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Mobile Interface Theory:  Embodied Space and Locative Media

by Jason Farman
Routledge Press, NY, NY, 2011
172 pp. Trade, $150.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-87890-6; ISBN: 978-0-415-87891-3.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Just a few short months after Mobile Interface Theory was published, the Apple Corporation reported 25 billion apps downloaded since introduced in 2008 and over 37 million iPhones sold in that first quarter of 2012 alone.  Erik Loyers’ mobile narrative, “Strange Rain,” had been featured in CNN News well over a year before, and even my own academic program had been teaching mobile app design and theory since summer 2011. Thus, the notion of “timely”––in conjunction with this book––seems like an understatement at this point.  Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory is the first that focuses completely on theory for mobile media, and, in doing so, provides an excellent foundation for all of us interested in this area of media scholarship.

Divided into six chapters, the book looks at “embodied and spatial actions” rather than the technology of mobile devices themselves (2).  Chapter 1 “Embodiment and the Mobile Interface” explores the transformation of objects that are located “simultaneously in digital space and in material embodied space” (17).  “Embodiment is,” Farman argues, “always a spacial practice” (Author’s emphasis 19). Interestingly, he alludes in this chapter, broadly, to telematics when he talks about connecting across global networks but avoids mentioning the concept directly.  He does, however, have a different take on the relationship between the embodied body and the social space it inhabits, suggesting not a “telematic embrace” as Roy Ascott argued for, but rather a “cognitive unconscious,”––that is, “blocking out much of the sensory input that we are bombarded with” (27).

Farman moves into a discussion of space in Chapter 2, “Mapping and Representations of Space.”  Here he argues that spatiality is “embodiment’s counterpart” (35) and that “mapping” is an outgrowth of an exploration of embodied space.  He introduces the notion of the interface by suggesting its efficacy in helping humans to connect with the virtual world made possible by mobile devices. Examples of projects that utilize mobile media help to flesh out ideas.  Chapter 3 “Locative Interfaces and Social Media” expands on the previous notion of landscape as interface to, as the chapter heading states, the locative interfaces of social media.  Anyone who has pulled out her or his smart phone at an event, taken a picture, and uploaded that image to Facebook understands that we, the phone, the event we are photographing, and the Friends we connect with all over the world who are commenting on our photo and the event all exist together in one very large environment whose boundaries are not easily marked or tracked.  So that when Farman defines interface as “a set of relations that serve as the nexus of the embodied production of social space” leaving the medium to “play only one part in the larger schema of the interface,” many of us will agree with him (62).

At the heart of Farman’s book is the idea, therefore, that in this virtual world where we reside in our phones, on our tablets, and even with our desktops, all elements, including the human, are part of the media of multimedia. We are not separate from the sounds we hear from apps, or the videos we see on YouTube but are included with them in this large environment and exist in relation to them.  Thus, the chapters that follow discuss “the ethics of locative games,” “performances of asynchronous time,” and “site-specific storytelling,” and all help to make sense of this reality.

This reality can very well be disconcerting if Farman ended the book here.  But he does not.  Instead, he talks about those two concepts that find their way into popular laments of contemporary life:  speed and obsolescence (131), and essentially debunks the nostalgia found in them (133). Farman cautions us that “[m]obility studies have tended to focus on the processes of movement (of people, information, cultural objects, through transportation, architecture, and urban design) rather than focusing on the production of location” (138).  We can, he says, “practice movement that is not indelibly linked to ideas of progress and obsolescence” if we “practice movement as a dwelling, as a sensory-inscribed practice of location rather than flow.”  Such a shift in perspective moves us toward a “practice of embodied space that values the unique characteristics of place. . . and a dwelling that gives both the environment and the people within that space deeper significance” (141), but importantly, it positions us to conceive of new ways to think about humanity in a world increasingly influenced by social media, augmented and mixed realities, and locative media. 

Last Updated 1 May 2012

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