20 Feb

Physical Space and Smartphones as Locative Media

Posted By Politybooks


I am too young to have read social theory about the Internet in the 1990’s. I didn’t really begin studying digital media until 2008, but I was lucky to have been in a PhD program that required us to go back to some of the formative texts in Internet Studies. From the perspective of the late 2000s and early 2010s, much of the 1990’s Internet research is remarkable. So much of it is prescient, and so much of it describes a particular moment that changed significantly over the next 20 years.

As someone who makes his living writing about smartphones and location-based services, what has always stood out to me in early Internet research was the implicit belief that our “cyberspaces” were in opposition to our physical spaces, that we ran the risk of turning more to our virtual worlds than the physical world we move through every day.

That opposition of the physical and digital can now seem somewhat outdated. However, it still remains in phrases like “in real life” and the near constant criticisms found in popular media about how we are turning to our smartphones to distract ourselves from our surroundings. Smartphones as Locative Media pushes back against the idea of distraction and the opposition of the digital and physical, instead analyzing how smartphones work as a form of locative media.

Locative media refers to any media technology that can be located in physical space and provide information about one’s surrounding space. Smartphones do so through a combination of cellular triangulation, GPS, and Wifi location, and many of the most popular apps are location-based services that work mainly through providing people with relevant information about what is around them. In effect, smartphones as locative media show how digital information and physical space are becoming increasingly intertwined, not separated into discrete virtual vs. physical spheres.

These moments of intersection between how people access location-based digital information and how they experience physical space are what makes smartphones as locative media such an important area of study. When someone maps a route using the Google Maps app, do they interact with the physical world differently, planning and processing their mobility through the smartphone interface? When they Yelp nearby restaurants, do they filter their decisions about the physical world through digital information? These are a few of the questions I address in this book, which includes discussions of many popular mobile applications, including Google Maps, Foursquare, Yelp, Instagram, and Facebook.

Possibly the most exciting thing about studying new media is how fast things change. Even now, just a few months after finishing this book, I’m already planning projects on new location-based services. For example, I’m super intrigued by Yik Yak and how its location features shape patterns of use. That being said, however, I wrote this book in a manner that discusses the impacts of locative media that won’t become outdated as new mobile apps come out and existing apps fail.

The general uses of smartphones as locative media probably won’t change in the coming years, and hopefully, much of the discussion throughout this book will be just as relevant two years from now as it is in our contemporary moment.  

Jordan Frith is Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. His new book Smartphones as Locative Mediawas published by Polity in February 2015.

Frith Smartphones