Thursday, June 17, 2004

Mobilities and computing: a few research questions

I've recently had to articulate what I think are interesting research possibilities in the realm of ubiquitous computing and people's experience of space and culture - and thought I'd share my thoughts here.

Given my recent travels, the first thing that comes to mind is Irish Traveller culture. I had assumed they were Galician gypsies, but it appears that Irish Travellers are culturally distinct. Regardless, their nomadic way of life remains poorly understood, and they continue to be marginalised and discriminated against by the relatively homogenous Irish "settled" culture. Since 1963, the Irish government has taken official steps to "fix the Traveller problem," and although many Travellers now live in settled communities, the government's assimilationist policies have failed at least to the extent that they are still considered socially- and ethically-suspect outsiders.

In a world that continues to position technologically-enabled mobility in terms of its liberating potential, I think we have ignored our less-than-accepting historical responses to mobile cultures and their relations to settled peoples. I would love to do research in Ireland in order to better understand Traveller culture and the issues they face. The cultural tensions between nomadism and settlements would no doubt offer unique perspectives on what is at stake in a world of mobility - and I would like to explore the possibilities of mobile computing to help bridge these differences, discontinuities and inequalities. (Conversely, I am also interested in what happens to non-mobile people in contexts where mobility is more highly valued.)

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Ever-skeptical, I am still not convinced that mobile computing will fundamentally alter the political agency of individuals and groups. Watching Six Feet Under the other day, I laughed out loud when one character said something along the lines of "He assumed he was a revolutionary just because he'd participated in a flash mob." Don't get me wrong, I can still feel the sting of when Howard Rheingold asked me why academics were so against people having fun! It's not that I'm against fun - I have pretty much organised my life around principles of play - but I can't bring myself to believe that technology equals freedom. Oh, I know it's not that simple; no one is going to say that and mean it. And it's not that I don't have hope (or is it faith?) But I feel compelled to counter the argument that mobile computing will necessarily enhance human agency. I believe the very best we can say is that it will change what is at play when we act, and I agree with Latour:

[A]n increasingly large number of humans are mixed with an increasingly large number of nonhumans, to the point that, today, the whole planet is engaged in the making of politics, law, and soon, I suspect, morality The nasty problem we now have to deal with is that, unfortunately, we do not have a definition of politics that can answer the specifications of this nonmodern history.

This suggests that mobile computing is, and will continue to be, embroiled in the lives of different people, places and objects. These embroilments / mangles / intertwinglings / assemblages both desire and produce particular relations and values. They build worlds big and small. And given the modern tendency to view the world in terms of functioning and discrete entities, instead of hybrids and broken messes, I believe that we do not currently have adequate means to evaluate and engage these worlds around us. And if we can't engage and evaluate them, then we have little agency.

Despite a long and torrid history, we lack a certain experience in our love affair with technology. Sometimes I suspect we are just selfish lovers with shallow intimacies.

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I think that the playful and creative possibilities of mobile technologies are only just beginning to be understood. Artists have been exploring these potentials for awhile, but there has been little systematic research done by anthropologists and sociologists on playful computing practices and how they relate to our everyday experiences of place. I would like to better understand what is at play in our technological experiences. And I would like to better understand how we play with mobile technologies.

Here, my interest really lies in exploring how people and playful technologies can build public spaces.

What is the role of play in world-building? What constitutes a ubiquitously-technologised public space? What public (political and ethical) challenges arise in our engagements with architecture, open space and each other? How do our practices slide between the virtual and the concrete, the abstract and the probable? What is our experience of the urban? How can playful technologies act to question our assumptions about the responsibilities of government and the rights of citizens? How might playful technologies encourage greater transparency and accountability? How can playful technologies create meaningful places for people to engage each other? What can playful technologies teach us about relations between designers, architects, technologists and the rest of us?

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Despite a substantial and growing body of knowledge around the use of mobile technologies by particular groups of people - such as Finnish and Japanese teenagers, mobile office workers, or third-world politicos - our understanding of place-based (rather than identity-based) uses of mobile tech remains rather limited. Research on the "wireless city" has tended to concentrate on urban planning and infrastructure and/or telecom policy, which is very useful, but does not really get at our everyday lives and experiences of place.

I particularly want to investigate places like social/public housing complexes or other ghettos and impoverished neighbourhoods, and look at how mobile technologies could (and do) impact our social and cultural relationships in (and with) these spaces. I believe that our too-often utopian (white, male, and upper-middle class) discourses on mobile technologies would greatly benefit from a better understanding of how mobility and mobile tech contribute to the creation of "us" and "other" - or "good" and "bad" places. If we stand any chance at diminishing the ill-effects of the digital divide getting past such limiting dichotomies, then we need to understand how these divisions differences continue to act in a world supposedly without boundaries. And as I suggested above, I am interested in how playful mobile technologies might bridge negotiate these differences and create new places and ways for people to be together.

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