Mobile City Conference: Autopsy on Locative Media with Christian Nold

On: March 4, 2008
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About Twan Eikelenboom
One of the first Masters of Media to crawl upon this blog (2006/2007)! Still following (and at times contributing) to this great project. Working at Dutch sectorinstitute for e-culture Virtueel Platform. Special interest in stories resulting from new media product use (think: sat nav gone wrong) and independent gaming. Also blogging at http://newmw.wordpress.com

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Christian Nold’s talk on Locative Media Autopsy at the 2008 The Mobile City conference dealt primarily with the question what Locative Media really is. Is it just a techno-fetishistic vision of gadget lovers, or should we perhaps take it more seriously to uncover its hidden uses?

Starting off, Nold talks about an interesting vision: ‘Locative Media is perhaps regarded as a strange other space, which goes beyond the top-down image of the Gods.’ Continuing: ‘I’m curious: Are we comfortable representing our cities like that?’ More specifically, what is represented in technofetishistic visualiations of locative media, and what kind of social relations are generated by this technofestishism?

According to Nold old maps sometimes provide much richer representations of what is going on, exemplary of this is a map Nold shows in which nymfs represent forests. So far, locative media has been predominantly about terms that do not encompass any social community building: gather, share, play, visualise and imagine. Perhaps it is useful to complement these terms with: collaborate, archive, educate, challenge, change behaviour and organise. Of which the latter is perhaps the most important one, with regards to for example smart mobs, Nold: ‘People are doing all sorts of stuff with mobile phones, how does this lead to social interaction?

Oakland Crime Map

Interesting examples of locative media enabling new forms of social relations are the Oakland Crime Spotting map, which reinterprets public data. “Normal” police crime is broken down in terms of different crimes, at different times. There are however, more complicated ways to go through data and make it publically available and usable. As an effect, cops were surprised to see data visualized in new ways, enabling new interpretations of the data. Nold: ‘If this project takes itself seriously and is an intended community project, it can start to go beyond the point of collecting new data. My question is: ‘How much crime is not being reported? Imagine if that could be represented. In order to do this, the extra step of working long-time within an area must be made.’

More examples include the Register your Fruit Tree” and “Fallen Fruit of Silver Lake” maps, which show ways to collect your fruit. Nold: ‘Through these maps you can start to think about social relationships that are caused by these project, and not just about the food. You might actually start talking to people who live in that house.’ Not a map, but very interesting in this aspect is the documentary “The power of community: how Cuba survived peak oil”. This documentary shows essential connections in the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost 50% of its oil imports. Because of Cuba’s agro-chemical background, many of the countries resources were rendered useless. The effects were that the average Cuban lost 30 pounds in body weight, but also the design of a community bus, which was a truck turned into a bus by adding a carrier.

Nold emphasizes that it is important to take locative media seriously, instead of being just a nice techno-fetishistic gadget. Nold: ‘Taking pictures with mobile phones is getting more serious.’ A next step in design could be designing for responsive communities and getting involved with people. An example of this from Nold’s work is his wellknown BioMapping project, but also his communal noise mapping project. For this project, Nold handed out decibel meters, which allowed the community to challenge “official” government numbers. The data so far was based on total noise levels and not on specific individual experience. Therefore the project also included adjective ratings such for sound such as: ‘silent, exetermely quiet, bassy, painful, exhausting, threatening, abrupt.’ In another project, the Silvertown affect map, the question is asked: How do you build maps that really get that local discussion going?’ Nold concludes: ‘For the BioMapping project, we turned the lie detector into something else. The context is not “are you lying”, but the physical environment. The context is very important, and for me that is where this new area of contextual media and responsive communities is going.’

Report by Twan Eikelenboom

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