Pockets of Plenty: An Archaeology of Mobile Media

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  • Pockets of Plenty: An Archaeology of Mobile Media

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  • Look for words like ‘mobile’, ‘portable’, ‘wearable’, or ‘nomadic’ from any standard media history, say, Brian Winston’s Media Technology and Society, A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet (374 pages, 1998), and be ready for a surprise: they are not there.1) At best, what you may find are a few hasty references, usually from the concluding pages of the book. Media histories have been constructed upon the idea of media as fixed coordinate systems changes to the ways in which humans perceived temporality in relation to space. The development of the urban metropolis emphasized the role of the automobile as a mobile prosthesis and an extension of the home, particularly in extreme environments like Los Angeles. Elsewhere, it was linked to other forms of urban mobility, often combining the use of public transportations like taxis and the underground with the -proto-motion- extreme environments like Los Angeles. Elsewhere, it was linked to other forms of urban mobility, often combining the use of public transportations like taxis and the underground with the “proto-motion” of walking. Purportedly there are various modes of urban walking, from goal-oriented darting along pre-defined vectors to leisurely “urban roaming” (derived by critics from Walter Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire’s flaneur) Whether by driving, walking or even flying, we are spending much of our time within non-descript venues defined by Marc Auge as “non-places”.2) While doing so, using mobile media – mobile phones, pocket cameras, car radios, CPS tracking devices, FDA’s, pagers, Gameboys, iPods – has become a self-evident practice for us.

    Why have media historians neglected mobile media? Did mobile media really appear so unexpectedly? Could the suddenness of its appearance be an illusion, caused by our inability to perceive the past from an appropriate perspective? Is it possible to excavate enough “traces” to develop an “archaeology of mobile media-, a cultural mapping of those phenomena that have raised issues about media and mobility in earlier contexts? How would such a mapping help us understand the current uses of mobile media and the discussions surrounding them? These are the premises underlying the present article, an early mapping of the territory.

    Prolegomena to Mobile Media

    There is nothing self-evident in the connection between “mobile” and “media”. Being in “perpetual contact” with absent people by means of a portable device would have made little sense for the inhabitants of a medieval village, who rarely travelled and stayed within a limited radius all their Lives. Daily communication was based on regular face-to-face encounters with familiar people. If the idea of remote communication was evoked, it probably addressed metaphysical realities in the form of a prayer. However, much the same could be said about the leisurely lifestyles of the landed gentry during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. The habit of listening to MP3 files through headphones with the iPod while strolling in an English garden would not have made much sense either in an environment where noise and crowds weren’t problems.

    However, it probably would not have pleased Baudelaire’s flaneur either, roaming the streets and arcades of nineteenth century Paris. For the flaneur, deliberately blocking one sensory channel would have denied a potential source of seductive pleasure to be derived from the city. The urban experience had to go through many changes before auditory seclusion from the surroundings became an accepted and desired practice, the question of the “origins” of mobile media could be approached from a different angle as well. Instead of looking for portable devices with explicit communicative and recording functions, we might focus on the fact that objects are assigned symbolic meanings both by their owners and others.3) Whether they are kept visible for everyone to see or hidden from the others’ sight bears significance. From this perspective the habit of carrying mobile media machines could be seen as a manifestation of the much wider tradition of portable objects.

    An example could be women’s fans and hand-screens, those seemingly superfluous objects that have, however, a long and varied history.4) Not only have they been used to guard the bearers from heat and intruding gazes; they have also become symbolic manifestations of the owner’s social status, and a means for erotic play. For centuries, enormous varieties of pictorial fans have been produced, from delicate miniature artworks to cheap mass-produced advertising giveaways. This makes the pictorial fan a visual medium of a kind, and a predecessor to objects Like promotional T-Shirts. This does not mean, of course, that we should treat fans as a form of mobile media. Neither would the gun belts worn in the Wild West qualify, although speculative connections may be drawn between them and the current habit of wearing pagers and mobile phones attached to one’s belt. Easy and fast access does not seem to be a sufficient explanation in any of these cases. Whether intended or not by the wearer, the displayed objects become tokens of power, wealth and technological prowess. Once they are hidden, the meanings they emanate change.

    The Legend of the Wristwatch

    Wearable media seem to be situated somewhere on the axis between over: and covert. In one extreme this has to do with status objects – things meant to dazzle and impress more as signs than serving as practical appliances. In the late nineteenth century Ladies’ dresses covered entirely by photographs or (illuminated!) lightbulbs were sometimes designed as publicity stunts for these new technologies; although in a sense an ultimate manifestation of “wearable media”, using them for any other purpose would have been totally unpractical. In the other extreme the-e is, for example, the nero-tech”: the large family of miniature objects often carried around and, when discreetly displayed for someone, intended to raise sexual thoughts.5) Another example of covert technology is the “spy tech”, the huge tradition of hidden devices that have been used to record conversations, take snapshots, transmit secret messages and kill people. Spy tech is interesting, because unlike most forms of media, it tries to carve out secret channels of “private” communication.

    If conventions of use and symbolic meanings are equally important as functions, considering a device like the wristwatch as a predecessor to “wearables” makes sense. There is a wonderful story according to which this ubiquitous device was invented by the Frenchman Louis Cartier in 1904 for the Brazilian aviation pioneer Santos Dumont, who found it difficult to check the time from his pocketwatch while steering his aircraft. What can be said about the pocket watch, the predecessor of the wristwatch? While it also belongs to the prehistory of wearable media, it often remained hidden within the owner’s clothing (including dedicated pockets), to be inspected only sporadically. The wristwatch made more sense in the high-speed technological environment of an aeroplane or a motorcar, where intense concentration was required, and one false move of the arm could be fatal. However, the story is not quite right: the wristwatch had been invented decades earlier, but its popularity grew slowly because it was considered feminine – perhaps it was associated with the habit of wearing bracelets. Obviously it needed the masculine, technology-studded profile of Santos Dumont and the fame of Cartier to convince men. Further proof of its usefulness and newly found masculinity were gathered some years later in the trenches of The Great War.

    When David Sarnoff, one of the pioneers of radio broadcasting, spoke in 1922 about his vision of the portable radio, he used the watch as his reference point. The radio should have as its ideal “the watch carried by a lady or a gentleman, which is not only serviceable but ornamental as well.6) Although it is not clear whether he meant a wristwatch or a pocketwatch, his idea of the portable radio as a personal utility, which is both useful and neatly designed, resonated within media culture. Indeed, the St. Louis jeweller J.A. Key soon introduced a radio set modelled after the pocket watch, and a radio “pinkie ring” was proposed by another inventor.7) In the 1940’s, Chester Gould’s comic strip hero Dick Tracy wore a voice-activated videophone looking like a wristwatch. Although such novelty devices (still constantly presented, as one can see from the Play Fetish section of Wired) have usually remained little more than publicity stunts, the association between usefulness and visual appeal is a permanent aspect of product design, evident in the field of mobile media.8) The right combination matters much more than in Sarnoff’s time, because of the greatly increased design awareness, tough competition and the urgent need to differentiate between products meant for many different user groups.

    The Life and Times of the Mobile Cyborg

    In California it is more and more common to see people seemingly talking to themselves, whether paying for their purchases at the supermarket, jogging, waiting for a latte at a coffee shop or sitting in the car waiting for the traffic lights to change. Of course, they are really engaged in a remote conversation. The choice of the hands-free interface is justified by health reasons (fear of radiation), busy lifestyle (risk of losing a contract or a deal) and the safety of driving. Although these explanations make sense, an underlying motive could be the lurking “cyborg logic”, the physical co-existence with and within the medium. Tracing the evolution of such a logic here would take too much space, but clearly the phenomenon seems much older than usually assumed. In the nineteenth century, cartoonists often presented the early photographers as “a new species”, partly human, partly technological: the camera, with its one large “Cyclops eye” had replaced the photographer’s head, hidden under the hood. Later we encountered the “cyborg ladies” at the telephone exchange, where young women were forced to spend hours “bondaged” to the switchboard, donning a headphones / microphone combination.

    Within the field of mobile media, a decisive event in the “Life and time of the mobile cyborg” was the launching of Sony’s Walkman in 1979. Unlike earlier portable media – transistor radios and cassette decks – the Walkman was meant to be listened to exclusively via headphones. Since Shuhei Hosokawa’s pioneering “The Walkman Effect” article (1984), quite a lot has been written about the phenomenological and psychological effects of the Walkman. Most researchers seem to agree that listening to a Walkman represented an experience that had few if any real precedents. Using headphones to listen to music was not something unprecedented; it had been common already in Edison’s Phonograph Parlors in the late nineteenth century, and the early radio listeners also normally used headphones. The novelty was using them while roaming in public spaces.

    It would be hard to deny that the uses of the Walkman really differed from the habit of carrying transistor radios or even ghetto-blasters in urban environments. Although perhaps experienced as disturbing by others, these devices still existed within the mutually shared continuum of sounds and noises. A ghetto-blaster may have challenged their supremacy, but even when used in a deliberately offensive manner it was only a “counter-social instrument”. The Walkman had a seclusive and privatizing character that early observers often found irritating. It was as if the user, while sharing the same space with others, was refusing to accept the “social contract”, based on certain codes of availability and communicativeness. Many of the issues raised about the Walkman are still valid when thinking about devices like Apple’s phenomenally successful iPod, which, in spite of radical changes in technology and design, is essentially a -boosted” Walkman9) for the era of the internet and downloadable MP3 files.

    Although the Walkman user experiences a kind of “bi-location” the sound and the visuals belong to different “realities” before being integrated by the user’s mind), it seems to be quite different from the ones experienced by the users of other devices. The Gameboy user interacts with a fictional world that may deeply absorb his/her attention, in spite of being “non-immersive” (the reality surrounding the device and the screen isn’t excluded, albeit perhaps by the player’s mind). The multimedia mobile phone, even when used with a headset and a microphone, seems to allow a more radical and varied form of bi- or multi-Location: the mind wanders between “here” and “there”, present and remote, physical and virtual, active input and passive reception, as the user switches between applications and modes. While doing all this s/he may be travelling in a car or walking down the street, which adds another layer of mobility and visuality to those emanating from the phone. How all these elements are co-ordinated into one integrated experience is not yet clear. What is clear is that mobile phones, as well as devices like the PDA’s, are giving rise to intricate forms of co-existence and possible symbioses between humans and ever-present technological prostheses.