Tristan Thielmann, Christoph Borbach and Max Kanderske will be joined by our fellow AG Mediengeographien member Helena Atteneder for a joint thematic panel at the Geomedia 2023 conference in Tampere, Finland. The panel takes place on Wednesday September 20, 15:00-16:30.
The recent discussion on the “praxeology of media” (Schuettpelz et al. 2021; Strauven 2021) and the “pragmatics of space” (Jucker and Hausendorf 2022) sparks interest in media’s micro-geographies. Although there are scattered approaches towards a shift in focus in the direction of proximal media spaces (Abend et al. 2012) and near-body technologies (Bork Petersen 2022), the immediate bodily surroundings have largely remained a blank spot on media geography’s map. Acknowledging this terra incognita, the panellists will depart on anexpedition into the micro-landscapes of media use, asking what navigational practices are performed with, on, and through media on a micro-geographical scale. Doing so provides an avenue for formulating a praxeological critique of the high hopes placed into technologies commonly dubbed as ‘smart’ or ‘immersive’. As media become actionable spaces – ‘media landscapes’ in the truest sense of the word –, they emerge as environments that can be navigated, touched, sensed and, notably, likewise perceive the human navigators through their various sensing devices. It follows that micro-navigation cannot be reduced to the simple act of movement from A to B. Rather, in the spirit of Tim Ingold, the perspective of way finding has to be accompanied by one of wayfaring to account for the bodily and sensory qualities involved in the process.
The panel discusses micro-navigation and micro-geographies from the perspective of specific media landscapes, like the environments formatted by early proximity sensors (Borbach), the media and mobility landscapes traversed by urban commuters (Atteneder), the interactive micro-terrains experienced through smart glasses (Thielmann) and the simulated environments of immersive navigation apps (Kanderske).
Sensing proximity: Media historical traces of virtual fences
The implementation of so-called virtual fences, i.e. non-physical boundary markings, which is currently taking place in the field of digital precision farming, demands a microgeographical media history of invisible landscape markings. The modeling of territories not through physical boundaries, but via media technology, allows a geographic formatting of terrain that differs from purely material borders and also requires specific interfaces. In contrast to barbed wire or electric fences, invisible borders and landmarks require a sensory addressing of their subjects. Basic electrotechnical research as early as the 1920s manifested itself in media assemblages of early proximity sensors for practical purposes. These found heterogeneous applications: not only as an apparatus in the well-known musical instrument “Theremin” by Lev Termen; but also in methods of fault detection in telephone cables; as well as in navigational infrastructures of safe maritime wayfinding during unstable visibility conditions. These early proximity sensors are of interest from a Sound Studies perspective because they sensitized human ears rather than eyes. However, they are also of microgeographical interest for a media history of sensory indication of proximity. The lecture traces this non-linear genealogy of early proximity sensors through their different application contexts.
Being a commuter in post-digital “cities of feet and hands”: Micro-navigations through mobility and media landscapes
Commuting is more than just moving the body from A to B. It is becoming a form of micro-navigation using tactile-sensory and pedestrian movements,
which are bodily experienced, most often routinely enacted and reproduced.
Taking Moores „cities of feet and hands“ as a starting point to describe moving,knowledgeable bodies in practical, sensuous, tactile dealings with environments and technologies“ (Moores, 2019, p. 108), this presentation asks about the media and mobility landscapes in post-digital cities and about the ordinary everyday practices of micro-navigation through these landscapes that are traversed by commuters who regularly use public transport.
Practices of micro-navigation, that is, the many small conscious and unconscious movements, for example, with our fingers, on the screens and keyboards, with our feet and the rest of our body through the railway carriages, etc. are characterised by an alternation of activity and passivity. People appropriate spaces and places and, conversely, become spaces themselves, being appropriated by the logic of “smart”, AI-controlled systems. Post-digital cities are characterised by a melding of media and mobility landscapes. These “environments” are networks of physical-material things and other human and non-human actors. The latter are not always directly accessible to human sensory perception. Digital signals, for example, can only be detected with technical sensors, but make themselves noticeable through “non-functioning”. In contrast, the (non-existent) interaction with other travellers or the material environment is often more directly visible. However, the ordinary everyday practices of commuters can only be explained by the interplay of all factors, that is, navigating and being navigated.
Immersive navigation. Wayfinding with and within media landscapes
Navigation, both in the sense of steering a specific course through a medium and of getting from place A to place B, can also be defined ex negativo: as not steering all other courses, as sidestepping places C-Z, in short as the avoidance of errant movement. From a media historic perspective, the avoidance of unnecessary travel on a macro scale has usually been realised via small movements within media landscapes: pens tracing courses on sea charts, eyes scanning time tables and itineraries for the right connections, fingers that zoom into maps by swiping over smartphone surfaces.
While movement within these micro landscapes always substituted for and actively reduced macroscale movement – at least as long as travellers managed to stay en route – it could provide little information about the sensory aspects of actually travelling within the physical terrain. Navigation apps like Google’s “Immersive View” promise to change this, offering ways to anticipate the target destination’s sensory qualities by integrating informational layers like weather and traffic simulations or 3d models of in- and outdoor environments. From a media geographic perspective, this can be understood as a haphazard attempt at adding an element of wayfaring (Ingold) to Google Maps and co. – one that is still subject to the same processes of filtering and commodification as the wayfinding functionality provided by these apps. The presentation aims to shed light on the micro-geographies of these ‘immersive’ navigation applications, focussing on the interplay between various practices of motility, that is, of actively moving one’s eyes, fingers and feet, that unfold with and within them.
The return of the vis-á-vis. Micro-geographies of smart glasses
The new generation of smart glasses, as promised by Alphabet, Apple and Meta, represents a paradigm shift in the stabilisation of our world view. The understanding of media landscapes changes with augmented reality glasses, as any surface can become a touchscreen. Terrains and surfaces are not only informationally and visually enriched, the new smart glasses also provide the opportunity of navigating both in geospace and on surfaces between contents. According to the technological promise that is being made, the environment is turned into a single interactive surface by the numerous sensors that are integrated into the data glasses. With the aid of smart glasses, the imageries of a media landscape and of a subjective camera coalesce. Concurrence of point of view and fixed gaze position occurs in smart glasses. The media-praxeological investigation that is presented demonstrates how we are dealing with interactive micro-terrains and stable superficial views that turn everything that surrounds us into a surface we can communicate with.
In this world, we are no longer required to decide in favour of or against multiple imageries, different spatial structures, navigation within an image-space or through space. This decision is taken off our hands by the vis-á-vis. It is now almost impossible to refer to a user, viewer, observer or recipient, as the images generated in this way increasingly elude active orientation or aesthetic appraisal. As various examples of practical applications show, with smart glasses, we are in a permanent, seamless and frameless digital exchange. The environment itself becomes the actor and invites us to follow it, interact with it, engage with it or allow ourselves to immersively drift in it. The new smart interfaces are thus intrinsically also objects and witnesses of the transition to the post-anthropocene. In this medially networked setting, humans are only one of many counterparts. Of more relevance is how the environment is looking back. We don’t explore the environment with the aid of smart glasses. It is the other way round: The environment is exploring us.