The wand and the wizard: Myth and meaning in mobile media

Damien Spry, The University of Sydney

Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds) Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012 (360 pp). ISBN 9-78023115-739-1 (paperback), RRP $41.95.

Every new form of media seems to have attracted both excitement and anxiety. The first big switch was from oral traditions to the written text; then came the printing press and movable type, followed by recorded sounds and image, broadcast media and telecommunications, and most recently the computer and the Internet. Ironically, Socrates, who feared the effect of reading and writing on the human capacity for memory, and therefore learning and logic, was possibly the first to have his thoughts on the future of media recorded in writing. Nowadays, we fear the effect of violent videogames on our moral relationships and the effect of Google on our cognition (see, for example, Carr 2008). And we alternatively celebrate, regret and fret how our relationships with our friends and families, our work-life balance and our capacity for connection and for isolation have been changed by smartphones.

The story of the mobile phone is remarkable. From their beginnings in the briefcases of Wall Street brokers, these little packets of silicon, lithium and glass now inhabit the pockets and purses of most people in most places. In many countries, including Australia, mobile phones outnumber folks; in Hong Kong and Macau, there are easily more than twice as many mobile phones as people (International Telecommunications Union 2011). Moreover, the pace at which mobile telecommunication has spread exceeds that of any earlier communications technology in history (Castells et al. 2007); the fastest growth markets are now found in regional China, India, Indonesia, and various African nations—far from Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Along the way, mobile phones have become mobile media devices. Mobile telecommunication has become mobile media, mobile banking, mobile gaming, mobile public health administration, mobile social networking, mobile education and a host of other mobile matters. We live mobile, mediated lives.

Following in the slipstream of mobile media’s rapid progress, a small but growing posse of determined scholars has attempted to keep up with events and make some sense of them. This is no easy task, as I can attest first hand. I started researching the use of mobile phones by children in Australia and Japan in 2004, including three years of doctoral research completed in 2010 and out of date before the thesis was bound (which seemed, in comparison to its topic, a quaint, ancient ritual). Why my research needed such a swift update is the topic of this essay: the iPhone, and attempts to understand its import.

THE WIZARD

Every new form of media seems to have attracted both excitement and anxiety.

The iPhone, christened the ‘Jesus phone’ by the blogosphere soon after its launch, drew gasps when Steve Jobs revealed it to the adoring wise men and women at the San Francisco conference/pep rally/evangelical church meeting called Macworld Expo in January 2007. Feted as a transformational event, stepping into history alongside the original Apple Macintosh (which changed personal computing) and the iPod (which changed the music industry), Jobs proclaimed the iPhone as a holy trinity of revolutions: ‘Today we are introducing three revolutionary products … The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device’ (Jobs 2007).

Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Media begins with a story about the fanatical response to Jobs’ appearance at a Hollywood red carpet event, so it is fitting to begin talking about the iPhone by talking about Jobs. Indeed, as several contributors to this collection note, it is difficult to talk about the iPhone without talking about (the ‘cult of’) Apple, and therefore about its charismatic founder. In Walter Isaacson’s (2012) weighty, melancholic, at times uncomfortably frank, biography, Jobs is compared with or referred to as Jesus, Rasputin, a Star Trek Alien, Ghandi, Einstein, Edison, Ford, a Christian martyr, a Buddhist Samurai and a Jedi Warrior. Isaacson’s remarkable tome—undertaken with Jobs’s support but without editorial influence—shows how the iPhone creator’s life-story conforms with many of the standard tropes of the hero’s journey: the absent parents (like Luke Skywalker, Batman and Harry Potter, Jobs was adopted), the wise wizard who provides him with a device of special power (think Obi Wan, Dumbledore and Merlin) and even a period of exile before returning to save the day and claim his kingdom. But Jobs is also shown to be a notoriously foul-mouthed bully who took credit for other’s ideas, parked in car spaces reserved for disabled drivers and, unlike his friend and rival Bill Gates, had little interest in charitable works. A subsequent cover story of tech-culture bible Wired Magazine had Jobs both haloed and wearing devil’s horns (Austen 2012). Nevertheless, he remains for many (and with good reason) the most significant and inspirational entrepreneur of our times.

At the 2007 Macworld, Jobs the creator, announcing and anointing his transformative issue, continued: ‘An iPod; a phone; an Internet communicator. An iPod; a phone. Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone’. The YouTube clip shows the whooping crowd pumping the air with its fists at this point of the presentation (Jobs 2007). In 1984, at the presentation of the Apple Macintosh, when the little computer had for the first time ‘spoken’ (calling Jobs ‘a man who is like a Father to me’) the screaming crowd had jumped to its feet. Twenty-three years later, having endured years in the wilderness before enjoying one of the greatest comebacks in the history of both capitalism and of invention, Steve Jobs the prodigal son had once more turned father-creator. The re-incarnated Zen master of Apple had done it again. He would have one more moment of apotheosis, at the January 2010 launch of the iPad, before cancer took him in 2011. In case you think the mixed religious metaphors are a bit overwrought, recall that The Economist had a robed, haloed Steve Jobs, holding what they called the ‘Jesus Tablet’, on the cover of its issue reporting on the launch of the iPad (‘The book of Jobs’ 2010) and the Wall Street Journal quipped that ‘the last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it’ (Peers 2009).

THE WAND

In Moving Data, media scholars consider the iPhone and its myriad meanings: as a transformative networked multimedia platform; as a fetishised consumer brand; as a superlative innovation by a genius inventor; as the ruination of solitude; as the emblem of a radical shift in the relationship between those who produce media (including news and games) and those who consume it. It is a task both large and difficult. The contributions vary greatly in approach and achievements and summarising the outcome is challenging.

Contributors use the iPhone as a touchstone for all smart mobile media devices.

This ought not to be surprising, as the significance of iPhones, and of the other ubiquitous, networked, personalised, multimedia information and communications devices known as smartphones varies greatly depending on how, and in what contexts, they are used. Moving Data covers several of the ways in which our lives and our societies have been affected by smartphones. Contributors, using the iPhone as a touchstone for all smart mobile media devices, set out to examine and explain the changes in the production or experience of art, music, and cinema, brought about by the advent of the small, mobile screen and the capacity for location-based interactive experiences. For example, Francesco Casetti and Sara Sampietro compare the filmic experience on the iPhone with the act of going to the cinema: the latter is a communal event, like live theatre, taking place at scheduled times and in purpose built environs; the former can happen anywhere, anytime, in isolation. Likewise, Gerard Goggin’s chapter outlines both the connections with earlier e-reading technologies and the uncertain future of the iBookstore and its impact on the publishing industry (especially via the iPhone’s younger and larger sibling, the iPad).

Harold Laswell, a foundational figure in communication studies, referred to time-based media (such as stone tablets, sturdy parchment manuscripts, and bound doctoral theses) which were durable, and space-based media which were transmittable (such as broadcast radio or television) or portable (such as newspaper and paperback novels). Mobile media have collapsed these distinctions. Newspapers and broadcast media are both accessible anywhere (space-based) and archived for later search and retrieval (time-based), while entire encyclopaedia, art collections and scholarly publications are no longer confined to museums or the stacks of the libraries of institutes of higher learning. Indeed some, like The Australian Review of Public Affairs, are available only online (which, of course, means only everywhere and any time).

Our very sense of ourselves and how we make sense of our place in the world has changed through the use of mobile media. Using locative technologies, such as GPS, we can put ourselves constantly at the centre of a map. In her contribution to the book, Nanna Verhoeff explores how—with the inclusion of location-based applications and cameras in all our smartphones—we can add a layer of additional information to the world as we see it, turning reality into what is referred to as ‘augmented reality’.

This is heady stuff. To say that this is now commonplace is not to say it is unremarkable. As the ongoing and unsettling ramifications for journalism, publishing, education, and the cultural industries can attest, it will be some time before the dust finally settles and we can see how cultural institutions and practices have evolved or perished.

Moving Data includes thoughtful analysis and some disturbing predictions about the future of these media industries and the regulations that govern them. Perhaps the most surprising are the implications for personal computing and the Internet that arise out of attributes of the iPhone that are not shared by other smartphones: the strictly closed and controlled nature of its operating system and, most especially, the App Store. To understand the significance of this, it is essential to venture back to the early days of Apple and to reconsider more closely the character and philosophy of the man most closely associated with Apple computing and the iPhone, Steve Jobs.

When Jobs and his partner, pioneering computer engineer and programmer Steve Wozniak, were creating Apple, personal computers were restricted to skilled hobbyists. These geeky, counter-cultural innovators often built their own machines and wrote their own software. Wozniak, in particular, was of this ilk; Jobs was not. After Wozniak left the leadership of Apple, Jobs pushed the company in a direction whereby he exerted much more control over what the devices would do and how they would be used, something he continued in the iPhone. This made devices like the Macintosh, and later the iPhone, much more user-friendly and design conscious, but less open to adaption by users. Similarly with the Apple App store, all applications creating for use on the iPhone must be developed using the software development kit (SDK) provided by Apple, and are subject to approval before being made available via Apple’s App Store. In fact, as both Pelle Snickars and Barbara Flueckiger point out in their contributions to Moving Data, Jobs initially resisted giving even this tightly controlled capacity to ‘third-party’ developers (that is, developers other than Apple or its partners). Apple wanted developers to design applications for use on the Web, via its Safari browser. And initially, the iPhone contained a mere eleven Apps, all pre-loaded. However, Apple quickly relented and issued the SDK and initiated the system for submitting applications for approval via the App Store. Ninety-five days later there were 25,000 registered users and the SDK had been downloaded 250,000 times; there are now over 700,000 Appstore applications (for iPhone and iPad) and over 350 billion downloads. Entire new companies have emerged. Angry Birds, the world’s most popular video game ever, could not exist without the App revolution. And the mobile phone, alongside its larger siblings the iPad and new iPad mini, has again been transformed into a mobile everything machine.

Apple devices may be much more user-friendly and design conscious, but they are also much less open to adaption by users.

The iPhone and iPad have led the charge into a post-PC world. Steve Jobs suggested that personal computers will become like trucks: useful, and necessary, but most people don’t drive trucks. Along the way, the App store may even have re-invented the Internet. Strange as it may sound, the App store seems to be pointing to a media future in which most people don’t use the open Web as much as they use controlled applications—whether they be news, games, banking sites, weather forecasters, or pretty much anything else you can imagine—to access information that is located on the Internet. Evidence of the popularity of the Apple suite of mobile media devices is easy enough to find—market research by Neilson puts the iPad at the top of desired Christmas stocking fillers for both children and adults in America 2012 (Neilsonwire 2012).

THE WORLD BEYOND THE IPHONE

It is a mistake, however, to conclude that the popularity and the significance of the iPhone is felt equally everywhere. Writing this essay in Seoul, the home of Samsung, gave me a different perspective. My location made it impossible not to notice that Moving Data contained very few references to the East or the South. Could the future of media lie elsewhere, outside Silicon Valley’s denim-clad, fast-talking entrepreneurialism, or continental Europe’s creative digital avant garde (impressive as both these areas of invention and expression are) in those parts of the world that are not dominated by the iPhone?

As it turns out, the iPhone’s popularity in the West and the North has drawn attention away from the East and the South. Like the poorly received Apple map application (which replaced Google maps in the automatic software update I dutifully performed about the same time as receiving this book to review) the picture provided is useful—but incomplete and inadequate, and sometimes inaccurate. This matters because it suggests an ongoing predilection in Western commentary to focus on itself at the expense of the rest of the world. But also—and to my mind more importantly—it matters because it may be missing quite a large part of the main game.

The myopic focus on the trans-Atlantic has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that this is where the future of media exclusively resides. As noted above, the largest and fastest growing mobile media users are in, in fact, found in Asia and Africa. Even North Korea now has a growing mobile media market! The most popular smartphones in the world are also produced outside of the West—by Samsung, actually, who also supplies components to the iPhone and who is mentioned only twice in Moving Data, and then only in passing. To be sure, the race to the top of the smartphone rankings is a close-run contest between Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy III. But add LG and new Chinese manufacturers like ZTE and the importance of East Asia as a source of future media devices is clear. Also, the seemingly endless array of smartphone applications available in Asian languages, especially those developed for use on the Android operating system now outnumber those in the Apple App Store) suggest that the future of mobile media functions and uses is far from restricted to the iPhone and the West.

The importance of East Asia as a source of future media devices is clear.

That Moving Data contains little commentary or analysis on the impact of mobile media in developing societies is regrettable, especially in the light of the transformative events of the last two years in the Arab world. Certainly, the role of mobile and social media in bringing about political change in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in that region has been at times over-stated (Spry 2011). However, to discuss the ‘future of media’ without considering, for example, the role of mobile media in transforming the lives of the poor in developing economies (Donner 2008) or the role of user-generated political content and online political organisation in places like Iran, Burma and the Arab-speaking Middle East is restrictive, and therefore misleading.

Two widely discussed instances of the role of mobile media in transforming politics and activism outside ‘the West’ can serve as examples. First, the Ushahidi project builds maps based upon data provided by ordinary users via their mobile devices. This was used, for example, to monitor election violence in Kenya (Okolloh 2009) and post-earthquake crisis monitoring in Haiti and later, based on this success, used in Japan to great effect (Gao, Barbier & Goolsby 2011). Second, much stock has been placed on the ability of activists to record and share footage of political events, such as protests and associated political violence, as well as to promote and organise political action in the first place. This has been going on for some time but has accelerated with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and their use as social media platforms. The most famous recent example, the sharing of footage, taken on mobile phones and shared via social media sites such as Facebook, of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi self-immolating in protest at abuse by public officials, is commonly cited as the triggering event of the Arab Spring (Howard, Agarwal & Hussain 2011).

In Moving Data, there is a strong sense that the transformations brought about through social uses of smartphones are significantly shaping the future of political and economic structures, and of human creative expression. The changes are too widespread, and occurring too quickly in too many diverse places (and with far too multifarious outcomes) for one book to record and explain. Perhaps we need an App for that?

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Damien Spry is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Media and Communications at The University of Sydney. He is based in Seoul, where he researches and teaches in new media and contemporary sociology.