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Posted by on May 2, 2011

Mobile learning in public and private spaces: always arriving and never departing

In the spirit of blurring public and private space, I am lending my personal soundtrack for this post at the beginning here in case you wanted to assume my vantage point while reading. This is Jonsi & Alex’s “Danell in the Sea” and it helps me focus while writing with that endless back and forth of simultaneous sound, some of it receding and some advancing. I would actually like for authors to include optional soundtracks to their work. It only adds to the equation for me. Either way, enjoy.

07-jonsi_and_alex-danell_in_the_sea.mp3 Listen on Posterous

I have been reading John Traxler’s article “The Learner Experience of Mobiles, Mobility, and Connectedness” and a few passages in particular have jumped out of me. I agree with much of what is said in terms of the irrevocable changes that have occured because of mobile as the cautionary caveats that temper those changes. What I find myself agreeing with the most are the analogies used to deposit mobile in this larger construct of the relationship of humans and technology throughout history. So basically in this post I will simply steal passages and comment on them.

Agar (2003: 4) makes a direct comparison between the mobile phone and wrist watch, in terms of intimacy and ownership, but a direct contrast in terms of personal freedom, saying, “while it might have felt like liberation from tradition, the owner was caught anew in a more modern rationality, for, despite the fact that the pocket watch gave the owner personal access to exact time, accuracy depended on being part of a system”. , in fact it made the owner part of a system (8).

Mobile has this same allure of access, intimacy, and ownership and serves as a mechanism for allowing us to master our motion in some ways. We can capture, record, even reflect on our motion while we are in motion and perhaps that gives either the illusion or the semblance of control over circumstance? But how does mobile make us a larger part of a system? I can see being part of a larger capitalist output based system, making us more deliverable based. One tweet, one post, one image, one check-in. Life itself becomes marked and micro-managed. I like the idea of mobile, like the watch, catching the owner anew in a modern rationality. Mobile might not make us rational, but it surely encourages us to be more engaged in possibility. More aggressive about crafting something “memorable” from the mundane. Needless to say, I like this wrist watch analogy.

Mobile devices are reconfiguring the relationships between spaces, between public spaces and private ones, and the ways in which these are penetrated by mobile virtual spaces. This reconfiguration is accompanied by what goes on in those spaces. Cooper (2002:22) says that the private “is no longer conceivable as what goes on, discreetly, in the life of the individual away from the public domain, or as subsequently represented in individual consciousness”, “… massive changes are occurring in the nature of both public and private life and especially of the relations between them.” (Sheller & Urry, 2003:1). “The use of these mobile sound technologies informs us about how users attempt to ‘inhabit’ the spaces within which they move. The use of these technologies appears to bind the disparate threads of much urban movement together, both ‘filling’ the spaces ‘in-between’ communication or meetings and structuring the spaces thus occupied.” (Bull, 2005:344). All the more so with the rise of noise-cancelling earphones. Earlier work on the Sony Walkman came to similar conclusions, “the Walkman disturbed the boundaries between the public and private worlds” (Du Gay et al 1997: 115).

The Walkman is a good example here (and certainly iPod could act as a modern substitute) as it blurs the public and private space. It allows for a value-added overlay of context, the contextualizing agent of music to cast structure onto seeming chaos. To have one’s own soundtrack to ground your passage through public space (and its unlimited opportunity for circumstance) is an enabling act, augmentative. I am stronger walking through public space when emboldened by my favorite music. I stop in far off places, exotic locales, and pause with music in my ears and it helps me reflect, to make sense of what I am seeing. It is therapy for excessive intake (of stimuli), an organizing tool. However, it certainly does blur these spaces. I flood the public with my private self and both are changed utterly. I am less inclined to embrace public etiquette, to engage my fellow passengers, but rather personalize public space as a means of learning and reflection. I see a park full of people doing the same. In a world full of noise, the person who can pull the signal from the noise is king. Everyone needs a tuning rod or a metronome and music delivered personally in public space puts me in tune.

This is accompanied by a growing dislocation of time and place, in which ‘everything arrives without any need to depart’ (Virilio, 2000:20). ‘Closer to what is far away than to what is just beside us, we are becoming progressively detached from ourselves’ (Virilio, 2000:83). Owing to “the tendency to previsit locations, through one medium or another; to actually arrive somewhere is no longer surprising in the way that it was ….it is becoming replaced by prevision. Thus according to this logic, the mobile would be one more technique by which the world became unsurprising.” (Cooper, 2002:26). Another personal device, the in-car sat-nav, has a similar effect, that of previsiting places and locations. Other personal digital devices, the camcorder, the camera, allow us to recreate the past, to revisit places and locations. Moreover, “the instant availability of all types of information at any time or place means that there will be no need for physical motion” (Cooper, 2001:25) and a form of inertia or stagnation will set in.

This quote in particular actually resonated most with me, this perpetually arriving without ever departing. A simultaneity of experience across parallel journeys. Being everywhere at once. Knowing everything before corporeally knowing it. A perpetual deja vu, that the world itself has been experienced to some degree beforehand. It is true. I won’t spend too much time lamenting this as this tendency to previsit locations is something I am most guilty of. In the next month or so, I travel to Tanzania, the UK, Australia and then to Seoul and most of these places I have never been before, except in Google Earth, in my endless Street Views on Google Maps, in my endless search for webcams at busy intersections, Flickr photos of markets, airports, and even a YouTube video complete with audio to round out the experience. I have yet to capture the sense of smell of a place before visiting there, though. How West Africa always smells of kerosense and fragrant oils (at least to me), how Seoul always smells steamy street food, how my hometown always smells of despair, how Princeton always smells fragrant. I suppose that is next, though, the smell. So, yes, I agree with this quote to a degree. I constantly visit places before I travel there. However, I also visit places I quite likely will never visit (Mayotte, the other day) only because my imagination wanders there, it wants to take me there, it has this raging, insatiable desire to merely know.

I think I am going to say the bits about mobile identity in Traxler’s article for another post. That is just too big a topic to tackle here.

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