Chapter 18: Placing Location-Aware Media in a History of the Virtual

Adriana de Souza e Silva, and Daniel Sutko

The notion of the virtual has gained renewed scholarly and popular interest with the advent of new media and the Internet. Yet the virtual itself along with the philosophical traditions and debates it invokes, has received relatively sparse attention in the communication literature, even though the term “virtual” is used so readily to refer to new information and communication technologies. In this paper, we define two primary threads of conceptualizing the virtual and apply them as critical frameworks for analyzing specific examples of locative media. Locative media technologies are mobile devices equipped with location awareness (via WiFi, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and/or cellular triangulation), allowing users to access place specific information and interact with other users depending on their geographical location. These applications are now used to download / access location-specific information and to support the creation of locative mobile social networks (such as Loopt, Brightkite, Foursquare and Whrll).

We argue there are two primary threads through which we can analyze the development of the concept of virtual and apply these perspectives to locative media. The first thread, which considers the virtual as a simulation, has intellectual roots in the Platonic philosophical tradition that conceptualized representation as a copy. The second thread, which views the virtual as potential (and not separate from the real), has intellectual roots in the Aristotelian philosophy that conceptualized representation as potential linked to or moving toward actualization. In contemporary scholarship, these two trends are developed in very particular ways by theorists such as Baudrillard (as with the first case), and Deleuze (as in the second case). Finally, we address how Katherine Hayles’ theory of virtuality emphasizes the materiality of the interfaces that carry digital information, which act as mediatiors of our relationships with digital and physical spaces.

Our goal is therefore to interrogate what we consider are the two primary threads of conceptualizing the virtual by applying them as critical frameworks for analyzying specific examples of locative media. Our examination demonstrates different but overlapping ways of understanding and applying the virtual, which also helps us to differently understand our interaction with public spaces, non- and collocated others, and information through locative media. Consequentially, we conclude that, while theories of virtuality that relied on representation/simulation were adequate for the analysis of human-computer interfaces through the early 21st century, these theories are inadequate for understanding locative media applications. We thus offer Hayles’ approach to information/ materiality, as well as Deleuze’s approach to virtual/real as concepts central to theorizing about locative media.

This chapter contributes to ongoing theoretical conversation about the virtual, and in particular to how that conversation relates to communication studies of new media, which address how the Internet, mobile phones and location aware technologies mediate the relationships between users and physical spaces, and among users themselves by (1) proposing a new theoretical framework for analyzing the virtual within locative media, and (2) examining how the articulation between space, mobility and location transforms the traditional way we think about the relationships between interfaces and information.