It didn’t take long for mobile devices to become common place in our daily lives. The first iPhone launched in 2007, and in the decade that followed, mobile devices were integrated in to virtually every aspect of our lives. Today, our phones are a virtual appendage that we rarely leave the house without. According to Dr. Joshua Synenko, assistant professor of Cultural Studies and coordinator of the Media Studies program at Trent, we ought to be giving more consideration to what these machines are and how they affect us.
“Locative media devices – mobile devices able to run applications that use real-time locating systems like Wi-Fi, RFID (radio-frequency identification) and GPS (global positioning system – make people prone to distraction, and can prevent people from being in touch with their physical communities,” says Professor Synenko.
“Technosolutionists – those who think that problems caused by technology can be solved by technology - will say we need to create new designs that will help us integrate locative media technologies with the physical environment and model the way that people operate in the city. I'm challenging that approach by suggesting we expose the infrastructures that make locative media experiences possible – to interrupt the seamless experience that designers are trying to create, to invite new perspectives on the social world.”
Digital Media Lab teaches through experimentation
In his Digital Media Lab, a course that draws from the Bata Library’s Maps, Data and Government Information Centre (MaDGIC) and Critical Making Studio, Prof. Synenko asks his students to examine their relationship with devices by repurposing them in classroom assignments that use technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, digital mapping, and 3D printing.
Course assignments ask students to examine aspects of their devices that can be easily ignored. One assignment asked students to find each other on campus using the location data generated by apps like Snapchat and Pokemon GO. In others, students created digital maps with GPS data, and use virtual reality applications to create 3D printed sculptures.
“Students regard such technologies as second nature,” says Prof. Synenko.
“The idea that they didn't exist is almost like a foreign language. Maybe we can familiarize our connection to these technologies by repurposing them or misusing them. That's the ultimate goal.”
Understanding communications as material culture
“I want to expose infrastructure like cell towers, data centers, GPS satellites,” Prof. Synenko says.
“But also the materials used to make mobile devices – metals, minerals, plastics – everything that is needed to create the experience that people have.”
This can help awareness of the material factors that are involved in media, and it emphasizes the environmental impact of new media technologies.
“A dominant thread within Media Studies focuses on symbols, communications and messages,” says Prof. Synenko, whose current research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
“This approach looks at ways in which messages circulate – the methods that we can approach to understand their meanings. But there's another thread within Media Studies, one that I feel committed to, which is to think about media objects as part of material culture. Perhaps if we could find designs or theories that would allow us to become aware of this materiality, students might be provoked to think differently about ubiquitous technologies.”