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The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies

by Jason Farman, Editor
Routledge, NY, NY, 2013
326 pp. Trade, $125.00; paper, $35
ISBN: 978-0-415-64148-7; ISBN: 978-0-415-70728-2.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Like Hypertext a quarter century ago, mobile phones now offer artist-designers new avenues of creativity, by rooting narratives created by various means in the user's own location, immediately determined by the phone's GPS.  This book introduces us to some pioneering projects over the past decade and spells out the design issues involved, sometimes learned through their creators’ trial and error.

The first section of The Mobile Story gives us instances of narrative and site-specific authorship.  Editor Jason Farman notes the use (or creative misuse) of mobile technology for site-specific uses, like virtual urban markups, to introduce the chapters that follow.  Brett Oppegaard and Dene Grigar (the latter the Associate Editor for Leonardo Reviews) give us the case study of mobile media storytelling at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.  They grew aware of the challenges, affordances, interrelationships and opportunity for intermediality in designing their narratives.  Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith describe location and location-aware mobile interfaces that "re-narrate" the city and the spatial trajectories within, creating location-based social networks (LBSNs) for Mexico City and Cardiff.

The second section focuses on design and practice, where Jeff Ritchie explores affordances and constraints, whether physical, semantic, cultural or logical, and notes how spatial storytelling may require wayfinding nodes (physical or digital) and narrative bridges to make sense or give the user satisfaction.  Mark Sample recounts the history of the Global Positional System to the TRANSIT and NAVSTAR satellites of past decades, finally assembling into modern, ubiquitous GPS about twenty years ago.  But, he asks, how might a secret, compelling story of a space be created by installing "haunts" in it?

Susan Kozel and collaborators write of a "Dancing With Twitter," where a dance score is composed with Twitter, a social choreography of "body tweets" assembled out of 140-character notes on moments of body awareness.  John F. Barber likens the participant in a mobile media soundscape to a nineteenth-century flaneur navigating a great city like Paris (or in his example, Los Angeles), appreciating a reclaimed, repurposed and re-utilized narrative archeology.

Section three's focus on space and mapping begins with Didem Ozkul and David Gauntlett's instances of cognitive maps and sketch maps, illustrated with maps conceived and drawn by project users.  Designers of locative projects are challenged with the proper application of an over-arching plot to the mobile narratives in London.  Lone Koefoed Hansen finds lessons applicable to GPS-tracked social narratives in intellectual predecessors like Rem Koolhaas' essay The Gereric City, Michel Certeau's textual metaphors of urban embodiment, and the Situationists' "psychogeographies" mapped in the 1950s by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn.  Esther Polak's projects in the Netherlands effectively used spatial mapping: "Amsterdam REALtime" (2002) showed selected citizens' daily progress onscreen, and "MILK project" (2003) mapped the creation of Dutch cheese.  A later Polak project "NomadicMILK" followed African dairy transports.

Paula Levine teaches in San Francisco State University's Conceptual/Information Arts program, while her  tactical media practices critique various power structures.  Levine’s "San Francisco <-> Baghdad" was created in response to the US invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.  She notes empathic narratives recently created in the spatial dissonance between different political systems' maps, as in the "Transborder Immigrant Tool" project that gave phones to undocumented border-crossers from Mexico to help them find water, or Paul Rademacher's "The Gulf Oil Spill" (2010), which mapped onto other geographic locations for comparison.  In Levine's own "The Wall-The World" (2011) where the West Bank security wall is mapped upon the location of the user's own phone.

The fourth section looks at mobile games. Ben S. Bunting Jr. appreciates geocaches, things left in specific places and duly mapped in order to be found, as means of ultimately unmapping and remapping a location's hegemonic narratives.  Hybrid gameworlds and location-based mobile games (LBMGs) are changing storytelling, asserts Bunting, who helped design and implement a murder mystery game "University of Death" in 2009.  Rowan Wilken appreciates narrative location games created by the British media collective Blast Theory, like their "Uncle Roy All Around You" (2003) and "Rider Spoke" (2007), whose stories enhanced with geotags might deal with unseen strangers that play upon our anomie and estrangement.

Bryan Alexander notes how game-based storytelling often works best in short, interstitial" bursts that fit the stalled moments of urban life (i.e., waiting for a subway train or bus).  This gaming medium has changed under mobile connectivity, especially with augmented reality with images and text, or full interactive 3D displays, upon the user's phone.  Marc Ruppel give instances of non-locative transmedia fictions, in which the mobile phone is only one of the devices used to navigate the narrative.  NBC's "Heroes" (2005-2009) employed television episodes, graphic novels, online web stories and mobile phones.  We escape "the permanent present" when we enter these narratives.

Section five examines narrative interfaces. The phenomena of the text-message novel is noted by Gerard Goggin and Caroline Hamilton, while Larissa Hjorth notes the rich user-created content in mobile novels, or keitai shosetsu popular with high school women (shojo) as a part of never-grow-up youth (kawaii) culture in Japan.  Jennifer Chatsick Rhonda McEwen, Anne Zbitnew write on the often-nonlinear narratives of adults with intellectual disabilities, constructed graphically upon their iPads.

The final section memory, on history and community, begins with Alberto S. Galindo on the creation of the app for the September 11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan, the former site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers, and the challenge of creating something appropriate and not tasteless. Similarly, Clair Ross's team enhanced museum narrative to better experience the UCL's Grant Museum.  Marc C. Marino's essay reflects on alternative community storytelling, the many-voiced heteroglossia and polyphonic narratives jostling for attention, to include those of day laborers and Los Angeles residents in crisis.

I was hesitant to assign it to my summer Mobile Application graduate class in our university's Digital Media program when, unaware of its $35 paperback version, I saw its price was $125.  This book should be in the hands of students, and the publisher's website has links to ebook resellers, but not, it appears, to any for this book.  The dilemma of a politically progressive publisher and the realities of the costs of moving paper products around the world is, in Nicholas Negroponte's memorable phrase, one of moving atoms (with significant mass) not bits, from location to location.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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