Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008

Phones, Bubbles, Go

I found this weeks readings particularly interesting because of the way they resonated with my current areas of research; particularly, Greenfield and Shepard’s text of urban ubiquitous computing stood out to me. There are so many great moments in that text that tie together a lot of what I’ve been studying on my own (the Situationist “derive”, personal space metaphors, games, urban screens), as well as what we’ve been discussing in class (getting lost, pervasive gaming, reactive architecture, among other things). I’m going to draw a lot of abstract connections and personal anecdotes now, like how Bruce Sterling’s discussion of “ARPHIDS” and coding relates really strongly with a recent lecture in our department from artist Beatriz Da Costa. Her work critically examines a lot of these ideas of privacy, consumerism and mediation in urban contexts. She is even referenced in Greenfield and Shepard’s text.
The Michael Bull text (also referenced in “Urban Computing and its Discontents”), delves heavily into how we mentally construct private space in public settings. The “personal bubble” metaphor referenced here, introduces the concept of alienation, which Bull expands upon in his examination of the “dialectic relationship” between mediating communication technologies and the non-spaces of urban culture. In his discussion of mediated proximity and intimacy, he relies heavily on mobile phones, automobiles and personal music players to construct his argument. Throughout the text, I kept returning to the thought of social networking websites as an equally perfect metaphor for alienation. Bull doesn’t even introduce this idea, because his approach to the problem is explicitly from the perspective of aural perception. But I think his thesis works just as well for the social networking paradigm. Our need for intimacy and connection drives our curiosity and willingness to engage in social networks, but ironically causes us to be alienated and alone, in a room at a computer rather that actually doing anything social. To return to mobile phones, I was interested in the idea of privatizing or “colonizing” space that he introduces: “[…] users of mobile phones in the street transform representational space into their own privatized space as they converse with absent others”. I had to laugh out loud at this concept, as it reminded me all too well, of my new favorite game: “Crazy, or Bluetooth?” Playing this game in Los Angeles is more fun that anywhere else i’ve ever lived. I’m sure you can infer the rules of play. This idea of “bubbles” also reminded me of an image from one of my all-time favorite animations, Rene Laloux’s 1973 classic, Le Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet).
The metaphor of personal bubbles is key to Laloux’s story, about a race of humanoid aliens who keep homo-sapiens as pets. The aliens foster a cultural obsession with meditation, which is visualized above. In meditation, their spirits drift off in bubbles to a forbidden planet to gain “vital energy” through metaphysical intimacy with one another. This film is made well before the pervasiveness of cellular phones, but the similarity to this idea of remote intimacy is really interesting.
There’s one other connection I’d like to make, involving Kenichi Fujimoto’s concept of the mobile phone as territory machine: “capable of transforming any space—a subway train seat, a grocery store aisle, a street corner—into one’s own room and personal paradise.” (37). Similar to Bull’s text, Mark Shepard quotes Fujimoto in order to discuss the concept of privatizing urban space. I’ll spare the diversion into Shepard and Greenfield’s criticisms of architectural and media art related attempts to address the potential of pervasive media technologies. That’s a whole other discussion. Instead, I’d just like to focus on this idea of “territory”, because it’s a simple and conceptually beautiful idea that i’ve been exploring in a lot of my own work. I’d like to draw a connection here to the ancient game of Go as a similar metaphor for territorial procurement, personal space and ephemerality. In Go, black and white stones are played intermittently on a grid. Each player attempts to carve out a certain amount of “territory” for him/herself and simultaneously surround and alienate the opponent (occasionally even surrounding opponents’ stones and removing them). Go is often used as a metaphor for conflict, or simply appreciated as the visualization of a contest between two minds. For some reason, reading this text kept reminding me of my personal interest in the game: “the iPod becomes a tool for organizing space, time, and the boundaries around the body in public space” (36).
The connection isn’t terribly strong, I know, but in my mind i’m drawing a lot of loose relationships between Go, cellular automata and complexity science, movement patterns of people in public spaces, and the readings’ discussion of alienating technologies and private space in urban settings. Hopefully we can expand on this more tomorrow.

Blog at