Jason Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory draws together some of the richest and most compelling empirical examples of digital art, social media, and locative gaming from the past 15 years. It attempts to underscore the raft of cultural shifts seen since Intel declared that “[c]omputing, not computers” (p. 1), would mark the coming technological age. Farman argues throughout that the theorization of the mobile interface should not end with the device itself; instead, it should be explored as the site of contemporary social, spatial, and bodily transformation. Personal anecdotes from living in Los Angeles, buying early smartphones, and teaching undergraduate students enliven this otherwise rote world of abstract relay between virtuality and reality, body and device.
A central pivot of the book is Farman’s notion of the “sensory-inscribed body.” Designed to combat a supposed flaw in existing understandings of everyday embodiment and performed space, this concept is a delicate bridging strategy across the two terrains of Husserlian and Merleau-Pontian phenomenology and Derridean post-structuralism, with cursory nods toward Henri Lefebvre. This strategy, however, is not without its perils.
This first approach enables Farman to explain the “embodied act of perception” (p. 26) and the workings of a Heideggerian being-in-the-world that puts the human body and its array of sensorial equipment at the very heart of any meaning about such worlds. The dance project IntuiTweet (2009, http://medea.mah.se/2010/10/intuitweet/) is taken as a production of embodied space, while geo-caching is seen as a “confirmation” (p. 83) of individualized, locative presence. But Farman stops short of extending this perceptive capacity to non-humans. Despite a critical theorization of the reciprocal interface in chapter 3 and an interrogation of both co-presence and mediation in chapter 4, there is limited discussion of the algorithmic agency, data flow, or infrastructural necessity of digital technology. Christian Nold’s Biomapping tool (launched 2004, http://biomapping.net/), Paul Notzold’s TXTual Healing project (2006, http://www.txtualhealing.com/), and QR code applications such Tales of Things (2010, http://www.talesofthings.com/), and the now-defunct Stickybits (2010), all covered in the book, provide perfect scope for a thematic discussion that is not forthcoming.
The second approach is drawn from the signifying work of Jacques Derrida. Farman uses this “inscribed mode of embodiment” (p. 33) – an attempt to incorporate how bodies are interpreted, coded, and subjectified by others and turned back onto the body itself – to counter a lack in one-way phenomenological understandings that suppose all perception is conjured up from the body and ejected out into the world-at-large. It is between these two understandings of embodiment that Farman develops his own concept of the sensory-inscribed body.
However, Farman’s bridging between “body as sensory and body as sign system” (p. 33) does little to resolve the metaphysical incompatibility of maintaining the Husserlian and Merleau-Pontian standpoint on the body as the primary zone of sensory capacity and more textual approaches to classification and categorization as offered by post-structuralist thought. Farman actually relegates bodily being-in-the-world to a level below the Derri-dean inscription when he explores the wearable gestural interface SixthSense (2009, http://www.pranavmistry.com/projects/sixthsense/) or discusses a student from his undergraduate class who answers a mobile phone call mid-lecture (pp. 33–34). In both cases the body is “laid bare” as hollow and projectable – a theoretical mistake that the likes of Thrift (2000) and Gil (1998) suggested needed to be effaced even before the rise of mobile technology. Farman seems to understand the human body in similar ways, as unable to redress the images projected onto it, open to codification of all kinds, and at its “core … socially inscribed” (p. 58).
Although Farman’s metaphysics are arguably lacking, chapter 2, “Mapping and Representations of Space,” is a sharp exploratory effort to cover the inappropriate conceptual opposition between “virtual” and “real” space. This is the second dynamic of...