Review: “Portable Objects in Three Global Cities” by Mimi Ito et al.

 

Mimi Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Ken Anderson have an interesting chapter in the edited volume by Rich Ling & Scott Campbell (2009) “The reconstruction of space and time: mobile communication practices” which recently came out. The chapter is called “Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places”. The authors explore how people use portable objects to ‘interface’ with urban space and locations. Up to now, the authors say, the dominant focus has been on conceptualizing the mobile phone as a personal communications technology. The emphasis in such studies has been on how interpersonal communication has been made possible “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. To a much lesser extend the mobile phone has been conceptualized as a device that is tied to local situations. In this approach the mobile phone is seen as an interface to urban space. Mobile communication infrastructure intersects with the physical infrastructure of the city [1].

Ito et al do not look at the mobile phone on its own. Instead, they take the phone as but one of the portable objects that are ‘interfaces’ to the city. These include media players, books, keys, credit and transit cards, identity and member cards. Together these comprise “the information-based ‘mobile kits’ of contemporary urbanites” (p. 67). So the mobile phone, instead of being studied in isolation, is part of a larger assembly of objects that people use to navigate the city, as well as to sustain social relations with other people [2]. Next they discuss three kinds of urban interfacing, which they have labelled cocooning, camping, and footprinting. Cocooning is the practise of people shielding themselves off in public settings. For instance by using portable media players, books, doing stuff on their mobile phones, etc. They create an invisible bubble of mobile private space around them. Camping is the practise of finding a nice spot in town – often in coffeehouses – and doing information related work there with laptops, mobile phones, etc. This can be both for work and private affairs (and often intermingle). Camping can co-exist with cocooning when people shield themselves off from physical social interactions through portable media objects. Footprinting describes the various customer transaction and loyalty schemes through which people leave traces in a particular location. It is “the process of integrating an individual’s trajectory into the transactional history of a particular establishment, and customer cards are the mediating devices” (p. 79). The authors have done fieldwork research in three big cities: Tokyo, Los Angeles, and London. Interestingly, they conclude that behaviors vary only slightly between these cities.

I find this approach very interesting for a number of reasons. First, the conceptualization as ‘urban interfaces’ focusses on the locative qualities of mobile media. The paper gives a nice categorization of the various ways in which mobile media act as interfaces between ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’. Second, the mobile phone is not studied in isolation but as part of a larger array of informational objects that people carry along with them to manage and deal with urban life. Consequently, the image of the mobile phone shifts from an intrusive addition to an imagined once upon a time of ‘real’ public space, face to face interactions, spontaneous encounters and serendipitous discovery, etc., to a more pragmatic view on the mobile as an everyday necessity of urbanites. Third, Ito et al connect changes in the urban experience to changes in displaying identity in public spaces. This point receives scant attention in the chapter but is very important indeed.

I also have some points of critique on this conceptualization and approach. First, Ito et al predominantly focus on the interaction of people with the physical localities and infrastructure of the city (p 71-72). They take infrastructure as a collection of ‘dead’ objects (roads, public transport entry ports, toll roads, etc.) making urban life possible. Location in their view refers solely to a point in Euclidian space, a coordinate on the map so to say. The authors leave out the human aspect of location and infrastructure. In their own words “it becomes even more crucial that mobile communications research look at these more infrastructural and impersonal forms of social and cultural practise” (p. 72 – my emphasis). Yet locations and infrastructures are only abstracted ‘ideal’ or ‘categorical’ concepts of their phenomenological equivalents in lived space. They are the abstract counterparts of places and routes (or trajectories). I would say we should look at the human side of infrastructures as crossroads of experiences, in the vein of what geographer Doreen Massey has called the “throwntogetherness” of place as an event [3]. Of course many locative media projects exactly tried to visualize this human aspect of infrastructures and locations (e.g. Christian Nold’s biomapping).

A second critique on this approach is that it considers only one side of the hybrid relation between physical space and digitally mediated space. This conceptual framework gives prevalence to physical space over digital space. The main focus is on how the digital ‘seeps’ into the physical and alters pre-existing situations there. But how does the physical seep into the digital realm? It is one-way, departing from the assumption of what Lev Manovich has called “augmented space” as an overlay of physical space [4]. This suggests that digital space is an extra layer to reality. As De Souza e Silva has argued, this idea of augmented space gives prevalence to behavior in the physical realm, rather than the interactions that take place in both types of spaces at the same time [5]. Instead, she argues, we must look at digitally mediated social behavior as taking place in ‘hybrid space’ [5].

Thirdly, important other location-based uses of portable information objects are being left out, such as navigation and wayfinding in (unknown) cities. The focus seems restricted to urban practises by people who actually inhabit or at least regularly frequent the city. In addition, footprinting is depicted as taking place solely in the commercial realm through customer loyalty cards. There is an abundance of locative media project that use geotagging as a way of leaving digital footprints or graffiti in the city (e.g. Dutch project Bliin). And the mobile device itself increasingly becomes the interface to footprinting. Many new high-end devices have automatic geotagging built in their photo camera, and come with various uploading services. Some devices already have NFC technology for micro-payments. It seems logical that more and more portable informational objects will converge into the mobile device. Will it ever come to the point that The Mobile City becomes “the city in our mobile”?

 

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[1] It should be noted that in most writings on ‘locative’ aspects of mobile media there is an almost exclusive focus on the city as the locus of action. This is understandable since in the city many of the networks that make up present-day ‘hybrid space’ are present in much greater density, and arguably with much greater consequences. In what ways rural space is changing under the influence of mobile media is understudied, I guess, and probably just as important. Especially if we consider that according to Claude Fisher (1992) who studied early fixed line telephony certainly in the beginning the telephone has been more important for rural living than for urban living.

[2] A similar point about the research bias towards studying single technologies is made by Julsrud & Bakke in chapter 7 of this same volume (p. 160).

[3] Massey, D. B. (2005). For space. London; Thousand Oaks: SAGE. p. 140.

[4] Manovich, L. (2005). The Poetics of Augmented Space: Learning from Prada. 1-15. Retrieved from http://www.manovich.net/TEXTS_07.HTM

[5] De Souza e Silva, A. (2006). From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces. Space and culture, 9(3), 261-278. Retrieved from http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.2/80

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 (www.nomadicmilk.net). 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.