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Is the iPhone Public Media?

Today, Apple will debut the long-awaited iPhone, a device that promises to unite cellphones, iPods and mobile Internet browsing in a slick and easy-to-use package. What are the implications of the rapid evolution of such handheld devices for public media? A May event, Mobilized!—organized by several university media programs in New York and co-sponsored by CUNYcolab and the Center for Social Media—explored current trends and future possibilities.

For many people the idea that cell phones and playstations—much less global positioning systems or iPods—have a role to play in the world of public media is counterintuitive. What does it mean for a phone to provide a framework for bringing people together around issues of shared concern? But as new devices emerge which combine the abilities of a video camera, and a laptop computer with the communicative capacities of a telephone in one small and very mobile package, these become powerful tools for social action.

Right now, we are in what sociologist Paul Starr calls a "constituitive moment" in the life of these new communications technologies, a point at which the ways they are framed socially, economically and institutionally are starting to gel. Unlike the decentralized growth of the Internet, much of the development of mobile communications is in the hands of big players: manufacturers of equipment and operators of telephone companies. While these corporations offer devices with a bewildering number of features, a majority of the content possibilities are being framed as "television lite": a cut-down version of mainstream television, sports, entertainment, weather, and news. This means that much interesting potential may go unexplored or unexploited.

Scholars such as Jonathan Zittrain at Oxford University have pointed out that this move from a "generative" model of tech development to a more proprietary model means gaining convenience and security at the cost of most of the things that make the Internet interesting and creative place.

But for mobile media mainstream development is far from being the whole story. In fact there is quite a bit of individual creative work in the area of mobile and "locative" media (the broad term for digital media practices that relate to location) being done by everyone from filmmakers to software designers to activists. Mobilized! highlighted some emerging connections between independent content creators, platform designers, activists and engineers. More than a dozen university media programs and electronic media arts organizations came together to create an exciting and unusual two day event.

Our specific goal was to "occupy the territory" of what new media artist/researcher Trebor Scholz calls "the space of the technological imaginary." Not all the projects represented were specifically public media, but as keynote speaker Siva Vaidyanathan explained, they show that mobile media is a rich and fertile territory, and that fruitful development of these technologies needs to be supported. In his opening remarks, he talked about society’s need for an "open conversation" to develop and maintain a healthy public sphere.

Other CSM-sponsored events have looked at some of the larger media policy issues; this one was designed to reinforce a discussion of the role of filmmakers, software designers and social activists as media producers, linking to some of the newer trends that operate under the locative media rubric, including social issue gaming, smart mob text messaging, and neighborhood documentation. In keeping with the self-organizing approach of people working in this area, we made this event an "un-conference," (See inventor Dave Winer’s description at http://scripting.wordpress.com/2006/03/05/what-is-an-unconference/) which allowed participants to create and develop their own workshops and events using a wiki hosted by Polytechnic University’s Integrated Digital Media Institute.

The main sponsors of the event were digital media programs at Hunter College, Polytechnic University, Parsons and NYU, along with electronic arts organizations including Eyebeam and Rhizome. For a full list see http://www.mobilizednyc.org/doku.php?id=home#mobilized_sponsors.

Highlights included workshops such as David Carroll’s on Flash Lite, which offered a way to develop "social gaming" models for cellphone use. While Carrie Dashow’s videoblitz with ten volunteers running around Metrotech Plaza with camcorders looked like creative chaos, it was actually a quick-start approach for neighborhood documentation projects. Such projects may organize micro-publics, as did Paul Netzold’s TXTual healing, an outdoor installation that invites participants to literally create dialogue in public space. Other workshops, such as Francis Li’s, gave insight for content producers into a tool set that puts programming capability for mobile devices in the hands of media producers.

To learn more, watch this space for the full report on Mobilized!