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Locating the Mobile: An Ethnographic Investigation into Locative Media in Melbourne, Bangalore and Shanghai

Posted by Larissa Hjorth and Genevieve Bell at Mar 23, 2012 04:15 AM |
From Google maps, geoweb, GPS (Global Positioning System), geotagging, Foursquare and Jie Pang, locative media is becoming an integral part of the smartphone (and shanzhai or copy) phenomenon. For a growing generation of users, locative media is already an everyday practice.

The transition from the analogue to the digital, from dial-up to broadband internet access was dramatic in how it changed our notions of space, catalysing new ways of thought and practice. In the case of locative media the uptake is more accelerated with it already engaging more than ten times those involved in the analogue-digital transition. The spread and usage of locative media is fast and promises to produce an even more dramatic transformation as the net becomes portable and pervasive.

As yet we know little about the impact locative media is having, and will have upon people’s livelihoods and identity, or on public policy around privacy, identity, security and cultural production. Discourse in the field has opened up questions of art, innovation and experimentation (de Souza e Silva & Sutko 2009; Hjorth 2010, 2011). However, there remains a dearth of nuanced research on locative media that provides in-depth, contextual accounts of its socio-cultural and political dimensions. Little work has been conducted into locative media as it migrates from art and into the ‘messy’ (Dourish & Bell 2011) area of the everyday.

Locating the Mobile seeks to address this knowledge gap by undertaking close studies of locative media in three locations—Bangalore, Melbourne and Shanghai. We aim to capture and analyse the multiplicities of locative media practice emerging in both developed and developing contexts. 

These three locations have relatively high smartphones (or copies like shanzhai) usage and are indicative of twenty-first century migration, diaspora and transnational practices. As one of the leading regions for mobile media innovation (Hjorth 2009; Bell 2005; Miller & Horst 2005), the various contested localities in the Asia-Pacific provide a rich and complex case study for mobile media as it moves into locative media. The three locations also show how the presence of digital and internet technologies is ‘flattening’ the globalised landscape and bringing about dramatic changes in the ways in which these cities shape and develop (Shah 2010). We consider how place informs locative media practices and how, in turn, these practices are shaping new narratives of place. 

Locating the Mobile seeks to collect and analyse some of the emergent, tacit, innovative and ‘making-do’ practices informing the rise, and resistance to, locative media. Drawing on pertinent issues for the present and future of locative media, Locating the Mobile aims to:

  1. Pioneer and develop models and templates for comprehending the implications of locative media.
  2. Develop a nuanced and situated understanding of locative media as part of cultural practice.
  3. Provide, through multi-site analysis, new insights into the impact of locative media upon narratives of place and belonging.
  4. Develop socio-cultural understandings of the role locative media plays in notions of intimacy and privacy.

By bringing together an expert team that represent a commitment to probing the social, cultural and community dimensions of technological innovation, Locating the Mobile will develop methodologies that capture the dynamic and mundane features of this emergent media practice. By doing so, Locating the Mobile will move beyond binary debates about surveillance and privacy or ‘parachute’ case studies of locative art towards nuanced and complex understandings of locative media and its implication for future cultural practices.

Significance and Innovation

The nascent field of locative media is impacting upon cultural practice, place-making and policy in ways we can only imagine. While much analysis has been conducted in mobile media (Goggin & Hjorth 2009) and experimental forms of locative media/art (de Souza e Silva & Sutko 2009), the increased ubiquity of locative media through devices such as the smartphone will undoubtedly transform the way in which place and mobility is articulated. Locating the Mobile seeks to substantially expand and contextualise upon the burgeoning area of locative media through a variety of innovative and significant ways.

Locating the Mobile is original in its topic, method, outcomes and industry collaboration. Firstly, it is significant in that it brings depth and innovation to the emergent area of locative media, and its impact upon discourses around mobile media in ideas of mobility and place-making. In the face of parachute nature of many locative art research (de Souza e Silva & Sutko 2009), Locating the Mobile is one of the first studies internationally to explore locative media over time in specific locations. Secondly, it deploys a variety of methods (such as surveys, focus groups, interviews and diaries for scenario of use, overlaid with data-mining) across different devices (mobile phone, iPad) and platforms (Foursquare, Jie Pang) to analyse the local and socio-cultural dimensions of use. With its team of experts in mobile media (Hjorth, Bell and Horst), communication for development (C4D) (Tacchi and Shah), gaming (Hjorth), social networking (Shah, Zhou and Hjorth) as well as a range of methodologies, this three-year study will investigate and contextualise locative media in Bangalore, Melbourne and Shanghai. Despite its ubiquity in many locations in the Asia-Pacific region, much of the locative media literature remains Anglophonic or Eurocentric in focus. Thirdly, through multi-site analysis of locative media practices we will provide innovative ways in which to reflect upon narratives of place, belonging and transnationalism. Fourthly, by pioneering the first multi-site analysis of locative media over time, Locating the Mobile will develop the much missing socio-cultural understandings of locative media and how it impacts upon intimacy and privacy upon individual, group and policy levels. We will now detail these four key areas of significance and innovation. We will pioneer and develop models and templates for comprehending the implications of locative media. In these models we actively address locative media in the transnational context of contemporary feelings about belonging, possession, mobility, migration, and dislocation. As locative media becomes more pervasive, the power of its banality needs further understanding beyond ‘global’ generalisations (see Like the rise of mobile media that was accompanied by the ‘subversive user’ (Hjorth 2009), we need to figure out the digital subject who is shaped—both historically and socio-culturally—through the pervasive spread of locative media. As Gabriella Coleman (2010) observes in her review of ethnographic approaches to digital media, there are three main overlapping categories: research on the relationship between digital media and the cultural politics of media; the vernacular cultures of digital media; the prosaics of digital media (and this attention to the commonplace, the unromantic, the quotidian). In the case of locative media, ethnographic approaches—emphasising the situated, vernacular and prosaic—are needed in order to understand the relocations of mobility across a variety notions: technological, electronic and psychological to name a few. Moreover, given the relatively high proportion of Indian and Chinese migrants in Melbourne—and migration in Bangalore and Shanghai—exploring locative media can provide new models for conceptualising the impact of migration, diaspora, and transnationalism on place.

We will develop a nuanced and situated understanding of locative media as part of cultural practice through methods that deploy both qualitative (ethnographic) and quantitative (datamining) approaches such as ‘ethno-mining’ (Anderson et al. 2009). With the emergence of ethnomining approaches—that is, data-based mining combined with ethnography—new models for analysing media and mobility can be found. Locating the Mobile addresses this need for innovative methodologies that capture the dynamic nature of locative media by situating it within three legacies: social, cultural and historical mediatisation. Further, Locating the Mobile seeks to frame locative media as evolving through the cultural precepts informing mobile media and urbanity LP120200829 (Submitted to RO) Dr Larissa Hjorth PDF Created: 16/11/2011 Page 8 of 123 discourses. Drawing upon case studies from a region renowned for divergent and innovative use of mobile media (Hjorth 2009) and gaming (Hjorth & Chan 2009)—the Asia-Pacific—Locating the Mobile seeks to understand the lived and local dimensions of locative media and how it can inform emergent and older forms of place-making, belonging and migration. By focusing upon this nascent but burgeoning area in global mobile media practice—locative media—Locating the Mobile not only places Australia as a forerunner in innovative, original, and challenging methodologies for new media, but also, by bringing together key industry partners, Intel, CIS and Fudan University,

Locating the Mobile seeks to contextualise the research in terms of industry and community outcomes. In this sense, Locating the Mobile clearly addresses the National Priority 3, Frontier Technologies (see below for more details).

We will provide, through multi-site analysis, new insights into the impact of locative media upon narratives of place and belonging through our three case study locations—Melbourne, Bangalore and Shanghai. Locative media can provide new models for conceptualising the impact of migration, diaspora, and transnationalism on place. Although place has always mattered to mobile media (Ito 2003; Bell 2005; Hjorth 2003), locative media both amplify, redirect and redefine practices around place, community and a sense of belonging—phenomenon that impacts upon cultural policy and media regulation (Goggin 2011). Along with the digital interfaces that overlay our physical experiences as we enter into a state of augmented reality (AR), the presence of these cartographic, geospatial locative platforms also changes the ways in which the cities and how we navigate with them (Shah 2010). With the rise of locative media like Google maps we are seeing new ways to frame and narrate a sense of place through various technological lenses overlaying the social with the informational. This phenomenon is especially the case with smartphones and their plethora of applications (apps) drawing heavily upon locative media—even most photo apps come with locative media. With locative media we see the arrival of increased accessibility to augmented
reality (AR). Instead of replacing the analogue with the digital, the physical with the virtual, they open up ‘hybrid realities’ (a term used by de Souza e Silva to describe AR mobile games) that need new conceptual tools and located frameworks to unravel the dynamics. We are no longer looking at just the technology mediated hypervisual digitality but also exploring what these locative media augment and simulate in everyday practices.

We will develop socio-cultural understandings of the role locative media plays in notions of intimacy and privacy and how we might comprehend locative media’s implications on individual and cultural practices, and regulation. In the second generation of locative media that sees it move increasingly into the mainstream, questions about security, privacy and identity—and how these are shaped by the local—come into focus (Dourish & Anderson 2006). For Dourish and Anderson (2006) locative media can been viewed as a form of ‘Collective Information Practice’ that have social and cultural implications upon how privacy and security are conceptualised. For others such as Siva Vaidhyanathan (2011) locative media like Google maps and street views are about a corporate surveillance. As a burgeoning field of media practice intersecting daily life, there is a need for in-depth situated accounts into locative media and their cultural-economic dimensions to understand the impact they will have on intimacy, privacy, identity and place-making. In Locating the Mobile, by developing and implementing new hybrid models for analysing locative media (Anderson et al. 2009), we consider the role locative media plays in how place shapes, and is shaped by, these practices and the future implications around cultural policy. The comparative dimension brings a rich data-set to bear on our understanding of locative media and the questions it may pose in the future. The outputs are significant not only for Australian mobile communication, gaming and internet studies—by providing a regional context for evaluating the socio-technologies—but also demonstrates internationally Australia’s lead in ground-breaking research into locative media (Priority 3, ‘frontier technologies’) in arguably the most significant sites for global ICTs production and consumption, the Asia-Pacific.

National Research Priorities: With the rise of smartphones becoming ubiquitous, location-based services have burgeoned. And yet, little is known about this area and its impact upon individuals, LP120200829 (Submitted to RO) Dr Larissa Hjorth PDF Created: 16/11/2011 Page 9 of 123 organisations and governments. Given this phenomenon, a comprehensive understanding of the impact upon locative media upon notions of privacy, identity and place-making is needed. In the twenty-first century, locative media will become an increasingly important part of everyday life—for individuals, communities, businesses and government agencies. Thus it is imperative that we have a robust comparative understanding of locative media in Australia and across the region. By conceptualising this impact within the context of the region, Locating the Mobile ensures Australia is at the frontier of new technologies and their impact upon future technological practices and policies. Such an understanding is fundamental to Australia’s technology and cultural sectors, thus contributing to National Research Priority 3 through one of the strongest currencies in twenty-first century global market, mobile media, as well as contributing to the broader long-term project of locating Australia in the region. By drawing on qualitative, cross-cultural longitudinal research into locative media, Locating the Mobile will document, analysis and provide future recommendations for how locative media is impacting upon people’s experience of place and identity. A study like this is important as it is innovative for not only pioneering methodologies to evaluate this media phenomenon but also to understand some of its long-term implications on how mobile media intervenes and even reconfigures experiences and perceptions of place which, in turn, impact upon cultural policy.

Collaborators: Larissa Hjorth (RMIT University, Melbourne), Genevieve Bell (Intel, Shanghai)