Social Computing in 2020 Honorable Mention: “Continuous Media Mobilities” by Jordan Kraemer

About the Author:
Jordan Kraemer is pursuing a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation project deals with new media and spatial scalemaking in Berlin. Prior to graduate study, Kraemer worked as a graphic designer and web producer.

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Description of the Idea:

Continuous Media Mobilities and Global Cities

In the next decade, trends will continue in digital media and social computing that offer opportunities for collaboration and creativity. These include increasing interactivity, improved wireless networks, ubiquitous computing in everyday objects, and sensor-equipped devices. As the history of technology suggests, however, the development of new media remains subject to power imbalances, and will be directed according to the interests of dominant groups, reinforcing their value systems. While challenging to imagine the logics that will govern technology in the near future, the language of mobility and youthfulness shape technology practices today, emphasizing global interconnectivity. Undoubtably, new kinds of digital media will support collaborative work in learning, research, business, and entertainment, offering novel sites for the articulation of different kinds of community. We must attend, however, to the structural inequalities overlooked by the language of technological progress, from questions of access to competences like language ability. While dominant visions of new media will influence design and implementation, there remains the possibility for users to appropriate technology in creative and unanticipated ways, altering our conceptions of new media.

I envision two separate, interrelated trends that will shape future media practices, with consequences for social organization and forms of sociality. Mobility and leisure consumption will continue to drive the development of new technologies, targeting a youthful, tech-savvy, and mobile demographic which can afford expensive devices and service plans. This will include expanding network services coupled with sensor-enabled devices which collect data about the physical and social environment of their users, and process that data quickly in numerous ways. Sensors will allow sensitivity to the physical context in which the device is used (a quiet library, a dark theatre, a noisy mall), will provide instantaneous information about objects in the environment (consumer pricing, history, geographic locations), and will permit interacting with other devices, along the lines of microblogging and social networking.

At the same time, scholars of urban infrastructure have drawn attention to the increasing privatization of public works (Graham and Marvin 2001), from roads and electricity to mobile telephony and media services. In the next decade, this is likely to continue in the US and worldwide, with elite subscribers paying for premium bundled services, from toll roads to high-speed data, while support for public infrastructure may weaken. Yet current research already indicates the creative ways lower income users adopt new technology, from text messaging (SMS) and sharing mobile phones, to using phones innovatively for micro-finance (Horst and Miller 2006, Ito et al. 2005). Cutting-edge technologies may be developed primarily for high-end markets, but subaltern users will not be excluded entirely from new media. Current theoretical models must be revised to better describe and explain the “digital divide,” a division reflecting entrenched interests and the persistence of uneven technological infrastructure, while perpetuated by social norms and practices. While new media such as the Internet sometimes permit greater democratization of public voices, new media use is constrained by cultural norms, reinforcing existing forms of exclusion.

In this light, I envision a networked social media service that will allow users to interact with each other and their environment over standardized open protocal, “MMP” (Micro Media Protocol). Combining a social network with an array of sensors, MMP-enabled devices will interconnect users as they move throughout their day, sharing information in various modes of media across a high-bandwidth wireless network, using distributed processing to deliver information quickly. In addition, the MMP network will access collaborative, user-generated online databases, which pool information about everything from traffic conditions to reviews of products and media. Building on the model of wikis, these databases will employ adaptive algorithms to organize data according to patterns of use, learning, for instance, what kinds of ideas have more authority.

MMP-enabled devices will come in numerous forms, and perform other functions, from media sharing and creation, to voice and video communication, to more general forms of digital productivity. The shared protocol will permit continuous, streaming data between users, obviating the distinction between online and offline, in favor of active or inactive. The most current and controversial application of this protocol will be a nano-device directly implanted into a user’s forearm, ear, and retina. In this way, users will have constant access to the MMP service, which permits only small messages and media files, but continually and from anywhere. Furthermore, the service logs user interactions for others to track, including when they send messages and what kind of sensor data they collect. Like current social networking services, users will create a personal list of contacts, and will have some control over privacy settings. This will make it possible for users to be continually in touch with select groups of friends, communities, or corporate networks, to participate in multiple social circuits simultaneously.

This service will therefore render visible all kinds of daily activities and interactions, which will have immediate social consequences. MMP will enable interactive forms of media and entertainment, from live performances by artists, musicians, and DJs immediately responsive to audience reactions, to interactive movies and other media. MMP will facilitate new kinds of collaborative performances, combining media elements and remixing them into multimedia, networked installations. Public social interactions, however, will also be followed more closely by networks of contacts, making visible how users engage with their environments. Some activities will therefore garner greater credibility or caché than others, and new kinds of competences will gain social significance.

While the service will generate opportunities for creative collaboration, media remixing, and community formation, it will be shaped by trends in the development of infrastructure, reflecting certain interests over others. In addition, MMP will further undermine the distinction between “public” and “private,” as users will be able to participate in “public” events from private spaces, while many networked publics will represent elite, exclusive social groups. Instead of public versus private, distinctions will become more salient in terms of network access, despite widespread use of computers and digital media. A generation of young people will come of age after the advent of the Internet, whose parents will be more familiar with computers, mobile phones, and other digital technologies than previously, minimizing the gap between older and younger users.

As data services and technological infrastructure improve, however, they will be marketed to elites who can afford them, particularly knowledgeable consumers who use new media for work and leisure (a division itself called into question). Globally, this will encourage the flourishing of well-connected, high traffic urban areas, and New York, Berlin, and Tokyo will have more in common with global postcolonial cities like Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai. Elites in these cities will be able to travel quickly and efficiently, with high-speed train services, renovated airports, and well-maintained public transit within circumscribed bounds (primarily financial and tourist centers). Affluent media users will also enjoy greater electronic mobility, using high bandwidth channels and wireless data services. Well-served urban areas will also see the greatest development of ubiqitous and embedded computing, from interactive tours of popular areas, to computerized public lavatories, to updated information on traffic conditions.

All of these cities, however, will be marked by the uneven development accompanying late capitalism, with areas that do not benefit from space-time compression. While affluent urbanites cocoon themselves in well-connected enclaves and reclaim downtown spaces, low-income and migrant populations will be relegated to suburban and ex-urban neighborhoods, or overlooked sections of large cities. These will see improvements in urban infrastructure last, from roadways to data networks, and will be insulated to some degree from the pace of media consumption in globally interconnected areas. This will foster greater division between elite areas of global cities and underserved neighborhoods, geographically nearby but socially distant. The spread of consumer capitalism will generate growing middle-classes in China, India, and elsewhere, but polarization will increase between elites and the dispossessed. Within underserved areas, however, digital media will be taken up, but may not be used in ways anticipated by their designers. The MMP service will be available, but with slower data speeds, and will not be used as often to access global corporate or educational circuits.

Still, MMP will encourage creative applications, such as political mobilization to resist deteriorating public works and overpriced private services. MMP will facilitate greater electronic mobility, allowing families, to stay connected despite travel and migration necessary for work, and connecting durable networks of friends with similar interests and in similar conditions across locales. Finally, MMP will offer some permeability in the boundaries separating elite from low-income users. Unsurprisingly, however, boundary-crossings will generate public anxiety around security and morality, with media-induced moral panics. Residents of elite urban enclaves will fear non-elite media users hacking MMP to access databases and social networks, while their children may romanticize the creative cultural productions of non-elites as more “authentic.” These sentiments will mask complicated hierarchies of race, class, and gender obscured by the language of technological progress. In the next decade, new media will be shaped by dominant logics of mobility, interactivity, and progress, while creative uses of media will blur entrenched social divisions, generating emergent possibilities for use and design.

References:

  • Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. CRC Press: 2006
  • Graham, Stephen, and Marvin, Simon. Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Horst, Heather A, and Daniel Miller. The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. New York, NY: Berg, 2006.
  • Ito, Mizuko, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda, eds. Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

Imaginative Realization, Embodiment, or Illustration of the Idea:

Continuous Media Mobilities and Global Cities: Micro Media Practices among Urban Users in Global Contexts

On March 3rd, 2018, three students from an ex-urban Philadelphia charter school were arrested trying to crack the digital firewall protecting Liberty Towers, an exclusive enclave of apartment towers near Rittenhouse Square, in Philadelphia’s Center City. The students were using a controversial new technology to de-encrypt the distributed network, using a system of wireless relays to fool the security sentinel bot. More controversial still, at least to the Northeast Times Online (formerly, the joint print newspapers the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Boston Globe), the three male students had convinced a young female resident of Liberty Towers to share her electronic identification, otherwise nearly impossible to obtain. Although the students’ ultimate intentions were never made clear, the news media seized on this incident to fan anxieties around new forms of technology, particularly the peer-to-peer networks that allow young people to share information through Micro Media Protocol (MMP), through which users can transmit small media files instantaneously, and which are difficult to detect by standard security protocols.

This incident illustrates a number of factors which have converged in recent years, in which media users across distant urban centers share media and sensor data, stirring up popular concerns over the propriety of certain styles of music and video mashups. Moreover, many parents and officials have expressed concern over the possible social relationships cultivated by MMP users, a service allowing continuous streaming micro media connections. Primarily, of course, MMP users are reproducing existing social relationships, such as friendships formed at overseas private schools and universities, or through transnational professional networks. From New York and Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai, increasingly interactive, distributed forms of new media are facilitating transglobal interconnections, as digital devices become further micronized and permit greater geographic and digital mobility. At the same time, critical scholars of post-urban studies have attended to the key role of infrastructure in polarizing technology use in urban settings, as the proliferation of high-security, wealthy enclaves have overshadowed the continued deterioration of public services in low-income neighborhoods. The global cities of the world pride themselves on their high-speed networks, their distributed computing power, wireless connectivity, and ubiquitous, embedded media systems, while overlooking populations whose access to such technology remains constrained by failures in infrastructure and education. These core issues require emerging techno-ethnographic methods to investigate more fully the social implications of advances in interactive, sensor-based mobile media and the polarization of contemporary infrastructure. I am therefore proposing a yearlong study of micro- and distributed media users in both globalized urban enclaves (aka Global Cities), and in low-income urban and ex-urban areas of the same supranational entities (such as the American Union, the South American Free Trade Area, and Greater China). Using a combination of digital and ethnographic methods, this research will identify two groups of media users from three different Greater Urban Areas, using interviews, participant observation, and automated micro-software (aka bots) to collect data about the role of new technology in social life.

Background and Literature

In the past decade, since the advent of social media in the mid-2000s, digital and mobile media have proliferated, according to dominant ideologies of youth, mobility, and “community” (Kraemer 2012). The emphasis on sharing media for community building has frequently driven the development of new social technologies, while digital devices have become more compact. The development of new kinds of microchips and nanotechnologies, furthermore, has enabled implantable devices that permit continuous mobile computing and social networking. Finally, technology developers have continued to emphasize the interactivity of new media, embedding environmental sensors that permit greater inter-reactivity between digital media, users and their physical (and social) environments. These devices include MMP microchips (Micro Media Protocol) which enable users to communicate with one another via small implanted devices, usually in the forearm, ear, and retina.

Scholars of new media have endeavored to pursue and analyze trends in digital and mobile devices, in order to assess the social implications of new media practices (Gajaweera 2017, boyd 2015). The fields of ubiquitous and social computing emerged in response to trends in technology use, while media anthropology and ethnography have been employed to study such practices qualitatively. At the same time, studies in cultural geography have pioneered new approaches to questions of mobility and infrastructure, attending to the ways in which certain kinds of mobilities are valued above others (Cresswell 2006), while deregulation of public infrastructure has contributed to the increasing polarization of urban space, from roads to data networks. Finally, scholars from these different fields have been generating new perspectives and methodological approaches for addressing contemporary issues in technology and society, from post-urban studies (Williams 2011, Shklovski 2014) to collaborative models for ethnographic research (Grant 2013).

Media users themselves, of course, have been participating in the generation of new knowledge around digital media practices, through open-collaboration iJournals, self-organizing Wikis, and other novel models for digital cooperation. Digital media have been central to the emergence of interconnected, translocal and transglobal communities, often termed communities of interest or practice, in reference to their shared tastes and semiotic practices (originally a reference to linguistic speech communities). While new technologies and devices have largely been targeted towards affluent, mobile, tech-savvy media consumers, low-income users continue to appropriate digital and interactive media in unanticipated ways (Rea 2017, Romine 2016). Though development-oriented design projects have not often been successful, ongoing research continues to investigate the creative ways media users engage with new technology across social and technological divides. This project, in particular, considers how media users in increasingly isolated urban and ex-urban “nettoes” continue to challenge dominant norms circumscribing technology practice, often rerouting bundled services and networks intended for paying consumers in high-security enclaves. As the story from the Northeast Times indicates, new communications technologies and infrastructure participate in reproducing broadening social divisions, particular along lines of class and race, while offering users ways of challenging those boundaries.

Research Design and Methodology

This study will examine a range of media practices, focusing on micro and mobile media, and sensor-based inter-reactive technologies, especially MMP, as well as iJournaling and distributed, embedded media systems. In order to conduct this research, I will identify six groups of participants, two from each of three Greater Urban Areas, including the Northeast Urban Area in the American Union, metro Bucharest, and Hong Kong. Each of these cities are comprised of densely interconnected enclaves, with regular digital and physical traffic along corporate and educational circuits, whose elites members can afford premium services such as high-powered wireless networks and cloud computing, inter-reactive environmental sensor services, and high-speed digital media. At the same time, these cities have not eradicated the persistent poverty in underserved neighborhoods, where residents make do with inadequate public data networks, or predatory private services. Yet recent research has indicated the creative ways in which low-income media users resist their social status, using new technology to reinforce social networks and mobilize politically.

I will therefore recruit participants through advertising on distributed social media networks, and through snowball sampling. Although each sample may not be representative, I will stratify each group by age, gender, income, occupation, and network competence. I will rely primarily on three different methods to collect data on my participants’ media practices, namely structured interviews, participant-observation, and automated data sifting. I will conduct 60 interviews in all, and will focus on asking participants which new technologies they use, how often, and what kinds of activities they engage in. For example, inter-reactive entertainment has become popular in Bucharest, where young people attend public mixed-media events which permit the “audience” to interact with the installations, collaboratively shaping their form and narratives. In the American Northeast, electronic music performances have cultivated a form of status seeking in which music listeners can send MMP requests to the performers, while their network contacts are immediately notified of a successful request. This allows music enthusiasts to perform their knowledge and competence to their peers in public spaces through networked micromedia. Of course, the live performances themselves are often already digital mashups and collaborative projects, but some distinction remains between performers and audience.

Participant-observation remains a crucial ethnographic method for investigating media use in networked publics, as well as in more intimate settings such as homes. Although the division between private and public remains an object of scholarly inquiry, and represents a problematic binary, some kinds of events and social interactions are more accessible to a researcher, while other spaces remain difficult to access. I will therefore begin conducting participant-observation in accessible sites such as coffeeshops, open co-working spaces, and performance sites, while making research contacts to pursue further ethnographic inquiry. As an academic researcher, I will have greater access into those elite enclaves with strong connections to private global universities, while it may be more challenging to enter into corporate social networks, or semi-underground working-class political meetings.

Finally, in order to address the limitations of both self-reporting in interviewing, and access in participant-observation, I will employ automated data collection software, aka “bots,” to gather information about how my informants use new media. This will entail coding MMP bots to identify when users are active, and with whom they are communicating, whether they are producing, or sharing media, updating shared iJournals, uploading and receiving environmental sensor data, and so forth. In order to protect my informants’ confidentiality, I will provide information sheets and obtain verbal consent, and the bots themselves will ask permission and request user input when they are operating. Furthermore, the bots will include synthetic learning capabilities, and will adapt to users’ preferences and habits. I will limit the scope of this phase of research to one month, so as not to impose on my informants excessively.

Significance and Contributions

Given rapid changes in communications in the past decade, further research is necessary to assess the social implications of new media, and to consider how assumptions around media practices shape technology development. This approach resists a deterministic account in which new media are developed in a linear fashion and shape social interactions unidirectionally, from inter-reactive embedded sensor systems and distributed computing, to collaborative and mobile services. Speaking to trends in digital anthropology, techno-ethnography, and post-urban studies, this research contributes a theoretical understanding of how social norms influence new media practices. In particular, this study will address how new services and devices are developed for affluent market segments, conceived of as youthful, globally interconnected, and mobile, contrasting wealthy media users in urban enclaves to lower income users often excluded from global networks and services, yet who adapt new technologies to challenge social inequities.

This research will furnish empirical data on emerging forms of new media practices in an increasingly polarized world, which is characterized by highly interconnected global cities and dispersed underserved areas, despite the language of democratization and economic development. By integrating qualitative research methods with technical ones, this project will build on cross-disciplinary approaches to the study of digital media, particularly recent innovative “techno-ethnography.” Finally, if my research expectations are supported by the results, this work will offer a number of contributions to technology and educational policy, as well as trends in post-urban studies. Most importantly, this research will illuminate the consequences of unbundling public infrastructure services, and how certain populations have been disadvantaged by deregulation, despite the language of progress. At the same time, the barriers between communities remain permeable, and this study highlights the ways they are challenged by both elite and low-income media users, to suggest how we might develop new policies to address persistent social inequalities in a globalized, densely interconnected world.

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