Gilles Deleuze on Assemblages and what it means for how we think about Mobiles…

In a prior post I used the term “assemblage” and this may be an unfamiliar concept to most folks unfamiliar with the work of Gilles Deleuze.  I recently came upon a chapter in a book edited by Charles Stivale (“Gilles Deleuze. Key Concepts”). One of the contributors, J. MacGregor Wise, has an interesting explanation of the term and uses the example of mobiles and how we can think about the social implications of mobiles using the term. If you’re not of the philosophical or theoretical bent you might be asking at this point, “Why bother?”. Well, I think that our understandings of how mobiles ‘work’ in society and what is going on with “mobile societies” could use some theoretical analysis. Who knows, we might learn something that actually pays off for the business person with an analytical eye. It’s not just the technology, stupid!

So, here goes…Wise begins with the way that we often frame technology-human debates. The most common way is to think about the relationship as two separate domains that are completely different and can act on one another. Technologies are external to myself, tools. But when the two begin to merge this creates discomfort. A typical mobile study framed in this way looks at how mobile phones have been transformed in function, power and size (think of how many mobile presentations you’ve seen now with the Michael Douglas mobile from “Wall Street” then the march of progress to the present). We then study the so-called, “impact”. Now think of all of the recent studies on mobiles and their “impact” on the developing world over the past year or those great pieces in the Economist on new technologies. These are certainly framed in this way. Mobiles are typically studied in isolation, on their own.

The next approach is to frame technologies in “context”. Technologies are not separate from their contexts, and this includes human beings. Wise uses the examples of “embedded media perspectives” which examines new technologies in their everyday contexts and asks who uses them, why, when and for what purposes? Many of the studies of Japanese and Korean youth and their texting behaviors as well as Howard Rheingold’s work on “smart mobs” follows this approach.

A third approach follows the “articulation” model. This approach looks at how different elements can be connected or disconnected to create new unities or identities. Ideas, objects, and power become joined or separated in different places in different times. What does this mean for how we think about mobiles? We have a whole different set of questions to ask–and remember, the innovator is often the one who asked the right or different question from the rest of the pack. We can ask:

  • How has the mobile been articulated to voice, calculator, web browser, game, etc.?
  • How has the phone been articulated to progress, convenience, efficiency, style, health, banking, etc.?
  • How has the mobile been articulated to neoliberalism (eg. individual self-expression)?
  • How has it been articulated to gender, to the economy.

This notion of articulation is similar to the idea of assemblages.  But assemblages also include qualities, affects, speed.  Here we ask how mobiles work when the hand becomes part of the phone and the phone becomes part of the hand as in the Japanese notion of oyayubisoku (The Thumb Tribe).  How does the phone as assemblage shapes space, transforms behavior, rings, bothers, emotes, as Wise asks. 

This may sound academic but working through these questions will undoubtedly reveal insights that will help the mobile innovator.  One piece of work I’ve recently come across that comes closest to this is the Martha Ladley and Philip Beesley ed. volume “Mobile Nation”.  Here is what the book covers and I highly recommend it:

Mobile Nation focuses on five key areas of research with the questions:

  • How can mobile technologies be “reimagined” and repurposed for new user communities?
  • How can mobile technologies be designed and adapted for multiple platforms?
  • How can mobile experiences move beyond text, sound, and image to respond to the diverse and ever-changing needs and desires of mobile users?
  • How are new paradigms in mobile communication challenging the way we experience art, design and performance?
  • How are rapidly emerging hybrid, open-source, and do-it-yourself communities intersecting with social science, engineering, architecture, and other media disciplines?