Mobile City must-reads on locative media and location-based services

by Yule Heibel on April 6, 2008

The Mobile City blog is on a roll with four fascinating posts on locative media. The first three (from March 29) are by Michiel de Lange, while the fourth (from April 4) is by Tijmen Schep.

In Mobile phone access for Cubans: the “mobile” as rhetorical force de Lange points to a key theme that’s hyped around mobile technology: its alleged ability to deliver freedom. As de Lange writes, even a cursory glance at the news stories reporting on Raul Castro’s lifting of a ban against owning cell phones shows that “a paradigm – with enough people ‘in’ it – inevitably means basic concepts (like ‘mobile’) are accepted as validation and legitimization in themselves for working on them.” The critical distance between what’s getting developed and those who are developing it shrinks, in other words.

Here in Canada we’re soon going to be behind Cuba when it comes to being able to leverage mobile phone technology, as our service providers lock users into silos, corrals, and limitations. So I’m looking at this from both sides: yes, I can cast a critical glance on the rhetoric (I didn’t study the Frankfurt School for nothing), but simultaneously, oh yes, I can get behind the rhetoric, too, as I contemplate outside freedoms from within the walled Canadian garden of telcom service providers.

The next item by de Lange, Hackers attack epilectics forum: crossing digital borders (first reported in Wired Magazine here), is downright creepy, fit for a William Gibson novel perhaps. And yet it’s not science fiction, it’s the real and actual bleeding through of the virtual into the physical:

A cruel yet fascinating example of the blurring between online space and the physical, and how the ‘virtual’ is creeping (or in this case seizing) into the world we formerly knew as ‘real world’. Of course, examples abound of people carrying their online avatars with them outside the (MMORPG) game, or people making hard cash out of virtual real estate, etc. Yet what makes this case special I think is the intention of the attackers to target this specific group in this way, in order to inflict bodily harm on actual persons through digitally mediated ways. No doubt they must have imagined epileptic patients getting fits and seizures behind their computers when crafting their attack. It’ precisely this intentional aspect of breaking out of screen space, stepping outside of the bounded online world with its own rules that thrives on willingly forgetting that there are actual people in flesh and blood sitting behind their screen (in their underwear picking their nose), that makes this a special case.

It is just a matter of time before hackers launch similar attacks on the digital infrastructures of the city, be it the RFID transport system, CCTV surveillance, the various wireless data networks, or any combination. The first attempts are already there. The physical seizure this may cause to the city is hard to imagine now.


I think from here I’ll jump to Tijmen Schep’s post, The cell-phone, which includes a fantastic juxtaposition of a diagram showing a plant cell in cross-section next to a photo of a Star Trek hand-held “communicator,” flipped open and looking for all the world like a cell phone.

Why the connection between Star Trek “fantasy” and plant biology …and cell phones, you ask? Schep’s entry starts with a pointer to How William Shatner changed the world, which is a two-hour documentary that “explains how the concepts created for Star Trek laid the basis for a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. …during one segment Motorola’s Martin Cooper, proclaimed inventor or the cellphone, claims he got the idea for the phone from those cool communicators captain Kirk and his crew always carried around.” At the same time, as Schep notes by pointing to a March 26 Reuters article (Mobile phone inventor dreams of human embeds), “When Martin Cooper invented the cell phone 35 years ago, he envisioned a world with people so wedded to wireless connections that they would walk around with devices embedded in their bodies.” Hence the clever reference to the plant cell… Talk about bleeding the real and the virtual together into the information body.

And so finally let’s go back another entry by de Lange from March 29, KPN & Hyves cooperate: proximity-based social networking, which is about the Netherlands’ largest telcom, KPN, striking a deal with Holland’s most popular social network Hyves. The idea? To add locational information to text messages sent by Hyves users to one another.

Sounds like a logical idea based on the fact that so many cell phone users almost reflexively tell or answer questions related to where they are. De Lange writes:

KPN customers can switch the service on by first registering for this service on Hyves. Whenever they send a text message containing information about what they are currently doing to a specific number, they will be positioned on a Google Maps application within Hyves, which may be seen by other Hyves users.

This is just another step in the field of LBS (location based services) that telcoms are seemingly desperately trying to develop. LBS had been a buzzword for some time now, but the real “killer-app” hasn’t come up yet. I’m curious to see how this will develop, since these are very strong partners indeed.

But he throws in a couple of caveats worth considering. Questions like “where are you?” and “what are you doing?” are, as he writes, “often just a sign of reciprocal involvement with the life of the other person, a type of mobile gift exchanges.” And by providing a technology that makes the gift redundant, you could end up a party pooper…

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