Camera phones, perpetual surveillance and the ‘event’

My colleague at Swinburne Lisa Gye gave a presentation recently on citizen journalism and mobile camera phones. She pointed out that mobile photos have an aura of authenticity about them because they are taken on the run, a ‘moment captured’. In Australia as in many other parts of the world, most of the population carry mobile phones – so we have a situation where lots of people have cameras in their pocket now, ready to capture a news event. This makes me think about perpetual surveillance: does the fact that we have millions of citizens armed with cameras change the way we behave? Foucalt claimed that people change their behaviour when they know they are being observed. How does mobile photography change the event it captures? I have been wondering for a while how mobile phones might shape or change our behaviour.

There have been many stories in the press about events which were actually staged for a phone (I can only think of the recent dreadful example of the rape of a teenager). But I think that even ‘everyday’ events are quite often staged for a mobile phone: when you take a short video of a friend for example, it must be a short, simple grab; the actor must turn and address the lens, the message must be simplified for its recipient. This means the life events we record are (at least in part) produced by the mobile device.

Mobile devices also have material limits that influence the events they capture: for example, a mobile screen is necessarily small (between 1 and 3″ for phones, up to 4″ for PDAs and Pocket PC), and video is comparatively hard to compress and expensive to receive, even on high-end 3G devices. So the material limits of the phone impact the recording. Mnemotechnics are never innocent; they shape the event they capture.

A course on mobile media?

I’m starting to think about writing a course on mobile content – I think it would involve part theory, part practice. I might model it after the Network Literacies subject. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone else who currently offers a course like this, how you have set it up, was it successful, did students get into it etc.

Here are some ideas/questions I’ve started with: How does mobile telephony change our social lives and organisations, our sense of self and identity? How does it change our notion of presence and absence? Maybe a history of mobility in general too – from radios and Walkmans to mobile phones. Alongside this, I’m thinking students could be introduced to the basics of WAP. Perhaps learn practical skills in creating a mobile website and content for mobile devices, the issues and limitations of the medium.

The politics of aggregation

I’ve been trying to get some critical purchase on personalisation for some time now. Essentially, I think the subject needs more attention. Cass Sunstein has written extensively on it, and some of his criticisms are valid on a commonsense level – but they are not particularly useful if we wish to develop a critical culture in relation to personalized media. Sunstein is mourning the death of the Fourth Estate, the passing of traditional news media platforms. His books and articles read like a eulogy for a bygone era, an era where people had a common news platform. I think a critical culture would begin by acknowledging that aggregation is a form of production in the same sense as editing a newspaper or a programming a radio show, and that it consequently involves selectivity – in other words, a politics. It’s just that aggregation is usually done by a software agent, not a human being – so we forget this crucial step of selection and assembly. When you visit a personalized news portal, a software aggregator has decided in advance which articles matter and which donít – this is precisely why it is convenient.

The term ‘personalisation’ has been used to describe all manner of things from downloading a wallpaper to customizing your cellphone. I’m going to define what I mean, and distinguish it from ‘customisation’. True personalisation is when digital content has been aggregated for you, based on who you are, where you are, or what you are interested in at the time. In other words, it is different for every single individual; pieces of content have been selected and assembled for you, and preferably delivered to your device. This also means that aggregation is a key first step in personalisation – so if we are to understand the cultural effects of personalisation I think we also need to understand aggregation.