25 August 2007

Mobility is cultural, not just functional

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UC Irvine professor Paul Dourish and Intel researchers Ken Anderson and Dawn Nafus argue in “Cultural Mobilities: Diversity and Agency in Urban Computing” that urban computing, i.e. mobile computing in the city, needs a much broader definition that takes into account.

“On the application side, many systems design efforts focus on the city as a site of consumption and an inherently problematic environment, one to be tamed by the introduction of technology. On the user side, many systems design efforts focus their attention on young, affluent city residents, with both disposable income and discretionary mobility.

The narrowness of both the site and “the users,” we will argue, has meant that mobile and urban computing have been driven by two primary considerations. The first is how to “mobilize” static applications, allowing people to get access to information and carry out traditional desktop tasks while “on the move,” the anytime/anywhere approach as manifested in PDA applications that attempt to produce mobile versions of desktop applications or connect people wirelessly to remote infrastructures “back home” (e.g. email on the RIM Blackberry.)

The second is how to provide people with access to resources in unfamiliar spaces, the “where am I?” approach, as manifested in context-aware applications that attempt to help people navigate space in terms of resource such as devices (e.g. the nearest printer), services (e.g. recommending stores), or people (e.g. finding friends via Dodgeball).

While these applications clearly meet needs, they fail to take the urban environment on its own terms; they are based on the idea that urban life is inherently problematic, something to be overcome, in comparison to the conventional desktop computing scenario. Further, they fail to acknowledge the lived practice of urban life, and in particular its diversity and the different urban experiences of different groups. In focusing on abstracted rather than concrete behaviors, on individual consumption rather than collective sociality, and on the pairing between discretionary mobility and urban consumption, this approach paints a very partial view of urban living that leaves many people out of the picture.”

Instead, the authors “turn to research in social science that seeks to understand the relationship between meaning, identity, movement, and space, drawing particularly on work in anthropology and cultural geography”. Based on theoretical and empirical work from social science, they are “developing a new approach to the relationship between mobility and technology.”

Download paper (pdf, 248 kb, 14 pages)

(via Nicolas Nova’s Pasta & Vinegar)

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