Commentary

Musing Mobility: Searching For Mobile's Media

As I mentioned in my last column, a funny thing happened on my way to enjoying a couple of new PC and console game hits such as "Tomb Raider" and "Biosphere." These games drew me back to these larger platforms after spending much of my time in recent years with games on smartphones, tablets, and dedicated handheld devices. I sort of resented it.

I regard these marquee titles as rare occasions when I will get back into what I'm coming to think of more and more as stationary, place-based media. It is a distinction that only becomes apparent because so much of our media experiences now are fully portable. In other words, mobility brings into higher relief just how anchored we were to specific physical circumstances by the media for the last century.

A small handful of gaming franchises including X-COM, Tomb Raider, and Biosphere are just so compelling to me that they are an excuse to return to gaming platforms that, realistically, I have pretty much abandoned. As I covered in a recent blog entry, there is considerable evidence that people with tablets, for instance, have truly migrated their gaming time away from every other available platform. I gather that I am not alone in my feeling that my gaming experience has to be truly special now to pull me back to either the TV-based gaming console or the PC again. This just underscores how much my habits have changed -- and, I think, some of my attitudes toward these interactive gaming media have changed.

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It makes me wonder if something deeper is going on here that is related to how devices basically could inspire users to think differently about previous media platforms. As I have said before, one of the striking aspects of mobile is mobility. By that I mean we are finally seeing media experiences truly disconnected or untethered from predictable physical circumstances.

Media of the last century, and even the early parts of this century, were very much identified with specific physical contexts. We had the movie theater assembling massive urban crowds in the first decades of the 20th century. We had the radio tapping into the first mass-media living room experience in the 1930s and 40s and then becoming a part of drive time and office time afterwards. Or we had TV, which for much of its history occupied the living room and then the bedroom.

The Internet also has pretty much been an office or home medium, with the proliferation of laptops introducing the notion of mobility to us all. But it is really with the smartphone and the tablet that we see media fully untethered from circumstance. I think this has profound effects on the way that people perceive media themselves -- and the expectations that they bring not only to the new platforms but also to the old ones.

There is a kind of liberation that takes place, or at least the feeling of liberation, that is a part of mobility. On the flip side of that is coming to identify traditional media with limitations with being anchored. It is not that we won't engage with these old media. It is that they better have a damn good reason for pulling us to them. Or at least that's my guess, if I use gaming as a kind of leading indicator of changing attitudes toward media and the evolution from mass to me.

It seems to me that it's time we started thinking about mobile platforms and the concept of mobility in relation to its preceding century of mass communications in the ways in which these older media constituted audiences differently. It seems to me that when consumers stop having to come to specific physical places -- whether it is a living room or a very specific monitor or desktop -- to engage in media and instead the media comes to them regardless place of time and place, some fundamental dynamic changes. To be sure, the DVR and other on-demand technologies, including game consoles, introduced years ago the control that is intrinsic to interactivity to the equation. And the importance of that can't be diminished. But I am curious about how mobility completes that transition of media now coming to the consumer.

My guess is that talking about things like media on demand and TV, or any media that is “always-on” and always accessible from the cloud, only gets us part of the way there. It doesn't fully appreciate some of the deeper ways that mobility is likely to transform our expectations of the media themselves. I suspect that the simple act of extending mass media and even on-demand media simply onto another device does not really touch on the ways in which people are engaging devices. In other words, I think that some deeper level of personalization and contextualization is likely to be the next stage.

The disintegration of mass media, as in a single message or show blasted to the largest conceivable audience, really started with the rise of demographics and television in the early 1970s. When TV programmers recognized that they didn't need to reach everyone so much as target and hit the most lucrative audiences with certain programming, everything changed. That movement was accelerated by cable TV that could carve the audience even more precisely. The rise of the VCR, the DVR and the Internet as well as gaming introduced personal control in the form of interactivity and furthered the move toward narrower niche programming. There was a lot of talk of personalization during many of these years, but much of that effort never really came to pass.

Mobility forces the point of personalization. First, the screens themselves are simply more limited, and personalizing contact optimizes the medium for the screen more effectively. But mobility also makes the user more sensitive to their context. They need and want different experiences at different times and places. They interact very differently with their own devices in different times and places. At some point they come to know and expect that mobile devices represent a very different sort of experience from the media platforms that preceded it.

And while we are putting mobility within the larger context of media history, consider the ways in which each major communications platform of the last century produced signature popular art forms that embodied the changes in the aesthetic strengths each medium introduced. The motion picture embodied the new pace and scale of an urbanized America as well as the new conceptions of the human animal that modernism and psychology advanced. The close-up, the crowd scene, and the chase scene were static innovations of film that embodied and reflected the new reality of the twentieth century.

It is not coincidental that the signature art form of both early radio and later television was the domestic situation comedy. These media brought entertainment into the living room, and they made the living room of a modern nuclear family structure its central subject. In the larger history of digital media that is yet to be written, we may well regard gaming as the signature art form. Surely this massive new entertainment market in gaming is both a product of and a way of engaging in and understanding better the role of the computing machine in our everyday lives.

It is within that historical context that we have to start thinking about what forms of communication, interactivity, and art are truly native to both mobile devices and that larger concept of mobility. I don’t think we have even glimpsed them yet.

 

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