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Mobile Media/Public Spaces

John Potts

The future of media, we are constantly told, is small. More to the point, it is mobile, hand-held, and hybrid; furthermore, it is already here, in models that become more sophisticated – and more popular – with each technological generation. These devices fuse entertainment with communication, connecting mobile users to social networking sites, while enabling individual text messaging and phone exchanges, as well as access to music, video and websites. The regular addition of new applications and services render these hand-held devices the epicentre of convergent media and communications.

If all this sounds breathless, that is a deliberate reflection of the industry rhetoric, which trumpets the breakthrough achievements of its R & D and design teams. This fervour is conveyed by the trade press and media, eager to be the first to report on the latest model or on the most recently observed social trend. Such a widely used communication form as email has already been pronounced outdated, as evident in the preferences of the world’s new media take-up vanguard (South Korean youth). Email, it seems, is rejected as too slow, too unresponsive, too public, too sedentary, suitable only for the “older generation at work”. (Fitzpatrick 2007: 13) Lacking mobility and immediacy, older forms such as email risk obsolescence – according to the corporate and media rhetoric - in the face of instant messaging and connection to digital communities from mobile bases.

If technological progress is today considered suspect at the industrial level, it flourishes unhindered at the level of information and media technologies. Each new generation is lauded as an improvement on its successor; processing speed, connection speed and range are the indices of post-industrial progress. Marketing, advertising and public relations, all heavily budgeted, are the cheer-leaders of this latest incarnation of the doctrine of progress.

It should occasion little surprise, then, that media studies has struggled to apprehend this high-speed subject. Even the terminology has been a problem: “new media” has been used at times guardedly, at times awkwardly, or jettisoned altogether as a deficient descriptor. Terms proposed in its place have included: convergent media, liquid media, hybrid media, locative media…; meanwhile, academics, like other observers, have been expected to keep track of the endless stream of neologisms spawned by the industry – podcast, mobisode – not all of which will necessarily endure.

There are strengths, however, that the academic discipline of media studies can bring to an engagement with the dizzying world of contemporary communications. One is a scepticism towards the marketing hyperbole surrounding new technologies. Indeed, a sardonic tone is evident in several of the articles gathered in this issue of Scan, displaying critical resistance to the “new is more” imperative of the market.

Another advantage is the theoretical background that media studies can bring to bear on the present, particularly the literature concerning society and technological change, and the relationship between technology and culture: a body of theory reaching back to the pre-digital era. There is also the extensive theoretical study of the public sphere and the changing conceptions of private and public space. This concern is especially pertinent for this issue of Scan.

Several of the contributors in this issue ask the same question in different ways: what is happening to the public sphere in this burgeoning culture of mobile personal media? While the corporate interests and media enthusiasts extol hand-held devices and digital networking, where does that leave the actual public spaces experienced by citizens, whether holding a mobile phone, listening to an iPod – or not? Can there still be a public sphere when it is full of so many private worlds?

The essays in this edition approach this question with a critical perspective, often with reference to the work of media artists. This issue of Scan adopts McLuhan’s maxim (itself borrowed from Ezra Pound) that artists are the antennae of the species (Levinson 1999: 144). In the 1980s, media artists explored the potential of the digital manipulation of images, audio and text; today such facility is commonplace, achievable with built-in PC software. In the contemporary environment, artists are working with mobile phones, distribution networks, and public spaces, pioneering the creative uses of these ‘canvasses’ of radically divergent register.

This Scan edition is exceptional in that contains as many non-refereed as refereed articles. The articles have mostly been drawn from two symposia held in 2007: iArt, Image, Ideology and Technology in the Age of Personal Media, held at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, in March; and Sound, Art, Architecture and the Environment, held at the Faculty of Architecture, University of Sydney, in February. This issue provides artists as well as media theorists the opportunity to examine, and to speculate on, the intersection of mobile media and public space.

In the refereed section, Maria Miranda in Uncertain Spaces analyses recent explorations by artists of ‘mediated public space’. Miranda’s essay also contains a valuable discussion of recent theoretical attempts to figure urban public space, inhabited and criss-crossed not only by citizens but by communications. Theoretical frameworks developed to describe this hybrid space have included: relational space, mappable space, and – intriguingly – ‘hertzian space’.

Darren Tofts continues the theme of artists’ engagement with both mobile media and public space in his Dead to the World: the Future of Hand-Held Art. Tofts takes a cool critical view of the ubiquity of hand-held devices and the pervasive “mobile mania”.  He poses an alternative view to the digital delirium celebrated by enthusiasts of networks of individual (hand-held) nodes. Is there also an element of a solipsistic “retreat from the world” in virtual networking, a neglect of flesh-and-blood networking and public space? Tofts’ survey of recent artworks made for hand-held media scrutinises the creative possibilities of these technologies.

Andreas Ströhl’s essay, iApparatus, contributes a new vein of knowledge to media studies by focusing on the work of Vilém Flusser, a Czech-born communications philosopher very little known in the West. Ströhl’s own translations from the German texts of Flusser are marshalled around several themes: “Self as Media Node”, “Mass Media and Manipulation”, “The Apparatus-Operator Complex”. While Flusser, who died in 1991, did not live to see the development of personalised media and digital networking, Ströhl draws from his work several useful insights for considering the relationship between creative individual users and the properties of the technological apparatus itself. Ströhl’s explication of Flusser’s philosophy of technology provides a means of addressing the potentials and shortfalls of digital media technology, within the parameters of creative dialogue as opposed to restricted discourse.

In the non-refereed Information section, Nigel Helyer’s essay The Sonic Commons: Embrace or Retreat? pursues questions considered elsewhere in this Scan issue, but from the perspective of audio. Are all those iPod listeners in cities and on public transport inhabiting an audio ‘cocoon’, retreating from physical public space and the unpredictable mix of sounds in the urban environment? Helyer ranges across cultural periods in discussing the interaction of individuals with their audio surrounds, before discussing the work of contemporary sound artists using public space. Included in the links contained in this article is Helyer’s own project AudioNomad, which uses GPS to project audio onto mapped space.

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski’s Please Touch The Art: Private Information, Public Settings is a survey of their installation artworks, describing their interactive nature and the role of audience engagement. Included is a discussion of their 2006 work The Seeker, an installation with an interactive touch-screen component allowing viewers to represent episodes of their personal family migration history onto a global map. In this and their other works, the statistical and the poetic meld in interactive works representing space in intriguing fashion.

Finally, Darren Tofts provides a satirical supplement to his “Dead to the World” essay with The Literary Adventure That Will Become Your World. In this spry rhetorical piece, Tofts offers up a “mobisode” masterpiece, unveiled as “mini_Proust”: the ultimate event in miniaturisation for the hand-held generation. 


Fitzpatrick, Michael, “Outlook Not Good For Email”, Sydney Morning Herald: Icon, December 17, 2007, p. 13
Levinson, Paul (1999) Digital McLuhan London: Routledge