August 08, 2020
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‘Mobiles Are Part Of A Long Lineage’

On the mobile phone, its impact on our lives and the society we live in.

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‘Mobiles Are Part Of A Long Lineage’
‘Mobiles Are Part Of A Long Lineage’

Jason Farman is director of the design/cultures and creativity programme in the University of Maryland, College Park, US. He is also the author of several highly acclaimed books—Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media and The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. His work has focused on how the worldwide adoption of mobile technologies is causing a re-examination of the core ideas about what it means to live our everyday lives, now envisaged anew as a form of practice of embodied space. In this interview, he responds to a series of questions from Pranay Sharma about the mobile phone, its impact on our lives and the society we live in.

Has mobile technology really changed our world to the extent we say it has or is much of it part of the hype?

Right now, there are more mobile phones than there are televisions around the world. There are more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people on the planet. When you get to that level of pervasiveness on a global scale, it’s worth paying attention to the shifts that result, especially when the pervasiveness involves a medium that is deeply embedded in peoples’ day-to-day lives.

What do you mean?

My morning routine is likely very similar to many around the world: as I leave to go about my day, my mobile phone is part of my toolkit of objects that go with me everywhere. It embeds itself into how I live my life in a given day. It changes the expectations of what it means to be a social person in the world; it changes the expectations for how I might access information; it changes the expectations for how I might document events and capture memories.

And what impact do they have?

These seemingly simple transformations have massive ripple effects that change expectations across the board, from how people respond in moments of crisis to how people imagine alternative futures for their countries; from how people track the data around global health to how people exchange and save money. Mobile media are embedded in our everyday lives and therefore have profound ramifications for nearly every facet of our lives.

If some freak accident wipes out mobile technology and all knowledge related to it how much will it set us back?

It’s an interesting question and a fun thought experiment. To erase any trace of mobile technology and the knowledge of it would also mean erasing two core aspects of what it means to be human in the 21st century: our mobility and our identity as technological creatures. These technologies fit so well with our lives because we are people on the move interacting with objects, data, and commodities that are on the move.

“Mobile media make important interventions, but exist along inequities—like that in education—in areas of life and culture.”

Are these two—movement and mobility—the two most important aspects of our lives?

Movement and mobility are defining terms for our lifetime. There are movements of people through migration and exile; we are workers who commute or we are tourists who travel. Objects and data are being exchanged around the world at unprecedented speeds. Mobility is now a part of who we are in a way that defines our era and, as technological creatures, mobility and media go hand in hand. I think to wipe away these mobile technologies would be to wipe away some core characteristics of who we are as people on this planet today.

Has mobile technology been a great leveller as far as information or the control over it is concerned?

I think there are probably two contradictory answers to this question. First, I don’t think we can ignore the massive interventions that affordable mobile networks are making in locations where internet networks couldn’t go. Along with the relative ease of creating mobile infrastructure, the devices are also affordable. Connecting to the internet on a phone is a much more affordable endeavour than the desktop or laptop computing alternatives.

And what is the other one?

On the flip side of this coin, the “equities” of information that this new technological landscape seems to offer don’t really recognize the many cultural complexities involved in making information (and control over it) accessible to all. On a basic level, literacy is one of the cultural hurdles that—regardless of technological access—remain a barrier for many to the access of the abundant information provided in our digital age.

And despite the accessibility of mobile phones this divide will remain?

A “digital divide” between those with access and those without still assumes that once people have access, then they ought to be able to pull themselves out of their problematic circumstances. So, I think mobile media make important interventions, but they exist alongside inequities in many other areas of life and culture.

We have seen mobile technology being widely used for street protests in different parts of the world these days. Can it really play a significant role in changing authoritarian regimes?

Coordination is essential for how these protests gain momentum and how the protestors connect with each other in real time. Mobile technologies play an important role in both of these aspects. It helps people connect around similar interests and causes when a face-to-face community might be dangerous. It also changes the ways we coordinate. “Just-in-time” news and information is critical to how people coordinate in public settings when minute-by-minute information is of the utmost importance. During the protests in Hong Kong this year, mobile media were vital because protesters were coordinating using an app that allowed their phones to connect directly to each other (as a “mesh network”) rather than connect to the internet. As such, protesters were able to overcome the barriers of internet bandwidth, censorship, and tracking. In the past, as centres of protest got more crowded, the mobile internet would lag as many people at once were trying to connect to sites like Twitter. Instead, as more people use mesh networks like the one used in Hong Kong, the stronger it gets and it can cover more area as it bounces from phone to phone. While I do think we can overstate the power of a single technology or medium to overthrow governments, these technologies are intimately intertwined with how we live in the world and they make direct impacts on how we can change that world.

If we look at the history of communication where do we put mobile phones, right at the top?

Smartphones are one of the best iterations of computers, which have ushered in a very significant era in human communication. That said, I think we’ll look back at this moment and laugh that we still called them “phones” when worldwide we’re using them more for data transfer (texting, messages, internet access) than for voice conversations. The mobile phone will evolve into something else that will supplant it as the most dominant mode of mediated communication. So, while we could put mobile phone right at the top of the history of communications technologies, such a sentiment wouldn’t last for very long.

But the “paradigm shift” people claim mobile technology has led to in communication was it a sudden development or part of a series of previous developments and the manner in which communication evolved over the years?

We’ve had mobile media for nearly as long as we’ve had media. As soon as a medium goes from being fixed to a single spot (like a message inscribed on a wall) to being something that is portable across vast geographic distances, we have mobile media. So, the paradigm shifts we’re seeing in our own era have many precedents from clay tablets, papyrus, paper leaflets, books, letters, among a whole host of others. Each of these mobile media were revolutionary and were a part of major cultural transformations in each era. So, while I do think that there are unique aspects of each of these media, I think it more useful to think of mobile phones as existing along this longer lineage of mobile media. After all, a “paradigm shift” only makes sense as a concept based on the historical scale that you’re using.

You say mobile phone has given us a better understanding about our world. But has it not made us more inward looking , often ignoring the person sitting right next to us while we are busy communicating with those hundreds of miles away?

“The mobile phone will evolve into something else that will supplant it as the most dominant mode of mediated communication”

I do think that mobile media present us with many ways to be distracted and disconnected from the people around us. But I also think they offer us unparalleled ways of connecting with each other. I think the main problem I have with the arguments that “mobile phones are causing us to disconnect from each other” is that it is overly simplistic and tends to take the mobile phone at face value. That is, I think we look at someone staring at a mobile phone while they’re walking down a city street and make many assumptions about what they’re doing on their phone. It doesn’t seem to actually matter to people what the person is really doing on their phone (perhaps they are engaging in some meaningful exchange); the scenario speaks for itself and becomes something that is easy to judge. This is unfortunate to me because I revel in the complexity of human exchange on these devices, in the ways that is forcing us to redefine some core terms for what it means to be human and connect with each other, and the vastly different ways that people use these devices around the world. I hope we can stop oversimplifying what it means to be social and use a mobile device and instead embrace the complex ways that we use our media to connect.

Are the public and private spheres getting blurred because of mobile phones? And if so, is it such a good thing?

One aspect that I am most interested in studying about mobile media is the various uses of location-awareness, what we term “locative media.” This was the focus of my book, Mobile Interface Theory, and since then I’ve been exploring the ways that location and mobile media are forcing us to confront issues over privacy and the private sphere. In early-2012, for example, an app was launched called “Girls Around Me,” which drew from seemingly public data posted to networks like Facebook and Foursquare and mapped out which women were nearby, who they were, what their interests were, among other things. This was all “public information,” yet it was public in a very specific context and, from some perspectives, once it was pulled out of that context it constituted a violation of privacy. Location privacy is a growing concern as our phones are increasingly using our location for various apps and features. These mobile devices go with us and while they’re sitting at the bottom of our pockets, purses, or bags, they are communicating with cell towers and GPS satellites, keeping us always connected and reachable. They are location-aware at all times and that does have direct implications for how we practice privacy in our digital age. For me, what it communicates most profoundly is that the distinction between the public and private has never been clear-cut, that the overlaps between these spheres have always existed. Now that we’re tracking and sharing our locations, documenting our lives at an unprecedented pace (and in unprecedented ways), and using a single device to conduct many of our day-to-day interactions with people, money, and information, the line in the sand between public information and private information is shifting by the minute. It changes based on who we’re talking to, on what we’re talking about, and on what information we’re sharing. It changes from person to person and from situation to situation. So, while I do encourage my students to define what privacy means for them in a mobile media age (“Don’t post a picture of your cool new credit card on Twitter,” for example) and how to practice that privacy, I realize that blanket decrees about how to practice privacy aren’t adequate for addressing how much these spheres overlap and change.

While mobile technology makes us aware of our environment how do we tackle the massive amount of e-waste that it creates and leaves behind?

For me, three things must happen (and happen very soon). First, we need to create awareness of the massive amount of e-waste created by the mobile phones we purchase and then disregard. In the United States alone, consumers dispose of around 426,000 mobile phones per day and have done so since 2007. When I show people a visualization of that staggering number (I usually point people to the work of artist Chris Jordan and his Cell Phones, 2007 piece), they begin to grasp the urgency of our situation. Secondly, as a result of raised awareness, we need to transform our purchasing habits. I was in New York City when the new iPhone was released and the line to purchase one of the new phones looped around nearly six city blocks. There were thousands of people who had camped out to get the latest iPhone. This desire for the latest device drives our e-waste. We need to hold on to our phones longer (and get them repaired when they break) and put pressure on the mobile companies to have their operating systems work with older devices. The constant software updates that disable old devices is just another form of planned obsolescence. Lastly, we need to rethink the design of the mobile phone. I’m a huge fan of the “Phonebloks” idea, in which pieces of the phone get updated with the latest technological breakthrough (or style) rather than the entire phone. There are many ways for us to rethink how we purchase and use mobile phones as consumers and I urge designers to push our mobile phone culture in a direction that is more sustainable.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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