view was the term “casual computing”. By this he meant the types of devices that can be used ‘casually’ without disturbing a particular social situation. E.g. in a restaurant you don’t flip open your laptop. But a device the size of a handset you can use there to look something up or check your email.

I would say that theme of casualness, backgrounding, and technologies becoming part of everyday behavior was the overlapping theme of all four speakers. Thus, perhaps, the ‘mobile’ aspect of these technologies is not so much their portability, or the physical mobility they enable, but their integration into everyday life and ongoing social processes.

Oh, and for more pics, see Flickr (tag: twab08).

Michiel de Lange

Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project ( He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds.
Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.