I’m writing on my doctorate at the University of Technology, Vienna. My advisor is Prof. Peter Mörtenböck at the Visual Culture Unit of the architecture department. In the last semester I took a field trip to New York (US) and Damascus (Syria) in order to do research on ”Female Developers of Interactive Technology in Public Space”.
Together with three other candidates, Karin Reisinger, Amila Sirbegovic and Nada Zerzer I organized an international conference called:
space RE:solutions. Intervention and Research in Visual Culture
It took place in Vienna, 21-23 October 2010 and made me think completely different about the field and context I’m working in.
Please check out the website I made to read more about our keynotes, presented papers and our international participants:
At the moment I’m working on an article for a book published by SKuOR: Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space:
THIS IS ONLY A DRAFT:
Creating mobile media and social change
In this article I will first situate the question of how social communication via mobile media informs practices in real space. I will juxtapose examples from mainstream culture with projects dealing with emerging cultural needs and social conflicts in public spaces by creating new interfaces of interaction between virtual and real space. Next I will describe agency accumulated through tools of mobile media and Open Source Software changing social practices in civil society. In the last part I will discuss how active appropriation of mobile phones and location based applications can be implemented into current teaching curricula of pedagogics at architecture and planning faculties.
Digital Social Practice
Most adolescents perceive their mobile phone as a private, intimate space they can arrange for themselves. They adapt it to their needs and store personal media like songs, games, images and applications. This way mobile media functions more and more as a vehicle for self-representation. It is used to express positioning within the context of a specific youth culture and naturally as a tool to communicate with peers. Digital culture can facilitate platforms of exchange and a micro-public (Hjorth, 2002) to perform in. At the same time specifically mobiles allow a culture of sharing: sharing songs, games, photos or applications is part of adolescents’ daily routine. When the device is a smart phone, such as an android, own applications can be created and powerful interactions generated with little amount of skill. Hence, smart phones provide access to the internet and therefore open a wide spectrum of networked applications.
This sounds like a new toy for the rich, but by now mobile phone penetration vastly exceeds internet usage or landline connections. Two thirds of all mobile accounts are registered in the developing world. People increasingly use the mobile phone for health services, e.g. as a reminder to take HIV medication. Mobiles in developing regions also gain importance in handling microcredits, since SIM cards serve as an alternative identification card to prove ones identity. For example in rural areas of India or other places where ID cards are rare, but necessary for banking. Textmessaging systems, informing remote living farmers about current market prices and storages in regions without landlines or internet, have become quite successful in stabilizing food supply, as well as disburdening distribution and marketing for small entrepreneurs.
Certainly communication via mobile phone has changed structures of power in unexpected ways, e.g. dating culture of young Lebanese women, as I experienced during a research semester in Lebanon. As a less regulated form of communication, mobiles offer the opportunity to talk any person, independent on religion and status, which leads to a decrease in the family’s influence in choosing a spouse based on these categories. And finally it changes the way industrial countries are exposed to information on political changes, as observed during the elections in Iran, that had been shaped by the new role of social media in combination with civic journalism.
Only recently the Wikileaks scandal has once more highlightened, that rules of virtual space are not only influencing structures of power in public, but are actually challenging laws in our real world societies in unforeseen ways, irritating normative views and demanding adaptations and changes. Being aware of this dynamic we can apply it on academic research processes as a new perspective on public space. How can mobile media create change when it comes to specific mutual relations between people and places?
There are hundreds of iPhone and Android applications using GPS, tagging systems or location tracking. They collect real time data on employees or even friends and potential lovers – informing users where a person, employee or crew is located and what they are experiencing or struggling with. Mainly these application were developed for the purpose of increased productivity, networking or social capital. Yet, similar software developed by people for their own community, notably through Open Source Software, can be a tool for planing, dealing with social conflicts or cultural needs. Building a counter-network (O`Sullivan, 2009), generates relations, can produce knowledge and form connectivity. A shared augmented reality that strategically moves beyond borders and restrictions. Already the awareness of it’s influence can create new forms of agency (Shirky, 2008). The trend towards Open Source Software on phones explains why home grown tactics emerge right next to off-the-shelf solutions in increased number. As there is Open Source Mobile Phone Software, there will be Open Source Hardware soon, pushing aside proprietary devices. This makes it possible for individuals as amateurs and non-professionals to create and develop technology for themselves, their individual situation and challenge, independent from general market demands and mainstream culture. The DIY (Do-It-Yourself) character of these approaches can be supported, fostered and enhanced by existing structures, collaborating professionals and assisting institutions.
Interactive Mobile Media: Hands-On
Therefore I find it necessary to implement these new developments into current teaching curricula or pedagogics at architecture and planning faculties. I would propose programming environments as Mobile Processing or the Android Software Development Kit that were made for amateurs and can be used as an accessible tool for basic, but rich prototypes. Students quickly learn to create an application using these coding environments. Since they are designed for beginners, Software Development Kits break down programming languages like Java into easily digestible snippets and intuitively understandable elements. Programming language becomes material to build ideas with. Uploading the code to a phone turns it into an empowering playground, in which in-built sensors, as the accelerometer (telling you how fast you move and on which axis), GPS, the compass or the microphone of your phone can be re-used, hacked or retooled with a new function. Students can quickly connect their phone to a website, a database or social media platform in order to receive or transmit project relevant (e.g. site specific, economical, historical) data via their self made application.
Students who fear to be overwhelmed by the mere thought of dealing with code, can take a different approach in creating useful platforms. I suggest they explore the use of the inbuilt video-, photo camera or voice recorder for participatory research. Or experiment with distributing stickers with telephone numbers, that let the user listen to specific sound recordings on specific places in the public. An artist doing exactly that is Mushon Zer-Aviv. His project You Are Not There, Dislocative Tourism Agency, takes place in the streets of one city and invites participants to become meta-tourists of another city. Participants simply download a map, take their phone and go tour the sights of another city by calling a tourist guide on specific sites. An automated voice on the phone will tell them what they would see if they would be standing on the exact same spot in the other city. This project was realised twice: “Gaza through the streets of Tel Aviv“ and “Baghdad through the streets of New York“. Juxtaposing these cities connected through conflict and war, creates a momentum of empathy and sense of connectivity for a place that otherwise remains abstract and othered.
Another way for students to gain hands-on experience in creating new interfaces between virtual and real spaces is using QR Codes: little images that can get downloaded from the internet create a connection between your phone and outside content. If the user takes a picture of the image with her mobile phone camera, she will receive a specific text message, will get automatically linked to a website, a text, an image or even connected to a phone number, depending on the concept of the project. An example of this technology would be the “Urban Speaker” designed by Venezuelan artist Carlos J. Gomez de Llarena, in New York City’s East Village. People passing the neighbourhood could get their voice heard across Tompkins Square Park. Participants who called a specific number reached a mobile phone hooked up to an amplifier and loudspeaker, their messages were immediately broadcast. A QR code helped to get more information about the project. “Anyone could call the number and had 60 seconds to speak into a voicemail service, and then the message was sent out over the loudspeaker.“ the artist said.
Of course these lighthearted projects don’t even tangle what pervasive computing technologies can achieve if embedded in architecture and how a successful marriage of the two is going to affect our daily lives. But even through experimenting with rather straight forward projects, students get encouraged to become planers, developers and agents of interfaces between the virtual and the real, rather than mere consumers (Noble, J., 2009) and experience the powerful influence these interfaces can take if they create a public. The aim of experimentation with making adaptations and applications with mobile phones are unexpected encounters, new forms of presence and potentially facilitating new relations and alliances – basically creating exit criteria for public space.
Interfacing real space and digital space
When it comes to specific needs in a community and if these newly created relations are formed through the agency of individuals, is there a way urban planers can/should channel agency of inhabitants?
I understand the term ‘agency’ as social practice and intervention, that is informed by available opportunities of change and the threshold of possible individual decision taking within existing structures. The sum of individual’s agency can in my eyes be described as civil society. As equal partners in dealing with social conflicts, planers and inhabitants strive to improve situations together. The virtual space offers an expandable environment for elements in social processes we miss in real space. Concepts of social processes in real space differ from virtual ones through it’s inclusiveness and the important role of the imagined (Appadurai, A., 2005). Experiencing a satisfying collaboration and participaty action on a shared interface installed in public space can create a sense of orientation and belonging among inhabitants, consequently enabling satisfying collaborative practices in real space.
A young man who lives in one of the social housing buildings in Monte Laa told us, that the first conversations he had with his neighbours occurred online. He had founded an online forum to discuss issues and ideas concerning Monte Laa, the area he currently lives in. Deciding for the forum’s name already gave reason for intense discourse on this forum, with the important result that the online conversations sparked meetings in real space. Through learning and playing with interfaces that allow new forms of self expression and communication beyond screen and keyboard this effect can be amplifyed. By changing parameters in a game and inventing new rules, adults as kids develop curiosity, as well as trust and become finally less hesitant towards conversations offline. The obsession kids feel towards their toy is triggered by the inherent need to solve a problem, to tell a story, to change into someone else. This is what causes enthusiasm, participation and will instigate initiative if implemented into the interface wisely.
“The image, the imagined, the imaginary – these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global cultural processes: the imagination as a social practice.”
We conducted workshops in Monte Laa, applying these new tools. We expected to find ways for playfully developing agency and insight on the mobile device and aimed to translate this agency and insight back into real space to re-formulate social practice. In Monte Laa this move did not feel artificial or forced upon the situation: kids, aged 6-12 naturally told us about the way they use their phones as playground rather than using the public space as playground. Although they were physically present on the main square of Monte Laa, the girls we interviewed were focusing all creative energies in collecting songs, games and images on their phones and sharing them. When we started to collect and broadcast their songs, play their games and develop new applications with them, the girls quickly came up with own ideas that again informed the rules they were confronted with in the restricted public space of Monte Laa. Interventions by kids in public space were drawing inspiration from behaviour patterns developed and experienced in digital space and vice versa.
A project that tried to make use of this mechanism is the artist Tim Stutts’ livelyHoods project. This mobile phone game facilitated children …”to explore perceptions of community by drawing a map of their neighbourhood, composed of the static structures and moving bodies that are part of their day to day experience.” By accessing the livelyHood site via cellphone, children could generate tiny city maps on their phones, place photos and text as a form of social commentary to their neighbourhood. They documented the way they perceive their surroundings and then shared the comments on a larger display within a web gallery. In the artist’s opinion it allows new forms of articulation and instigates a shifted awareness about inhabiting and owning space, if maps are drawn on the actual site they display, producting subjectivity and critical confrontation with the neighbourhood. Unfortunately the project livelyHoods did not take the next step to plan interventions in public space based upon the kids’ tags, visualisation and self-made maps, whose paths, playgrounds, WLAN spots and similar territorial interpretations could have made a helpful database for urban planers.
Mobile spaces for female users
The feminist grass root organisation “Take Back the Tech” on the intersection between communication rights and women’s human rights, emphasizes the role of mobile phones in creating safe digital spaces, and tries to use the medium for instigating and documenting young activists’ urban interventions. “Mobile phones, especially now that even basic handsets incorporate camera and recording capabilities, are excellent tools for documenting violence and harassers.“ suggests their website. “It is a call to everyone – especially women and girls – to take control of technology to end violence against women.“ Take Back the Tech encourages girls and young women to use their phones to film conflicts in public space or articulate what happened to themselves by telling their story to their mobile video camera and uploading the video to a website. The isolating situation of having become a victim is transformed by the act of becoming visible to and part of an online community. Digital space turns into an accessible platform for getting your voice out and hearing stories from the margins. The aim to “create safe digital spaces that protect everyone’s right to participate freely, without harassment or threat to safety“ can consequently instigate attention by a larger audience, “Realise women’s rights to shape, define, participate, use and share knowledge, information and ICT“.
In the 1990ies Cyberfeminists like Donna Haraway introduced Cyborg theory thinking digital spaces as utopias for people extended by machines. Bodies were understood as expanded and integrated with emerging technologies and there was an idealistic expectation towards the feminist potential of cyber space. When Sadie Plant wrote about the effects of mobile telephones on social and individual life in 2001, her feministic view by then was already more pragmatic:
“In Bangkok, prostitutes and dancers have found that the mobile phone allows them to make more independent and private arrangements with clients and potential customers: for them, the mobile has become an empowering device.“
In another chapter she points out that “Circulations of commodities, money and information have also gained a new sense of momentum, and even people who go nowhere face new instabilities as traditional structures of employment, family, community, and cultural life are disrupted. The mobile encourages such movements, and helps to repair the connections they may break. In this, as in so many other ways, mobile technology shapes and is shaped in turn by the world in which it is evolving, and becomes a potent symbol of the cultural shifts at work across the 21st-century world.”
The newest generation of techno-feminists has experienced mobile violence, reports on “happy slappings”, how mobile phones where used to distribute humiliating videos of women filmed by their ex-boyfriends and other forms of mobile harassment, which has lead to a rather sober perceptive, adapting technology to their personal needs and utilizing it as tactical media in real life. Many groups build autonomous small cells of activists for site specific projects with specific aims and goals. These nodal points are seemingly resistant to distributed models of organisation and they practice quite centralized organizational structures, while at the same time building rhizome-like distributed networks of supporters online.
This autonomous yet facilitated interaction of multiple synchronous users is a new form of social process. If created in a sustainable way, it can be used as a tool for dealing with emerging cultural needs, such as the inclusion of under-represented groups and dialogue between groups stuck in dynamics of “othering”, as well as local groups that are separated by social restrictions. Installations that are continuesly sourcing, sharing and transmitting information from mobile phones in a problematic area are transforming the perception of the larger community. This way issues relevant to the lives of ordinary people will become visible and heard on a higher political level. In the ideal case such platforms, displays or distribution systems of locally stored, collected or generated content would be already implemented into the architecture of a living area, a social housing complex or a public square. That is why, in my opinion again, we should not hesitate to implement location based mobile media into the teaching curricula of architecture and planning faculties. It is unavoidable to think, design and create interfaces to the digital space while working in public space. The openness of tools, networks and devices needs to be pushed further on an academic level in order to provide accessibility to marginalized groups that otherwise would not benefit from similar technologies. Mobile Media development should be taken advantage of in order to improve living conditions, transmit information, share knowledge and facilitate social practice in increasingly complex and ever so fluid technoscapes (Appadurai, 2005). Although my perspective on this issue is an external one, I would strongly recommend to embrace the new set of tools described above and include it into teaching curricula that are encouraging students to think innovatively, politically and out of the box.
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PROJECTS AND NGOS:
Zer-Aviv, Mushon, 2006, New York, You are not there.
Take Back The Tech