The Pathways of Locative Media


The term “mobile” has been applied to technologies as early as papyrus, when the written word became transportable across a broad geographic space. Today we typically tend to attribute the word to digital devices such as “mobile” phones, GPS units, tablet computers, and gaming systems. Thus, the notion that mobile technologies are new is indeed shortsighted. Throughout history, when a medium that was once understood as geographically fixed becomes mobile, a cultural shift accompanies this transformation. As writing moved from inscriptions on stone to marks on a piece of paper or papyrus, the world changed. Not only did the human thought process become revolutionized as the process of writing could more closely match the speed of thought, but these thoughts could be spread globally. Thoughts were no longer geographically specific; that is, you didn’t have to travel to a particular place to read an inscription. Instead, the inscription came to you.

A similar cultural shift has been taking place as computing technologies are continually moving from their static location at the home or office computer and becoming mobile. As Intel announced back in 2000, “Computing, not computers will characterize the next era of the computer age.”[1] This points to a key tenet of our current cultural shift: it is less about the devices and more about an activity. This book analyzes that activity, which is a practice of embodied space in the digital age. Here, I want to focus on mobile interfaces as my primary object of study, developing the ways that these devices work in tandem with bodies and locales in a process of inscribing meaning into our contemporary social and spatial interactions. I think it is important to define “mobile media” broadly to include not only our digital devices but also print texts, subway passes, identification and credit cards, and everyday objects that signify elements of our identity such as keys, notepads, and checkbooks. As Atlanta artist Jason Travis has chronicled in his Persona series of photographs, the items we carry around with us have a unique way of defining our practice of embodied space throughout the day. His series of diptych photographs were taken of over 120 Atlanta residents, in which he asked them to pose for a photograph that would be juxtaposed with a picture of the contents of their backpacks, purses, and messenger bags (Figure 0.1 and Figure 0.2).

Figure 0.1: “Cassie” diptych from the Persona series by Jason Travis. Image © Jason Travis /


Figure 0.2: “Randall” diptych from the Persona series by Jason Travis. Image © Jason Travis /


The intimate relationships we have with our objects serve to characterize not only our identities, but also the overall nature of our everyday lives as defined by the embodied activities we engage. Sherry Turkle has argued, “We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. […] We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.”[2] Since the objects we interact with often are given an intimate level of significance in our lives, as seen in Deborah Lupton’s description of the various ways we humanize our devices,[3] many discussions of emerging media tend to focus on the device rather than the embodied and spatial actions to which our devices contribute. This book instead seeks to elaborate on the practice of mobile media and the status of embodiment and space for a mobile media age.


Historicizing Mobile Media and the Reconfigurations of Social Space

Defining mobile media broadly allows us to trace the genealogies of mobile technologies and also informs us of the cultural trends and imaginaries that led to certain mobile media. As Jon Agar has pointed out, our current social relationships with and through our mobile phones might actually better resemble the emergence of the pocket watch instead of the emergence of the landline telephone.[4] The pocket watch — a remediation of clock towers and home clocks into a mobile, easily portable (as opposed to simply transportable) form — became a symbol of a significant shift in the social experience of local time and space, a shift that is easily mapped onto our experiences with a mobile phone or mobile computing device. The watch has been described as “an instrument of social control,” which was seen as “supplanting nature and God with clocks and watches…[and] with secular authorities based on efficiency and convenience.”[5] This mobile media was supported by the ever-increasing mobility of the 19th Century, as exemplified in the railroads that spanned the continental United States. Social space was transforming. However, coupled with this transformation was an increasing anxiety over what constituted “the local.” For example, travelers on a train had to continually adjust their watches to account for local time. This meant that for every 12 miles they moved east or west, crossing different longitudes, they had to adjust their watches by one minute. This was a common practice in the mid-1800s until standardized time zones were created in the United States in 1883 and international time zones instituted in 1884. Thus, after 1884, people carrying around a pocket watch were aware that the notion of “local time” — and thus what constituted local space — had changed dramatically. A watch with the “correct” time was set to international standards, based on Greenwich Mean Time in England. This mobile technology connected the individual to a sense of global space and time while changing what it meant to travel and live in local space. For those who lived close to the borders between time zones, traveling to a neighbor’s house on the other side of the division between time zones could move time forward or backward by an hour, causing people who are spatially close to one another to live in different notions of “local” time.

This tension between proximity and distance, as it is mirrored in tensions between intimacy and foreignness, has historically been a part of the ways we use our mobile media. I have seen this tension frequently practiced over the last few years. Having recently moved to a region that has a strong pubic transportation infrastructure (as opposed to my native Southern California), I see this tension played out every time I ride the Washington, D.C. Metro. As I board a crowded subway, I often see people standing in very close proximity (sometimes even touching, though they are strangers), but they utilize mobile media as a way to distance themselves from having to engage the crowd around them. One of most ubiquitous mobile media that accomplishes this “distancing-though-proximic” is the mobile listening device (e.g., an iPod or any generic digital music player). Mizuko Ito and others have argued that the personal listening device can serve to help isolate people from social situations, to “cocoon” them from the need to interact with others in a crowded environment. Ito, along with Daisuke Okabe and Ken Anderson, writes, “Cocoons are micro-places built through private, individually controlled infrastructures, temporarily appropriating public space for personal use. […] These cocoons also have specific temporal features, functioning as mechanisms for ‘filling’ or ‘killing’ in-between time when people are inhabiting or moving through places within where they are not interested in fully engaging.”[6]

For me, this mobile media cocooning points to what initially drew me to the study of mobile media in the first place: the uses of these technologies demonstrates an intimate relationship between the production of space and the bodies inhabiting those spaces. To adequately analyze these emerging technologies, I find it impossible to conceive of mobile media in relationship to a singular notion of space or a singular notion of embodiment in isolation. Instead, space and embodiment are intimately and indelibly linked. This idea remains at the core of how I will define these terms throughout this book and how I situate my theoretical analysis of mobile media as always being embodied, spatial technologies.

The embodied, spatial tension between proximity and distance that I constantly see on the subway starkly contrasts an interesting example in which social space is practiced in almost the exact opposite way. Through the use of personal radios and citizens’ band (CB) radios — the technological ancestors of the mobile media player/iPod — people who are geographically distant from one another experience a sense of community and intimacy through the use of these mobile technologies. While at a recent conference, a professor noted to me that while he had never used the mobile social media I was discussing in my presentation — location-aware social networks, which I discuss in detail in Chapter 3 — he immediately understood the concept of connecting with others in a spatial way through mobile media. He understood the idea of location-aware social media through his use of the CB while he made a cross-country drive when he was younger. He noted, “I bought the CB especially for the trip. I had heard about them from some friends of mine, but had never used one before I got into the car to make the journey.” As soon as he embarked, he began chatting with people, typically beginning by getting the person’s name or handle (the CB equivalent of a screen name), their location, and their destination. In this way, the travelers connected on the common themes of the journey, the landscapes, and the other drivers they encountered. The professor remarked to me, “There were long stretches where I was driving alone on these vast, empty prairies. In any other situation, I would have felt extremely isolated from humanity. But by using the CB, I felt like I had companions with me as I drove.”

By gesturing to these earlier forms of mobile media, I hope to demonstrate the key concern of this book: the production of social and embodied space through practices with mobile technologies (broadly defined). While the majority of this book looks at location-aware applications, these locative media only serve as contemporary examples of an ongoing relationship between social bodies, technology, and site-specificity. As these examples become obsolete in the future — following the trajectory of the technologies that came before (something I critique in the conclusion of this book) — the core practices of embodied space through mobile media will continue to apply to future instances of this form of technology. In fact, this change is already happening. For my everyday practices of mobile media, it began with the dramatic changes in the ways that I reimagined the uses of my mobile phone.


Locating Pervasive Computing Culture

In the first lines of Howard Rheingold’s book on pervasive computing, Smart Mobs, he notes an observation he had in Japan that changed the way he thought about mobile technologies: “The first signs of the next shift began to reveal themselves to me on a spring afternoon. That was when I began to notice people on the streets of Tokyo staring at their mobile phones instead of talking to them.”[7] This shift from using a mobile device as a voice communication medium toward usages that focus on data (including internet access, GPS information, and text messaging) heralds an era of what many have termed pervasive computing. The culture of pervasive computing is characterized by the ubiquity of digital technologies woven into the fabric of daily life, typically so integrated that we are often rarely aware of the extent of this integration. Rheingold discusses several ways that this mode of computing manifests itself, such as the ways that pervasive computing often links information and place through digital media. This attachment of information and place can transform urban environments by altering the capabilities that information has over the city. Thus, environments become “smart” by having sensing and responsive abilities. Closely aligned with this idea is the notion that pervasive computing is defined through the creation of objects that become sentient, “not because embedded chips can reason but because they can sense, receive, store, and transmit information.”[8] Ultimately, Rheingold argues that there is a collaboration between “virtual” and “material” worlds. Objects affected in one environment affect the other. Eventually, the collaboration between virtual space and what might be called “actual” space becomes so intertwined that it is no longer useful to think of them as distinct categories. Finally, Rheingold notes that pervasive computing culture also includes “wearable computers” that sense environments and also function as communication media.[9]

Though not all pervasive computing is done through mobile media (i.e., much of what we consider as ubiquitous computing is carried out through stationary systems), this model is useful in understanding the impact of contemporary uses of mobile computing. Also, mobile computing is serving to help realize the core tenets of pervasive and ubiquitous computing. This is what Adam Greenfield has termed “everyware.” He writes:

In everyware, the garment, the room and the street become sites of processing and mediation. Household objects from shower stalls to coffee pots are reimagined as places where facts about the world can be gathered, considered, and acted upon. And all of the familiar rituals of daily life — things as fundamental as the way we wake up in the morning, get to work, or shop for our groceries — are remade as an intricate dance of information about ourselves, the state of the external world, and the options available to us at any given moment.[10]

Each of these examples have stemmed from the early theorizations of Mark Weiser, who is often credited with being the forerunning theorist and designer of ubiquitous computing (often termed “ubicomp”). In one of his early papers on the subject, titled, “The World is Not a Desktop,” Weiser argues:

What is the metaphor for the computer of the future? The intelligent agent? The television (multimedia)? The 3-D graphics world (virtual reality)? The StarTrek ubiquitous voice computer? The GUI desktop, honed and refined? The machine that magically grants our wishes? I think the right answer is “none of the above”, because I think all of these concepts share a basic flaw: they make the computer visible.[11]

Instead of the excessive visibility of our systems, ubiquitous or pervasive computing often seeks to create an environment in which the technologies remain invisible. Instead of being conscious of our interactions with the interfaces, we simply act intuitively with our environment and it responds accordingly. As Paul Dourish nicely summarizes, “This model of technology stands in stark contrast to most interactive computational technologies whose complexity makes them extremely obtrusive elements of our working environments, to the extent that those environments — working practices, organizational processes and physical settings – need to be redesigned to accommodate computation.”[12] For Dourish, building on Weiser’s notions of ubicomp, pervasive computing is focused on “context-aware computing” in which “computers as we currently know them (boxes on desks) could disappear in favor of an environment in which we could be responsive to our needs and actions through ubiquitously-available computational power.”[13] This is what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have termed the “interfaceless interface.” They write, “What designers often say they want is an ‘interfaceless’ interface, in which there will be no recognizable electronic tools—not buttons, windows, scroll bars, or even icons as such. Instead, the user will move through the space interacting with the objects ‘naturally,’ as she does in the physical world.” [14] For Bolter and Grusin, whose work on remediation echoes much of what Weiser theorized, this form of engagement with the computers that surround us (and all media, in fact, even beyond digital technologies) is considered to be “immediate.” Immediacy privileges a seamless connection to our media so that they fluidly integrate with our bodies and our surroundings. A pre-digital form of this kind of immediacy is going to the cinema: the audience sits down among perhaps hundreds of other movie-goers, the lights go down and the medium of film transports them beyond the movie theatre to the realm of the narrative. The audience is so immediately connected with the medium that they often forget that they are sitting among hundreds of people (and can get so emotionally connected that the story might even lead the audience members to tears). This is the same immediacy afforded by a good book.

Applying this type of connection to digital technologies, the users of pervasive computing technologies should simply be able to wave their hand in an ordinary manner and be interacting with an input device. Common gestures used in daily life result in feedback from the computing system. As Weiser argues, “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”[15] Designers like Greenfield argue that the user interface of the personal computer is far too antiquated to extend into a pervasive computing environment. For Greenfield, “everyware” is about the distribution of digital technologies and interfaces throughout the environment, “embedded in objects and contexts far removed from anything you could (or would want to) graft a keyboard onto, [thus] the familiar ways of interacting with computers don’t make much sense” in pervasive computing culture.[16]

One key example pointed to by the designers and theorists of ubicomp that exemplifies the shift away from the personal computing interface to the pervasive computing interface is wearable computing. From the early manifestations of this form of ubiquitous computing as seen in the clunky versions worn by Steve Mann in the 1980s to more contemporary versions which weave wires and interfaces into clothing to run mobile music devices and phones, the anticipated pervasiveness of this technology has been largely overestimated. Part of the desire for this form of pervasive computing has also been its biggest obstacle: designers and theorists alike are looking for a form of ubicomp that is hands-free (and can thus “disappear”). In order to accomplish this, the everyday objects we use need to be integrated into the network. While we are seeing non-digital objects interact in seamless ways with pervasive technologies, the larger objectives of pervasive computing seek to have the network woven into most of the objects we encounter. While this level of massive cultural transformation is indeed a possibility, it is something that will be a slow growth and overlooks the massive potential for ubicomp that is already integrated into digital cultures: our mobile devices.

Pervasive computing culture has been dawning for well over a decade; however, with the high use of mobile devices on a global level, the theories are finally beginning to take hold. This transition struck me one afternoon in 2007 while teaching an undergraduate course of 35 students. I asked the students who had mobile phones to raise their hands. Not surprisingly, all of them raised their hands. I then asked all the students who had a camera on their phone to raise their hands. Again — this time to my surprise — all of them raised their hands. While this may seem like a minor difference to some, to me it heralded the era of the transition from cell phone to mobile computing device. This was my equivalent of Rheingold noticing the people on the streets of Tokyo looking at their phones rather than talking into them. The mobile phones used by the students at my university were no longer simply voice communication devices, they were being used to document the world around them and interact with the surrounding environment in ways that far exceed the initial design and purpose of the cell phone.

These devices are one of the items many around the world carry with them as they leave home for the day. For me, as with many of other mobile phone users, there is a daily ritual that includes grabbing my wallet, keys, and my mobile phone. As many of these phones are becoming GPS and internet capable devices, the sheer pervasiveness of these tools is allowing for ubiquitous computing to come to fruition. For example, in late-2009, the Pew internet Research Center took a survey of the ways those in the United States access the internet. They found that 83% of those surveyed had an internet-capable device (compared to 58% who have a desktop computer and 46% who have a laptop computer). While this number is quite large, at the time of this writing, only 32% of those with these devices actually use them to access the internet (and only 29% of those with internet-capable mobile devices used them for email).[17] On the global scale, there were 450 million mobile internet users in 2009, expected to hit 1 billion by 2013.[18] This means that over the next couple of years, the main medium people will use to access the internet will be a mobile device.

The implications of this pervasiveness are extensive and demonstrate why current ubicomp theories fall short. While looking for a cultural shift in the way computers are integrated, many designers and theorists have missed the biggest transition that has been taking place for some time: the devices we already utilize on a daily basis are the tools that will herald in the age of pervasive computing. The notion of microprocessors integrated into everyday objects is something that is a distinct possibility; however, such objects would remain accessible to only a fraction of the world population. Even desktop computing and broadband access remain scarce global commodities, with broadband access in Japan costing “6 cents per 100 Kbps, with users typically paying 0.002 percent of their monthly salary for high-speed access. But in Kenya, that same hookup speed costs $86.11 – nearly twice the average monthly income.”[19] In contrast to desktop computing and broadband over DSL, cable, or fiber optics — and especially in contrast to everyday objects that integrate computing technologies such as wired clothing — mobile phones with internet access are spreading globally at an amazing pace. Pervasive computing culture, to succeed, needs to be a global phenomenon and not simply limited to those in developed countries with the wealth to afford such devices. Here we see that mobile technologies are intervening in the “digital divide” that separates those with access to digital technologies and those without.[20]

While I am enthusiastic about the current state of pervasive computing — that the tools necessary to implement a culture that interacts with landscapes as interfaces are already among us — I am sympathetic to the concerns of the designers who seek to find a way to make more intuitive and gesture-based interfaces. In a recent conversation I had with William Pike, one of the key researchers in the National Visualization and Analytics Center at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), he discussed his team’s work on a project designing mobile interfaces that can seamlessly move from one device to another, all of which are hands free. The project, titled Precision Information Environments, was funded by the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to imagine pervasive computing solutions to emergency management and crisis response. The initial vision for the project used a wildfire as an example of ways that mobile devices can be implemented to address the needs of information distribution across a variety of networks. These devices allowed messages to be sent from a central command station to a wrist-mounted interface. As the firefighter wearing the wrist-mounted device entered a vehicle, he or she could make a swiping gesture toward the automobile’s windshield and the display would move from the personal device to the interface of the windshield (see Figure 0.3). This extends the current uses of heads-up displays used by the military in fighter planes. Such designs allow for user interaction that is necessitated by the work at hand. As Pike noted, for firefighters who are out on the field, they do not want to access information about a landscape by walking around holding a phone-like device in front of them. Besides being awkward (and tiring if a firefighter has to hold this phone in front of his or her field of vision for an extended period of time), this mode of pervasive computing distinguishes too much between the physical landscape and the digital information that augments it. Also, adding another tool to the firefighter’s kit often translates into exactly that: one tool among many instead of information interacting with the many tools already in use.


Figure 0.3: A firefighter working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s “Precision Information Environments” technology, sending map information from his mobile device to the hardscape of the vehicle’s windshield. Photo: Burtner ER, and WA Pike. 2010. “Precision Information Environments Concept Video – Wildfire Scenario.” PNNL-SA-72483 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA.


The goal of Pike’s team at PNNL is to reimagine the ways that the surfaces around us can be utilized as screens. The vehicle used in the Precision Information Environments project is designed with a translucent LED screen that overlays the windshield. Beyond this example, Pike argues that they key will be to find ways to “make use of the hardscape around us to turn existing surfaces into displays.”[21] While heads-up displays exist in military usage, Pike seeks to move beyond the enclosed space of the fighter pilot’s helmet and find solutions for pervasive computing in outdoor and everyday spaces.

My objection to Pike at the time — and one which carries into my analysis in this book — is that such ubicomp designs overlook the power of utilizing the mobile technologies that are already integrated into cultures worldwide. Instead, we see ubicomp and tangible computing designers starting every time from the ground up, reinventing the wheel over and over again. While innovation has been the key to designing all of the mobile technologies we have, my main concerns with its current implementation echo the concerns of those like Lev Manovich. Although pervasive/ubiquitous computing has been theorized and attempted since the early- to mid-1990s, Manovich’s concern, which was voiced at the 2009 Digital Arts and Culture Conference, is: with all of the technologies we currently have (with their increasingly small size and low cost), “Why doesn’t true ubiquitous computing yet exist?” For Pike, there are two major reasons that pervasive computing has not met its full potential: the problem of interface and the problem of commercial disincentive. The first reason — the interface and interactivity problem — remains a major hurdle because there are “no good ways to naturally interact with data” and the ways we currently inscribe onto our devices (such as the pinch/pull zooming when using maps on a haptic interface) are all culturally inscribed and do not necessarily translate globally. While designers can create standards for interactive gestures with mobile devices, even within a culture people have unique gesturing styles. And though it may be possible to train a system to learn my specific gestures, these gestures would not necessarily translate to other pervasive computing environments I would encounter. The second reason — the problem of commercial disincentive — is, perhaps, the primary reason that ubiquitous computing has not fully dawned in digital culture. Basically, this idea argues that it is in a company’s best interest to keep its environment closed (i.e., a user must interact solely with them in order to receive the benefits of their products and information). Thus, while Pike and his team at PNNL would like to work with existing mobile devices and systems, the problem they have faced thus far has been finding a way to create a “handshake between devices” that will allow devices to work together. Ultimately, corporations do not design handoffs between platforms because their primary business model has been to commodify the access gained through their gateways.

Interventions into these two seemingly insurmountable problems come, in my estimation, in the forms of user interactions with their environments using the mobile media that is already a part of daily routines in digital cultures. While “VR…attempts to bring us inside the computer, ubiquitous computing actually brings the computer outside, into our daily, lived experiences,” as Adriana de Souza e Silva and Daniel Sutko note, the resulting move of computing outside is looking markedly different than the initial conceptions of pervasive computing.[22] Instead of disappearing into the fabric our lived experience, ubicomp is something that is consciously interacting with our environments and offering a transformative experience of space. De Souza e Silva and Sutko continue: “The popularity of cell phones and PDAs indicates that portable handheld technologies partly fulfill Weiser’s prediction of ubiquitous computing. They are becoming displays through which we access information about the physical world around us.”[23] Finding modes of interaction that reimagine the use and correlation between our mobile devices and the spaces they augment will be the key to successfully creating pervasive computing culture. By functioning as bricoleurs who create a patchwork of very different media designed with diverse purposes in mind, users of mobile devices will design the new embodied space of pervasive computing.


Theorizing Embodied Space in Mobile Environments

In a March 2010 article in Wired Magazine, Scott Brown discusses the immediately obsolete mobile technologies displayed in films. In his sarcastic wit about films in the 1980s, he writes, “I’ll miss the shoulder pads, the high-tops, the laissez-faire stereotyping and sexual harassment. But you know what I won’t miss? The tech. It doesn’t travel. It doesn’t charm. It became kitsch the instant it hit the screen.”[24] Along these lines, many of the objects of study I will investigate in this book will already be obsolete by the time this book is published and will seem very kitsch to future generations. Though I look at this topic extensively in the Conclusion of this book, my initial response here frames my approach to the examples I use in each chapter. My discussion of current mobile media — from smartphones to laptops, from mobile games to personal listening devices — is only a snapshot of a particular moment; however, my discussions of this moment in mobile media history helps expand on our altering conceptions of embodied space and subsequently the cultural objects we are producing. So, while it might be of interest to some for me to detail the specificities of these emerging mobile technologies (like PNNL’s Precision Information Environments or the latest social media platform for mobile phones), to do so misses the larger project I am interested in. While drawing on current objects of study, I seek to use these as instances of how mobile technologies — and the ways we interface with the medium and with each other across mobile media — offer insights into the ways that embodiment and space are produced in the digital age. Thus, while those looking for recommendations on interface design might be disappointed in the minimal attention offered to such considerations, I strongly believe that those seeking such knowledge will be offered some insights into the bigger picture that will undoubtedly have a shelf life that far exceeds the current mobile media we use.

To begin this exploration, it is important to note that discussions about space have increased exponentially in the digital age. As computing moves beyond the desktop toward the creation of pervasive computing culture, our focus on spatiality has been intensified. Accordingly, our theorization of embodiment is in need of exploration and refinement. It is my estimation that since mobile technologies are prompting important questions about space and embodiment — from scholars and everyday users alike — that the way we conceive of our interactions with these emerging spaces will have everything to do with the ways that the media are utilized. Many, including myself, are drawn toward theories that emphasize our sensory experience with mobile technologies, turning to the phenomenological approaches of the likes of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as foundations for exploration. While my understanding of embodiment is indeed founded on much of the work of these phenomenologists, there are still areas lacking in phenomenology that are required for a thorough analysis of how we embody the digital spaces of mobile technologies. What follows in the coming chapters is my development of this theoretical approach.


Navigating Mobile Interface Theory

I begin this book by developing a working definition of what embodiment in pervasive computing space means. In Chapter 1, “Embodiment and the Mobile Interface,” I create a working definition of embodiment for a mobile media era. Here, I argue for several factors that, when brought together, define embodiment. This mode of embodiment is always co-produced alongside the production of space. Ultimately, by bringing together theories of phenomenology and poststructuralism, I propose a “sensory-inscribed” understanding of the body that is not only conceived out of a sensory engagement across material and digital landscapes, but also incorporates socio-cultural inscriptions of the body in these emerging spaces. This chapter serves as the theoretical foundation for the chapters that follow, setting up my theory of the “sensory-inscribed” body that will inform my analysis of the various objects of study and practices of mobile media in the subsequent chapters.

Throughout my exploration of what embodiment means for a mobile media age, bodies and spaces are understood as mutually constructed and inseparable. Thus, Chapter 2, “Mapping and Representations of Space,” elaborates on how space is produced as a multiplicity of perception and inscription. Drawing from the history of the term “virtual,” I look how the collaboration between virtual spaces and “realized” spaces has always been at the core of how we produce space. This multiplicity is highlighted in an era when our mobile devices produce spaces that are experienced as a collaboration between information, representation, and materiality. Here, I focus on how — by transforming our location into an information interface — the visualizations of data are dramatically altered as they converge with location aware embodied space. Part of the way that mobile devices are intervening in the way we relate to space is the way information is structured, displayed, and interacted with. Focusing on examples such as the augmented reality application Streetmuseum, the emotion maps in Christian Nold’s Biomapping, and the crowdsourced maps created of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, this study elaborates on the ways that representations of spaces created with mobile technologies reinstill the integral link between embodied action and the production of space. By being able to point your mobile device at a store, monument, or geographic feature nearby and retrieve information on that object, users are able to engage and contribute to information through an interface that develops a sense of embodied proprioception in pervasive computing space.

Chapter 3, “Locative Interfaces and Social Media,” develops my working definition of the “interface” through the example of location-based social media. The essential idea behind locative social media is that by broadcasting my location to my network, I am communicating something about my identity and the fabric of my everyday life. Thinking of mobile interface as the nexus of the embodied production of these social spaces, locative social media demonstrate the fundamental attributes necessary for social engagement across mobile networks. To experience these interactions as embodied and spatial, the interface must foster reciprocity (both between the device and the user and between the user and other participants) and ideas of “otherness,” or alterity. The reciprocity that is essential to the production of these embodied spaces also forces a confrontation of practices of visibility. Thus, I look at issues surrounding participatory surveillance and the core problems in maintaining a distinction between public and private.

Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Immersion in Locative Games,” looks at the significant correspondence between play space and everyday life in emerging games that blend the mobile interface with everyday spaces. Immersion in the game, as it blends play and the everyday, brings about several ethical dilemmas around the influence of one sphere on the other. Looking at examples such as the Live Action Role Playing Game (LARP) Momentum, the GPS treasure hunting game geocaching, and the urban game The Big Urban Game, I argue for a sense of embodied engagement that allows players to critique the game and the spaces in which the game is played. Through a process of bricolage and hypermediacy, players can transform games and their mobile interfaces into sites of social critique.

Chapter 5, “Performances of Asynchronous Time,” shifts from the production of locative space to its counterpart: temporality. Specifically, I analyze the draw toward mobile communication that prioritizes asynchronous time over synchronicity. Throughout the chapter, I look at performances — such as Simon Faithfull’s 0.00 Navigation, Susan Kozel’s IntuiTweet dance project, and Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke — that utilize mobile and locative media to engage participants and performers in the tension over ideas of co-presence and mediatized interactions. How do our mediated interactions — especially ones that take place in asynchronous time — foster a sense of embodied connection across space? Comparing these performances to everyday practices like text messaging, I argue that our practices of embodied engagement with mobile devices are challenging the temporal nature of presence and ideas about what constitutes a primary action.

Chapter 6, “Site-Specific Storytelling and Reading Interfaces,” focuses on locative storytelling projects that interrogate the ways that reading interfaces address individuals rather than communities. The storytelling projects I discuss offer interventions into this opposition by utilizing the mobile phone as the space of community storytelling, transforming the technology that is perceived as privileging the individual into a technology that captures community narratives in a way that uniquely takes advantage of its ability for site specificity, voice recording, textual communication, and portability. By linking the locative storytelling interface to the historical ebb and flow between individual and community interfaces for reading, I situate these stories as site-specific modes of addressing multiple histories. These histories are embodied engagements with the practices of space and the meanings that can be ascribed to a space. I conclude the chapter with an investigation of the relationship between these stories and the embodied nature of information, drawing on the recent debates over the opposition between the database and narrative.

My conclusion, “Movement/Progress/Obsolescence: On the Politics of Mobility” argues that there has been a specific trajectory in our culture when we have invoked ideas of movement: movement equals progress. Progress, however, is intimately tied to ideas and practices of obsolescence. By discussing moments throughout history in which a particular culture derided emerging media as that which produced acceleration, movement, and speed (resulting in a distancing of members of that community), I argue that we have always had perceptions of increased movement and acceleration. This criticism is something that is applied to many forms of emerging media. The consequences of linking this particular kind of movement with ideas of progress is a culture that entangled with overwhelming obsolescence. Instead of maintaining the kinship between movement, progress, and obsolescence, I argue instead for a correlation between movement and dwelling. Through recuperating stillness and dwelling as a type of action and movement (instead of being defined by a lack of movement), we see that ideas of mobility can focus on the particularities of location instead of constant and unending flow.

Each of these chapters hinge on exploring the status of bodies and spaces in emerging mobile media space. Mobile media, from a cell phone to a tablet computer to something as simple as a public transit card, are becoming interfaces that require us to be embodied across several spaces. As we connect with each other, with objects, and with data across material and digital landscapes, these hybrid spaces are transforming the ways we conceive of embodied space. The stakes related to the ways we conceive of embodied space are significant, including the ways we imagine identity, community, and cultural objects we create, including art, games, performance, and narrative.


[1] Qtd. in Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground : Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), 7.

[2] Sherry Turkle, “Introduction: The Things That Matter,” in Evocative Objects: The Things We Think With, ed. Sherry Turkle (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007), 5.

[3] Deborah Lupton, “The Embodied Computer/User,” in Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara Kennedy (New York: Routledge Press, 2000), 477-488.

[4] Jon Agar, Constant Touch: A Global History of the Mobile Phone (Cambridge: Icon Books, 2003).

[5] Allen W. Palmer, “Negotiation and Resistance in Global Networks: The 1884 International Meridian Conference,” Mass Communication and Society 5, no. 1 (2009): 9.

[6] Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Ken Anderson, “Portable Objects in Three Global Cities: The Personalization of Urban Places,” in The Reconstruction of Space and Time, ed. Rich Ling and Scott W. Campbell (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 2009), 74.

[7] Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2002), xi.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 84-85.

[10] Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (Berkeley: New Riders Press, 2006), 1.

[11] Mark Weiser, “The World is Not a Computer,”

[12] Paul Dourish, “Seeking a Foundation for Context-Aware Computing,” Human-Computer Interaction, 16.2-4 (2001): 231.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1999), 23.

[15] Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,”

[16] Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (Berkeley: New Riders Press, 2006), 40.

[17] Pew internet Research Center, “internet, broadband, and cell phone statistics,”

[18] International Data Corporation, “Number of Mobile Devices Accessing the internet Expected to Surpass One Billion by 2013,”

[19] Frank Bures, “Broadband Services Available Worldwide, But Few Can Afford It”,

Wired 15(9): 60-61,

[20] This is true even within the United States and other developed countries. See, for example, Katie Brown, Scott Campbell, and Rich Ling, “Mobile Phones Bridging the Digital Divide for Teens in the US,” Future Internet 3 (2011),

[21] William Pike, interview with author, 20 May 2010.

[22] Adriana de Souza e Silva and Daniel Sutko, “Merging Digital and Urban Playspaces: An Introduction to the Field,” in Digital Cityscapes: Merging Digital and Urban Playspaces (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 5.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Scott Brown, “Why Hollywood Should Avoid Gadget Close-Ups,” in Wired, 18.4(2010),