Report of the conference | The Mobile City Conference 2008

The mobile city conference – by Tijmen Schep (netniet.org)

On February 27th and 28th 2008 the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam hosted The Mobile City conference. This conference explored the relationship between mobile media, urban culture and identity. Two emerging trends in technology development underlie the main theme of the conference. The first is the rise of mobile media in general, technologies that are now consumed ‘on the go’. More interesting is a specific subcategory of mobile media that is not a continuation of the ‘anytime, anything anywhere’ and ‘death-of-distance’-dogmas of cyberspace (‘your TV is now everywhere!’), but instead are sensitive to their contextual surroundings. According to some, these ‘locative media’, which use the user’s location as a primary input, are said to rekindle our interest in the local, in real life, and the connections to our fellow man. Locative media, referred to by Malcolm McCullough in his keynote speech as “media of the close and slow”, supposedly could re-mediate public space and our public identities.
The emergence of these two new forms of mobile media means that it is no longer useful or even possible to talk about the city as being only physical, or the digital world as purely ‘virtual’ (not real or not material). The physical city and the spaces of digital technologies merge into “hybrid space”, as claimed by the organizers. In the ‘80’s we were thought to be able to live our lives in cyberspace, where we could be anybody we wanted. The interest has now shifted to understanding how we augment, mix, shift, expand or fragment ourselves, and our cities through these mobile and locative media. The question the conference thus tried to answer, as was explained during the opening talk, was: “what happens to urban identity when the virtual and the material merge?” Three main questions were addressed: First, from a theoretical point of view, what are useful concepts to talk about the blurring/merging of physical and digital spaces? Second and from a critical perspective, what does the emergence of locative and mobile media mean for urban culture, citizenship, and identities? And third – from a pragmatic point of view, what does all this mean for the work of urban professionals (architects, designers, planners), media designers, and academics?

That the conference was trying to avoid wallowing in utopian or dystopian dreams was clear from Malcolm McCullough’s opening keynote. Explaining that he “didn’t like the future tense very much” he placed the idea of locative media in a historical context. He grounded the concept by showing that ‘scribbling in the city’ was as old as the city itself. Older even, as we are a fundamentally mobile and territorial species for whom, as with dogs, “the act of marking space is really basic”. What he valued weren’t the social or political possibilities of the technology per-se, he was happy to see such a renewed interest in the urban in itself, expressing his hope that this attention will turn us into better stewards of our environment.
Christian Nold, by contrast, did focus on the social and political possibilities. He has created a range of tools that could be used by city planners or people opposed to them. In one instance he gave residents of a noisy neighborhood their own decibel meters so they could do their own research. This would allow them to oppose the city planners. He also created beautiful ephemeral maps to be used by the city planners themselves in which he mapped emotions and opinions in an almost ‘psycho-geographic’ way. In each case he envisioned locative media as a tool to reach compromise. And although the audience, including me, did note the almost naive cuteness of his work, his proposal to move locative media beyond a phase in which it just allowed for ‘things to be attached to locations’ resonated. The emphasis shouldn’t be on location, he argued, but on the social. Perhaps we focus too much on the actual location (its history for instance) instead of the social connections that work through and shape that location.
The work of one of the 10-minute project presenters, Jeroen van Schaick from the Technical University in Delft, had a similar aim as Nold’s, but took a different route. I enjoyed how he unabashedly referred to the locative media he used as “tracking technologies”, which he employed to gather information about the way people move in the city. Again the goal was to develop a better form of urban planning. But where Nold engaged the political, Van Schaick was content to frame the problem as a data gathering issue. He didn’t wrap his technology in beautifully ephemeral data parameters in the way Nold did either, he just tracked people so that he could optimize the use of space (in this case he wanted tourists to spread out over a larger area of the city).
One of the other project presenters, Willem van Velthoven from Mediamatic, presented another example of social reinvention. For the Amsterdam PicNic event, which was held in 2007, he invited some local creatives to come up with socializing uses for an RFID tag they were going to give to every attendant. One of the outcomes was an installation that, whenever two people asked for it together, would print out a coupon that could be exchanged for two beers. They could only get the beers if they handed the bartender the coupon together, with the intention that they would end up drinking them together too. Here locative media, which may be dubbed ‘proximate media’ in this case, didn’t mediate a conversation between strangers, it brazenly ignored the mediation and said “well, stop being strangers then, meet face to face”.

In these cases, as in fact in most of the presentations, the work did feel very constructive in nature. However, other presentations addressed the themes of the conference in a more critical way. During the panel discussion, thinkers such as Rob van Kranenburg and Marc Schuilenburg received applause when they uncompromisingly pointed out the dangers of locative media hype. Both seemed to emphasize that, as Foucault put it, “technology isn’t bad, it’s dangerous”. Schuilenburg for instance, explained that “technology isn’t neutral; it unifies but it also divides”. On the same panel Nicholas Nova provided a good example when he pointed out that social networking sites are used more like gated communities than as tools to meet new people. If we were to embed this notion of social networking in the urban, as Cory Doctorow explored in his book “Down and out in the magic kingdom”, would that really create a more vibrant community? Or are we assuming that our quality of life should be measured by the amount of new ties that we create in the first place?
The most vocal warning was made in the last of the keynote speeches by professor Stephen Graham. He pointed out that besides the activist and artistic exploration this technology is propelled mostly by its commercial and militaristic promises. His interest lay in the overlapping of these areas, where the merger of commercial and military interests warranted our attention the most. Locative media, he explained, were often the stuff of “technophile fantasies with very real consequences”. Although these technologies rarely work as well as they should, that’s a disconcerting consolation. I can’t help but feel a little pessimistic about the role of art and activism in this new field. The quest to find new Deleuzian weapons often ends with artists turning into Andreas Broekman’s “avantgarde of the control society”.

I’m not sure how an awareness of this danger may propagate itself, but I think hints were given by Nicholas Nova and Stephen Graham. Nova pointed out that most designers seem to forget that technology often fails. In the real world locative media have to deal with “a lack of continuity in experience” as signals get obstructed, hardware fails or people just aren’t as utopia-oriented as the designers themselves. A good example was the “Star Shed” project that Martin Rieser presented. His team created a shed that was supposed to serve as a point where stories about the history of a certain area of Bristol could be gathered and mapped. This map, he explained, soon turned into a “map of lies and truth”, as many people entered made-up stories which in some ways were more engaging than the real ones might have been.
Related to this I wonder how the gritty side of urbanity will reassert itself. Any city will inevitably have to deal with the less accepted aspects of city life. Will scary alleyways house locative offers for crack? Will I be able to walk around without a locative spam filter or, as we are seeing already, without turning off Bluetooth on my mobile device?

Regardless of this aspect, the sold-out conference clearly showed a field that is expanding rapidly. It already showed a myriad of turned corners, fresh insights and calls for a more mature approach that elevated itself above the level of novelty. The potential is clearly there and, as Graham showed, the commercial and military sectors are well aware of it. The city, then, really is turning into a mobile city. Whether that transformation is for better or worse is, as always, up to us.