Sunday, January 15, 2012

To upgrade or not to upgrade, or, can I research locative media without an iPhone?

I've recently been awarded an Australia Research Council award to do a project called The Politics of Location. (Yay!!) The project will be looking into the implications of new location-aware mobile media technologies for the governance of cities. I'm especially interested in how different applications of location-awareness across various fields (from art and advertising to protest and planning) are caught up in wider conflicts over the making of urban spaces. It seems to me that there's an emerging politics of location associated with these new technologies and their applications. As the project gets underway, there'll be lots more on this topic here into the future. But in the mean time, I have a decision to make...

Quite a few of my friends and workmates find it pretty funny that I've been entrusted with public money to research this particular topic. I don't have a Facebook account, I don't Tweet or check-in, and I'm still rocking a 2004-model mobile phone that is far from smart - no camera, no big screen, no music, and definitely no internet. It does have a torch light, though. (And hey, I do have a blog!)

My mobile phone...

Most of those same friends and workmates have gleefully assumed that to do this research I'll now have to 'give-in', buy a smart phone and load it up with a bevvy of apps in order to truly wrap my head around the possibilities of locative media and mobile internet.

I'm not sure. Do I?

Initially, I never made a principled decision not to sign up with MySpace (remember that??), Facebook, Twitter or other social media. I just wasn't particularly interested, and I already spend enough time on computers for work as it is. And as for my phone, the one I have sends texts and makes calls perfectly well, and it just kinda kept on working, so I had no need to replace it. I briefly considered replacing it last year when the battery finally gave up on me, but my Dad found me a replacement battery on eBay for $5.

As social media and new mobile phone/internet technologies have become more ubiquitous, my non-adoption of this stuff is increasingly interpreted as a deliberate and determined opposition to new technology. I'm frequently asked to justify why I haven't upgraded my old phone, or why I haven't got Facebook, etc. It seems to be assumed that if I haven't adopted all of these new technologies, I must have some kinda position against them.

If I'm faced with insistent questions along those lines, it's not too hard to offer a position to justify my (lack of) action. Sometimes I express concern about the intensification of work that seems to accompany mobile internet and email, or about the storage and/or profiling of digital data about me by corporations. Sometimes I wax lyrical about the importance of being lost every now and again. Sometimes I remind people that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Etc.

Now, I happen to think some of the above concerns are quite legitimate (at least to a point ... right now I'm blogging at the same time as looking after kids on a wi-fi enabled laptop through a Google-owned blog interface...). But if I'm honest, my non-adoption of these new media technologies is not actually informed by such concerns. My non-adoption of these technologies up to now has not been the product of a principled stance, just the result of inertia combined with a murky sense that I have other priorities for my time and money.

As it turns out, that inertia has actually given me scope to make an informed choice. Now that I've got this grant, it feels as though the time has come to think through some principles... or at least some reasons ... for going one way or the other.

If I let myself be guided by what's going to be best for the research project, at first look I can see a few pros and cons for upgrading to a location-aware mobile media device...

  • Maybe those who think I can't understand this stuff unless I have my own experience with it have a point! Getting to know the ins and outs of being 'on the grid' will surely be helpful in telling me something about both the possibilities of location-aware mobile media technologies, and the different ways they are woven into the fabric of everyday urban life for those who have access to them...
  • Part of my motivation for doing this research in the first place is a sense of excitement about some of the possibilities of location-aware mobile media technologies for progressive urban planning and politics. If I want to get involved in application-design for this purpose, having had some experience using such devices will probably be helpful in this regard. Not to mention the fact that I'll have no credibility if I'm sitting in a team-meeting with some designers and pull out my current phone...! 

  • I'm not actually trying to research the individual experience of urban life for users of location-aware mobile media devices. I'm trying to understand the ways in which various applications of these technologies are being put to work by different actors involved in urban governance and politics. The are related, but different. As such, I'm not sure how important it really is that I have personal experience with this stuff. It doesn't seem essential in order for me to be able to understand and analyse someone else's account of what they are trying to do with it...
  • Even if I was trying to research the user experience, there's a risk that if I become a frequent user of these technologies, I'll universalise my own experience with location-aware mobile media in my research. I think this is a trap that some folks from the computer/design disciplines sometimes fall into when they write on this topic.
  • As a non-adopter of some of these media technologies, they remain productively 'strange' to me (at least to some degree), and this is not a bad position to be researching from. Indeed, as a non-adopter, I quite like the kinds of conversations I get into with people who are designers and/or users of these technologies, which are often very demonstrative as they fire up their devices and take me through a particular application step-by-step. When some folks express surprise that I can live without one, it's a great pretext for a conversation about how they live with one.

So, none of the above is particularly deep or original ... in some ways this is just a variant on the old 'insider/outsider' dilemma for researchers. If anyone has any pros or cons to add to the list, let me know. Meanwhile, time for me to hit some methods books for guidance...