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Studying Mobile Information Objects and Defining Network Literacy




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Over the past few weeks I have been spending more time thinking about the importance of studying mobile information objects in library and information science. While the analysis of mobile information objects is not new to the histories of recorded information and material culture found in libraries, archives, and museums, many information scholars have yet to really start engaging with the significance of these mobile machines, their interfaces, and network coverage that will affect ways we collect and create records in the future.

In my dissertation, I’m studying what happens when we delete the content of text messages that we send and receive. There’s a long history of studying mobile, portable, material culture in applied LIS studies, such as in print history, conservation science, museum studies, moving image archives and so on. One thing that I often have to remind myself is that we have always transmitted, lost, even deleted mobile traces, and further, there’s nothing new about mobile information objects in LIS. We have always had mobile, portable information devices that carry evidence of transactions that communicate culture across time and space. (Think cuneiform tablets, girdle books in the 13th century, or ladies hands fans from the 19th century, even paper clips.)

Mobile Communication and Information Technologies

So what makes the study of mobile information objects coming out of mobile ICTs different than earlier eras of mobile information objects? For me, and for other mobile communication and information scholars, it’s about the information landscape that is shaped by network coverage and produced by access to mobile networks. Simply put, carrying a mobile phone means carrying access to network coverage.

When we carry mobile devices with network coverage our experiences of information landscapes change, and the possibilities of what we can do with mobile phones transforms in a variety of ways, from everyday life to surveillance programs. Moreover, network coverage presents some really sticky questions for those of us concerned with digital traces, because traces of metadata are constantly created in order to support the potential connections and more traces that mobile devices can create. Increasingly we are developing a new kind of network literacy that is embedded in how we see the potentialities of these always-on, always-connected devices.

Rich Ling (2012) has recently written about the ways we take our phones for granted. We use them all the time, they are the first screens we look at in the morning and the last screens we look at night. People have been documented sleep texting and experiencing phantom rings alerts for calls and texts that haven’t arrived. Many of us feel anxious if we forget our phones at home or if the battery runs out before we can get back. I argue that these effects are from a new kind of network literacy that are folded into the daily patterns of our lives, they have become apart of what Anthony Giddens (1991) calls our “ontology of security”.


Defining Network Literacy

Early definitions of network literacy meant the ability to “identify, access and use electronic information from the network,” but increasingly, as phones become taken for granted and the penetration rate of use comes closer to 100%, I want to argue that the definition should expand to include the tacit experiences of connection; including the potentialities of transmitting digital traces with mobile networks (McClure 1997, ITU 2013). That is, our definition of network literacy should include ideas and possibilities that being connected to the network affords, not just consuming information in the network, but the potential of creating and accessing more records.

Mobile phones produce information landscapes just as they allow us to read the boundaries of networks and the coverage they provide, so this new kind of network literacy not only includes how mobile network infrastructure supports record making, but the ways we construct recordkeeping and cultures of collection in the 21st century. This includes the traces of transmission that are collected for surveillance and big data analytics. In order for mobile networks to provide coverage your mobile phone is constantly creating metadata, or traces of transmission, about your location and what your doing with the phone so that service providers can provide seamless access.

In an earlier post I described how these traces of transmission are just as important as the content and semantic structure of these records that we create and receive with our mobile devices. I think the expansion of our understanding of network literacy can be seen in the announcements that President Obama presented today in his NSA speech. We not only need basic ideas about how computers and the Internet work, we also need to expand these competencies to understand how our mobile phones (pocket computers) and mobile network coverage works.

Scholars like Howard Rheingold and Jason Farman have made great strides in expanding our definition of network literacy, but we still have more work to do in studies of mobile information objects. Clearly, this is an important moment for us, not only as information and mobile communication scholars, but as citizens concerned about privacy, accuracy, and civil liberties in the networked information age.


Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press.
International Telecommunication Union. (2013). The World in 2013: ICT Facts and Figures. ITU.
Ling, R. S. (2012). Taken for grantedness: The embedding of mobile communication into society. MIT Press.
McClure, C. R. (1997) “Network literacy in an electronic society: An educational disconnect.” Current perspectives. Information and behavior 6: 403-439

One Comment

  1. Phil Hall wrote:

    For the past little while I’ve been mulling the influence and effects of two broad groups who are using networked mobile technology: the millennial generation of North America and also the recently-educated proto-middle-class youth of economies that have suffered greatly in the recent banking crises (both those of the middle-east and north Africa (who triggered the Arab Spring) and also those of Mediterranean Europe whose economies have had long-lasting damage from the banking crashes). I think these two different groups, perhaps in different ways, will change the definition of information and the expectations for knowledge curation and transfer because they are maturing with what might be called a heuristic, possibly even tribal, understanding of how their use of the network affects what they know and how they transfer that knowledge. I think we’re in the sunset of the age where access to knowledge content was institutionally controlled. These two groups are using information that is network controlled and the context is in the network (I think of context as analogous to your description of the “traces” of transmission) and can not be tied into an institutional context. These uses of the mobile networks, and the governmental and corporate responses to perceived threats about that use, are completely outside how major institutions serve an (ostensibly) stable society. I’m thinking here of libraries, but also of education institutions (both schools and universities) and even the substantive information and knowledge functions of subject-based government departments.

    Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink