The Technological Gaze

Event Construction and the Mobile Body

How to Cite

Ibrahim, Y. (2007). The Technological Gaze: Event Construction and the Mobile Body. M/C Journal, 10(1).
Vol. 10 No. 1 (2007): 'mobile'
Published 2007-03-01


Bodies occupy their position in space, and this space has been commodified, shaped and framed. The personal wall of space and sound between two bodies can be carved out as two distinct entities by engaging the cognitive senses. Two people in the same room can be either separated or connected by technology. The recognition and perhaps the celebration of the body as a site of consumption has witnessed an array of technological and mobile artefacts designed to lure its cognitive senses away from the communal and into the personal. The personal space is a coveted commodity in which new technologies, innovative designs and convergence occur and coalesce. The inbuilt surveillance mechanisms within mobile technologies and the constant circulation of bodies nevertheless constitute new forms of gaze, consumption and surveillance which have wider implications for postmodern societies. This counter-gaze of the technologically connected bodies presents the potential for empowerment and connection with wider society, yet it inadvertently raises new conundrums in which the politics of gazing present new ethical and moral dilemmas for humanity.

Our bodies as mobile entities have often posed new challenges for designers and innovators, and, in our increasingly mediated electronic world, technologies that were integrated into the hearth and home have become disembedded from the confines of this domestic setting to appropriate the mobile body as a site for locating new forms of consumption and communication. Traditional media such as radio and television in their heyday heralded the ability for families to come together and experience consumption as one entity. The decentring of technologies of entertainment and consumption from the domestic sites into the physical site of the body has meant new forms of configuration in design and convergence. Adorno prophesied that ‘we will conceive a series leading from the man who cannot work without the blare of the radio to the one who kills time and paralyses loneliness by filling his ears with the illusion of “being with” no matter what’ (78).

The advent of the Walkman marked an era that sought to provide pleasure on the move while appropriating the body as a site for embedding technology (Hebdige). In crowded places and even in the domestic arrangement of the home, the self could seek private spaces of entertainment. The iPod as the descendant of the Walkman phenomenon celebrates both the body and movement while stressing the elements of individualisation and personalisation of content whereby the moving body can create a library of sounds and content unique to itself. Capitalist enterprises have recognised the criticism of mass reproduction levelled at the culture industries by emphasising the remaking of individuals through technology and have stressed the personalisation of technology on a mass scale. The personalisation of technologies has become a major marketing tool for mobile technologies. More importantly, many mobile technologies, such as the iPod, are designed to speak to other new media technologies and constitute part of a new media ecology in which individuals can customise their content and have the agency to transgress the boundaries between a producer and consumer.

With the rise of mobile telephony and the convergence of technologies, portable gadgets morph into both communication and media devices. The current mobile phones assume a multitude of identities, delivering sound, text and images while connecting a moving body in a crowded space to virtual worlds and people beyond its immediate remit. The ability of mobile gadgets such as cell phones to interact with wider interactive technologies such as the Internet has provided new platforms for audiences and consumers to produce personal narratives, images, opinions and information. Images can be captured on the move and disseminated on a global and public platform such as the World Wide Web. Uploads and downloads symbolically construct the individual simultaneously as consumer and producer and as part of the audience in the postmodern age in which boundaries between categories are blurred and increasingly eroded.

Mobile technologies are sites of double articulation where they are both a medium and a receptacle for content. In tandem with this, the emerging patterns of use of mobile technologies and their appropriation into the everyday life have consequences for the evolution of a post-surveillance society in which the omnipresent gaze is constructed through mobile telephony. More importantly, the links between mobile and new media technologies such as the Internet present new production and political economies where private content can be linked to a wider economy of information production and dissemination. Many of the debates about mainstream media and the Internet have concerned the ability of audiences to circumvent and renegotiate the gate-keeping models of media power. The power of the media, which Habermas referred to as a form of refeudalisation, conveys the entrenched and unchecked power of the media in contemporary societies. New media, while not completely reconfiguring the power structures of mainstream media, present new avenues to raise counter points. In the last decade, the mainstream media have had to integrate the occurrence of information and content on the Internet and in mobile technologies, and in view of this the links between mainstream media, new media, civilian journalism and narratives are increasingly evolving. It is in this present economy of information that the potential of mobile and interactive technologies and the personal gaze of the connected body need to be assessed.

Personal Gaze and Event Construction

Much of the recent literature on news construction has focused on the decline in traditional gate keeping and the rise in media-driven events, which have been facilitated by new communication technologies such as videophone and portable recording and transmission systems (Livingston & Bennet 364). The rise of soft news and infotainment (Patterson) in the mainstream media, the integration of personal narratives and the trivialisation of politics have meant that since the 1980s there has been an increasing reliance on ‘eyewitness’ accounts (Livingston & Bennet 370) to construct media reports. Event-driven news (Lawrence), unlike pseudo events (Boorstin) orchestrated by the media, includes spontaneous events such as natural disasters and terrorists attacks. Bennet and Livingston have argued that event-driven news is overtaking institutionally based news, particularly in the technologically charged environment of cable television international affairs news. In the weeks and months that followed the 9/11 attacks, there was an increased sharing of information, narratives and images through blogs (Brady). Blogs became a post-event discursive location for communion and sharing experiences, reiterating the fact that new discursive spheres (whether originating from mobile interactive technologies or from the Internet) will become integrated in event creation and memory construction in mediated societies.

It signifies new media rituals in conveying global events where the telling of the story through the media gaze alone is incomplete and where the inclusion of the participatory gaze of the civilian becomes embedded in event creation. Mediated events are enacted and reconstructed not through mainstream media paradigms alone but also through new media platforms which enable individuals to contribute, embellish and perhaps even negate media accounts of global and local events. Technology in this sense has both increased the occurrence of traumatic acts and access to them (Zelizer 697). Our sense of the familiar and unfamiliar, community as well as otherness, can be increasingly mediated through mobile technologies where the banality of the everyday imposes new forms of connection and disconnection. Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman moot the idea that, in the public urban spaces we inhabit, the individuals who affect us most are the ones that we repeatedly observe and yet do not directly interact with. Borrowing the term from sociologist Stanley Milgram, Paulos and Goodman argue that the mobile phone has increasingly divided people from co-located strangers within their community, because there is a tendency to ignore other people while reaching for the mobile phone. This dramatically decreases the opportunities for interaction beyond our social group.

The incorporation of the private gaze into news production privileges the individual gaze, in which the media may not have been present to narrate events as they unfold. The act of bearing witness moves individuals from the personal act of ‘seeing’ to the adoption of a public stance by which they become a part of a collective working through trauma together (Zelizer 698). Barbie Zelizer contends that the ‘individual remains the lynchpin through which the upheaval and dislocation caused by trauma begin to be replaced by shared social meanings and a renewed sense of collective purpose’ (698). In the July 7 bombings in London, events on the fateful day were constructed through both individual narratives and digitised images. A posting on the BBC website gives an insight into the evolving and intrinsic relationship between event creation and mobile technologies:

When tragedy strikes the news crews are not far behind and the attack on London transport network in July 2005 was no exception. However the photographers and journalists were there to record the aftermath, it was you (the reader) who sent in stills and videos of the moment disaster struck.

In the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, the BBC received 20,000 written accounts via e-mail, 1,000 photos and 20 videos from citizens. The Tsunami disaster, the 7/7 bombings in July, the Madrid bombings and Hurricane Katrina brought to the fore the role of mobile telephony in reconstructing events and in aiding the media in constructing its narratives. News outlets openly solicited comments, photos and videos from citizens’ cell phones (Glaser). The incorporation of such mobile technologies into mainstream news production has seen the emergence of news events that are narrated beyond the vantage point of the mainstream media. The mobile technologies are invariably empowering citizens as consumers to record and capture images and pen blog entries from their cell phones and other mobile devices. This ecology of information that unfolds after major events wrenches historical moments away from the clutches of the pervasive mainstream media. The Washington Post notes that the ‘ordinary people going about their daily lives are now the first to document historic events’ (Jordon). The concretising of history through images has its limitations, for they offer at best an arbitrary and an incomplete narrative. Additionally, the ability to preserve and remember the past is also dependent on a society’s capacity to store, and unless cultures have the ‘means to freeze the memory of the past, the natural tendency of social memory is to suppress what is not meaningful’ and to replace it with what is conceptually appropriate in the given context (Fentress & Wickham 58–9). Mobile technologies and new media platforms offer spaces of storage in which a proliferation of narratives and images provide avenues for reading history differently, away from the institutionalised spaces of museums and official archives.

The fortress of media gaze has been invariably remediated through new platforms for news construction, which can range from scrolling text on the screen to blogs in websites that make news and event construction a more fluid and a constantly evolving phenomenon. The proliferation of media accounts also gives rise to framing contests (Entman), in which there are struggles over the meaning of events in the news.

Through the act of bearing witness, mobile technologies widen these framing struggles, drawing citizens’ perspectives into the politics of meaning construction. Ostensibly, mobile technologies seek, through citizen journalism and the act of bearing witness, to democratise event creation, appropriating a ‘bazaar as opposed to a cathedral’ approach (Raymond) whereby the social sharing of information re-negotiates the monopolisation of the mainstream media in constructing events, making history an open-ended experience.

The role of mobile technologies and the Internet in disaster relief has been well documented, for example in raising awareness and funds after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, (Samarajiva). Nevertheless, it also allows fraudulent behaviour and activities to flourish whereby both authentic and inauthentic material vie for audience attention on a global scale. These activities tend to diminish genuine efforts to rebuild communities and trace missing people through global information links such as the Internet. The vast amount of information on the Internet and the potential for abuse and fraudulence sustain the distinction between mainstream and peripheral media despite the growing links between them. One website, aptly titled ‘’, for example, is co-opting civilians to send in photographs of celebrities, thus capitalising on the co-presence of a mass public and the non-stop vigilance they can offer with the increasing incorporation of surveillance technologies in mobile phones.

Technologies of Empowerment

Beyond bearing witness and facilitating citizen journalism, mobile technologies as devices of connectivity contain the potential for empowerment and for initiating collective action. The videotaped beating of Rodney King a decade ago brought home the potential of mobile technologies to expose social injustices and hold authorities and political powers accountable. The notion of civic participation in societal governance via the gaze and utilisation of technology is nevertheless dependent on the level of its appropriation as well as on issues of access and literacy in societies. In the context of social activism, mobile mass communication has been implicated as the key to the anti-globalisation movement, for which it has been an agent of both information transfer and corporeal movements (Nicholson 2). Equally, mobile telephony has given rise to phenomena such as ‘flash mobs’, which celebrate ‘the power of many in the pursuit of nothing’ (Nicholson 3). Flash mobs constitute complete strangers who use mobile and Internet technologies to arrange to convene in public places for pointless acts. Nicholson argues that these mobs symbolise the performative elements of mobile technology. Its ability to bring people together virtually and physically and equally to disconnect after the ritual of communion marks a significant moment in the history of mobile communication.

Howard Rheingold’s notion of the ‘smart mobs’, in contrast, conceives people in various contexts being empowered by communication technologies. Smart mobs as collectives behave in an intelligent and concerted manner, owing to their exponentially increasing network links. While such networks facilitate practical implementation of collective intelligence, they are nevertheless loose networks that seek to mobilise disparate individuals by evoking some form of shared social identity or ideology, and their success depends on the thresholds for individual participation and socio-political contexts. This ‘instantaneous mobilisation of support through the click of a mouse’ (Nicholson 4) needs to reconcile the potential for abuse of trust and collective agency for personal or commercial causes. Additionally, its ability to act as a ‘collective in a concerted manner’ is based on the assumption that people act rationally in a crowd. Its agency is also limited because of its weak organisational links.

The utilisation of mobile technologies for civilian empowerment is nevertheless evolving and starting to challenge governments and bureaucrats in unexpected ways. The politics of technological consumption and its appropriation into the everyday life has witnessed distinctive changes in the social and political landscape in the Asia Pacific region. The infamous ‘coup d’text’ that ousted former president Joseph Estrada in the Philippines (Uy-Tioco, Pertierra, “Mobile Phones” 1) and the role of mobile technologies in garnering support for President Roh Moo-Hyun in the South Korean elections in 2002 (Kim, Nicholson, Hjorth, “Snapshots”) highlight the different ways in which technology, politics and empowerment are enmeshed and lead to moments of agency that change the course of national and electoral histories. In the Philippines, mobile telephony, along with the mass media, presented the possibility of violence rather than violence itself, where the rituals of rebellion constituted both a simulacra and a spectacle (Pertierra, “The Work”). According to Rheingold (“Political Texting” 2), ‘the electoral power of texting could be an early indicator of social upheaval: whenever people gain the power to organise collective action on new scales, in places, at new tempos, with groups they had not been able to organise before, societies and civilisations change.’ Beyond watershed events such as coups, mobile telephony in the guise of text messaging is also becoming an embedded ritual in conveying social and political grievances in both the Philippines and South Korea. For example, in 2005 in Seoul, 400 students gathered to protest the severe pressures they must endure for the nation’s highly competitive college-entrance exams (Hong). In addition, political empowerment and the increasing appropriation and incorporation of camera phones into daily lives and everyday practices are creating new forms of representation and self-identity. In South Korea, camera phones are enabling women to become active performers and gazers in a male patriarchal society (Lee). These engagements are creating various cultural meanings and subjective experiences while remediating, subverting and reiterating gender politics through mobile technologies.

While renegotiating the politics and aesthetics of gazing in traditional societies, mobile telephony has also enabled citizens to circumnavigate entrenched and dominant patterns of information dissemination, political communication and expression. In China after the Tiananmen Square protests the authorities passed laws requiring all demonstrations to be pre-approved by local public-security agencies, but now with SMS and e-mails it is possible to organise large-scale protest without government permit (Hong). Mobile technologies provided new platforms for citizens to circumvent and partially dismantle China’s propaganda machinery. During the SARS epidemic, despite the efforts by the Chinese authorities to censor text messages, they became the main vehicle for communication, with 150 million text messages revealing the truth about the epidemic (Rheingold, “Political Texting” 3).

Mobile technologies are invariably aiding the circumnavigation of monolithic institutions and geographical constraints. In North Korea, human-rights activists who for years have been smuggling in radios are now eyeing mobile telephones to break the regime’s propaganda apparatus and connect citizens and diasporic communities to the wider world (Hong). Beyond linking disparate communities in authoritarian regimes, these new technologies are also facilitating the expansion of public spheres within bounded geographical territories. In Singapore, technology in the form of mobile telephony and blogs is creating new public spheres to widen election commentary. Election rallies held by opposition parties are routinely not given adequate coverage on mainstream media, but in the 2006 general elections these rallies were recorded on mobile devices and broadcast via YouTube (Gomez). The broadcasting of alternative election commentary via the Internet using new technologies circumvented the government’s ban on podcasting and videocasting by political-party websites during the election period. These emerging electronic public spheres are blurring the lines between acceptable and forbidden political discourses in highly controlled societies such as Singapore, where such demarcations are monitored and held in check in the offline society by government legislation and control of the mainstream media.

Beyond functioning as platforms for the collective renegotiation of politics, mobile technologies have also highlighted social injustices inflicted on individuals. In Malaysia, a 22-year-old babysitter was forced to strip naked and ordered to squat up and down when she was arrested for alleged possession of drugs. Her ordeal in the police station was captured on cell phone, made its appearance on YouTube and was viewed by millions. It forced the prime minister to establish an official inquiry, which led to changes in police practice (Jordon). The embedded gaze and utilisation of mobile technologies presents opportunities for agency and empowerment for citizens to hold governments and authorities accountable and on a bigger scale to agitate or vote for non-violent change, as in the cases of South Korea and the Philippines. Such narratives of empowerment should not be readily interpreted as trajectories of technological determinism, as these moments of agency are materialised through the symbiosis of several factors, including the appropriate use of collective intelligence, the social and political landscape, the embedding of technology and its appropriation into everyday life, and the coalescing of human agency and will. Tiziana Terranova, in borrowing Harry Cleaver’s term ‘degree-zero politics’, refers to both the limitless potential of new media technologies to offer moments of agency that crystallise into change and equally their ability to dissolve into nothing (hence the term ‘degree-zero politics’).

The Rise of the Post-Surveillance Society

The everyday consumption of technology within one’s habitat and public spaces is intrinsically interwoven into a wider capitalist infrastructure which recodes individual consumption into data in the market economy. Robert Luke’s concept of ‘phoneur’ refers to a mobile-phone user strolling around the cityscape, where the user is located as both a spectator and an entity connected to a wider database infrastructure and information economy through the sheer act of consumption. Phones equipped with Global Positional System (GPS) software enable the collection of personal information whereby data about the user becomes an object of exchange. The ‘phoneur’ leaves traces in the virtual world as he/she enters and manoeuvres in spaces that are systematically codified into data. These structures are invisible data-collection mechanisms which track user habits through the data flows, and the phoneur’s construction of reality happens through these socio-technical constructs of communication. (Luke 2). The phoneur is thus embedded in a network data structure which produces social relations based on commodity production and consumption. Manuel Castells refers to this as the ‘space of flows’, in which capitalist production and consumption are submitted to panoptic surveillance of activities within the wired and wireless networks. The increasing horizontal co-ordination between dossiers and sites of surveillance seems likely to intensify co-ordinated and comprehensive surveillance (Graham 142), thus creating new geographies of surveillance which incorporate the wired body within this landscape.

Michael Geist points out that ‘the emergence of an always-on video society facilitated through mobile technologies raises some difficult questions about the appropriate privacy–transparency balance, the ethics of posting private moments to a global audience, and the responsibility of websites hosting these clips’. Here, the transgressing of the boundaries between private and public, authentic and inauthentic and sacred and profane creates various ethical and moral concerns. Mark Glaser notes that this raises ethical and moral dilemmas about what to record and capture, especially in traumatic life-and-death situations. According to James Casico, mobile technologies constitute invisible mobile memory aids that are ‘always on,’ creating a ‘participatory panopticon’ where nothing is nominally safe from the public spectacle.

In a society in which the ‘cameras are always rolling’ (Geist), this omnipresent gaze is accommodated within a wider paradigm of constant vigilance in which the individual gaze facilitated by mobile technologies co-exists within institutionally-entrenched CCTV cultures that codify movements and circulation of bodies as data, creating a post-surveillance society that implicitly accepts the degree of monitoring and surveillance (practised top-down and bottom-up) while embedding it in daily lives in new and innovative ways. This post-surveillance society is part of the accelerated modernity in postmodern societies, where speed and movement of people and activities have to be reconciled with the ability to record and freeze-frame images through both the narcissistic gaze of the individual and the centralised gaze of institutions. The participatory counter-gaze of moving bodies is decentralised and disparate but contains the potential to challenge the entrenched and centralised gaze of institutional authority while raising new and ethical dilemmas about bearing witness and capturing images and circulating them within the wider information economy and data infrastructure in postmodern societies. In this environment of pervasive gaze the possibilities for recontextualising data and images are also endless, as ‘it can become the portal for voyeurism and unauthorised images of unsuspecting prey whereby everyone can become anonymous actors in someone’s film’ (Hjorth, “Being Mobile”).

These processes that are unleashed by the new mobile technologies and their embedding into the wider ecology of media represent a new environment in which boundaries are constantly transgressed with surveillance and counter-surveillance. Edmund Carpenter, in echoing McLuhan and Innis, alludes to the bias in each medium:

If the bias in each medium is properly exploited, it can communicate unique aspects of reality, of truth. Each (medium) offers a different perspective, a different way of seeing an otherwise hidden reality…A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter, it itself is a major part of that message. (174–6)

The bias in mobile technologies (i.e. the ability to link with other media, the surveillance and recording functions) conveys a media environment where new forms of gazing, event construction, power relations, ethical dilemmas and intricate links are forged with the wider information economy. These environments are so ‘pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered’ (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 26). As a result, they may be taken for granted and may be invisible to their inhabitants while remaining an active process (McLuhan & Parker). Thus no medium of communication operates in isolation, and hence every medium affects every other medium, creating a media ecology in which the mobile technologies have visible and invisible connections to framing and interpreting global events where private moments can coalesce into public stances on a global platform such as the Internet. The increasing transgression of private and public boundaries and the opportunities to make the private public mark the essence of the post-surveillance society, in which the act of gazing is not limited to powerful and centralised agencies but includes the wider civilian community. This degree of pervasiveness makes it both an invisible and an integrated process.


The politics of gazing via new mobile technologies in the everyday life combine the site of the moving body, the agency of the self and the aesthetics of the banal and mundane (Hjorth, “Being Mobile,” Koskinen) to construct a new media environment in which the act of private consumption and production is connected to a wider data infrastructure and information economy. The creation of new rituals to comprehend global disasters and the integration of the personal gaze to construct, interpret and frame events-driven news can signify new forms of collective healing where the individual gaze provides a window for communal empathy and memory construction. Conversely, mobile technologies can create a society of familiar strangers whose sense of identity, place and community is continually shaped by their consumption of mobile technologies. The incorporation of narratives beyond mainstream media during global events and the mobilisation of political agency through new media platforms constitute forms of empowerment both in changing the course of history and in narrating and documenting it. The constant consumption of mobile technologies constructs a post-surveillance society with the potential to challenge and provide a counter-gaze against the powerful and entrenched institutions. This non-stop gazing nevertheless raises new ethical and moral dilemmas over new boundaries that may be transgressed and violated. The transcendence of the boundaries between private and public, profane and sacred – as well as the pleasurable and the salacious – defines mobile technologies as a space of constant contestation between various forms of ephemeral and entrenched practices, which will continuously present new possibilities, perils and risks to our moral environment.

Author Biography

Yasmin Ibrahim