Embodied Perceptions of Darkness

Multistable Experiences of Mobile Media in the Urban Night

How to Cite

Hardley, J. (2021). Embodied Perceptions of Darkness: Multistable Experiences of Mobile Media in the Urban Night. M/C Journal, 24(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2756 (Original work published April 26, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 2 (2021): dark
Published 2021-04-26 — Updated on 2021-04-27


The past decade has seen a burgeoning new field titled “night studies” or “darkness studies” (Gwiazdzinski, Maggioli, and Straw). Key theorists Straw, Shaw, Dunn, and Edensor have spearheaded this new field, publishing a recent flurry of books and other scholarly work dedicated to various aspects of the night. Topics range, for instance, from the history of artificial lighting (Shaw), atmospheres of urban light and darkness (Sumartojo, Edensor, and Pink), street music and public space at night (Reia), the experience of eating in the dark (Edensor and Falconer), walking at night (Morris; Dunn), gendered experiences of the city at night (Hardley; Hardley and Richardson “Mobile Media”, “Mistrust”), and women’s solo experiences of the wilderness at night.

Contributing to this new field, this article considers some of the embodied ways mobile media have been deployed in the urban night. To date, this topic has not received much attention within the fields of mobile media or night studies. The research presented in this article draws on a qualitative research project conducted in Australia from 2016-2020. The project focussed on participants’ use of mobile media in urban spaces at night and conducted a specific analysis of pertinent gendered differences. Throughout my iterative and longitudinal research process, I engaged various phases of data collection to explore participants’ night-time mobile media practices, as well as to consider how darkness and the night impact networked practices in ways that speak to the postphenomenological concept of multistability (Ihde Postphenomenology and Technoscience). I highlight the empirical findings through a series of participant stories, exploring salient insights into embodied perceptions of darkness and various ways of co-opting mobile media practices in the urban night.

Methods: Data Collection, Interpretation, and Representation

My research took place in Perth and Melbourne from 2016-2020. A total of 98 individuals, aged 19 to 67 years, participated. Participants came from diverse backgrounds, including urban and rural Australia, Sweden, America, Ethiopia, Italy, Argentina, USA, and England. They were students, teachers, chefs, unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, miners, small business owners, retired, doctors, and government scientists. They identified across the sexuality and gender identity spectrums.

My techniques for data collection were grouped into four main phases: (i) an initial survey; (ii) home visits, which included interviews, haptic experiments, observations, and my own situatedness in participants’ homes; (iii) geo-locative tracking and text messaging; and (iv) online follow-up interviews. The study was open to anyone who lived in Perth or Melbourne, was over 18 years old, and used a smartphone. All phases of the data collection were conducted during the day or at night, depending on participant availability.

My focus on darkness and the night, in relation to mobile media, evolved over time. The first question regarding mobile media and the night was posed in 2016 during initial data collection, using an online survey to cast a wide net to gather insights on networked functionality afforded by mobile phones and perceptions of safety and risk in urban and domestic space. Participants frequently referred to the differences between day and night. During home visits and face-to-face interviews in 2017, as well as online interviews in 2020, I sought to gain deeper insights into participants’ sensory experiences of darkness and the night. My interpretation and representation of the data adopts a similar approach as vignettes, which are described by Berry in her book on creative practice and mobile media. For Berry, vignettes are a way of “braiding” (xv) accounts of participant experience together. My particular use of this approach has been published in detail elsewhere (Hardley and Richardson “Digital Placemaking”). 

Postphenomenology, Multistability, and Mobile Media

Throughout this article I frame engagement with mobile media as a particular kind of body-technology relation. As the founder of postphenomenology, Ihde, writes, “technologies transform our experience of the world and our perceptions and interpretations of our world, and we in turn become transformed in this process” (Postphenomenology and Technoscience 44). Ihde adapted phenomenology (from Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, and Heidegger) by shifting away from an essentialist body-subject to non-essentialist contextualisation. As Ihde explains (he uses archery longbows and arrows to make his point), all tools are the “same” in an abstract sense; however, “radically different practices fit differently into various contexts” (Postphenomenology and Technoscience 16). In other words, tools (including mobile media) are never neutral and are always multiple and variable depending on context and practice. All tools are therefore situated and embodied in culturally specific ways.

Postphenomenological scholarship can, thus, be said to capture the cultural specificity of all human-technology relations. The following examples help illustrate this defining characteristic of postphenomenology, as distinct from phenomenology. It could be argued that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological description of the blind man with his cane is an essentialist notion of what it’s like to experience blindness. On the other hand, Wellner’s postphenomenological description of using a mobile phone describes how the same technology can be used by different people in multiple ways, as people assign different meanings to the technology. This notion is best captured by the term multistability, which suggests each technology has numerous uses, applications and purposes.

As Irwin explains, the term multistability—one of Ihde’s central concepts within postphenomenology—conveys the inherent adaptability and mutability of both bodies and media engagement, depending on the context or situatedness of a tool’s use. In the following sections, I first explore embodied perceptions of darkness and the night, and then explore how mobile media have modified participants’ embodied perception of darkness and how it informs their situated awareness of their urban surroundings. In terms of my research, this concerns how mobile media users embody their devices in an array of different ways, especially at night.

“Feeling” the Night: Embodied Perceptions of Darkness

Darkness, and the night, are not simply about the lack of vision. Indeed, while sensory perception in the dark, such as obscured vision and the heightening of other senses, comes into play, we also encounter the night through an enmeshed cultural relationship of darkness and danger. Shaw describes this relationship in the following way:

darkness has been equated with danger: the night was a time when demons, criminals and others who presented a threat were imagined to be present in the landscape. Darkness was thus imagined as a space in which both real and mythical dangers were present. (“Controlling Darkness” 5)

Chris, a young gay man living in a medium-sized town close to Melbourne, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and laughed when I asked him if he has ever been scared of the dark. He responded:

[Silence] Yeah! I have! Wow, what a funny question. [Laughter] I remember always checking my closet as a child before getting into bed. And the door had to be closed. I could not sleep if the closet door was open.

When asked what he thought might be in the closet at night, he laughed again and shared:

I have no idea. I don’t think I ever thought it was a person, just the unknown. How funny to think about that now—as a gay man I was scared of what might come out of the closet! [Laughter]

Chris’s observation of his habitual childhood behaviour illustrates an embodied cultural imagery of darkness and the role of fear, anxieties and the unknown in the dark. He also spoke of “growing out of” his fantastical fear of the dark as he entered adulthood. This contrasts with what many women in my study described, noting their transition from childhood “fears of the dark” to very real and “felt” experiences of darkness and danger. This opened up a major finding in my research, and uncovered navigational and connectivity strategies often deployed by women in urban spaces at night (Hardley and Richardson “Mistrust”).

For instance, Leah (a woman in her late 40s living in Perth), revealed her peripatetic engagement with the (sub)urban night when she described her cycling routes with her 8-year-old daughter. While talking with me via Zoom in 2020, she explained:

I have an electric bike—it’s great. I can zip around the city and I have a kid’s seat on the back for my daughter. Sometimes I feel like a hybrid pedestrian—I can switch quickly between being on the road or the footpath. Recently, my daughter asked why we always take the long way home at night. I had to think quickly to come up with a response because I think she’s too young to know the truth. I told her that parks are often empty at night, so if something happens to us then there will be no one to help. In a way that’s true, but really, it’s because as a woman and a child it’s safer for us to remain on well-lit streets.

Leah’s experience of the city and her mobility at night are distinctly gendered; she reflects on her experience as a “hybrid pedestrian” in relation to what could happen to her and her daughter if they were to ride through the park at night instead of remaining on the well-lit bike path. Overwhelmingly, the men who participated in my study did not share similar experiences or reflections.

Introducing the embodiment of darkness and the night, along with associated fears and anxieties, in a general sense sets the atmospheric scene for a postphenomenological analysis of embodied experiences of the urban night and how users co-opt mobile media functionalities to manage their embodied experiences of the dark. Chris and Leah’s stories both suggest how we “feel” at night has important implications for the practical way(s) in which we engage, navigate and curate our experiences of the dark.

In the following section, I consider how mobile devices are literally “handled”, particularly by women in the urban context, to mitigate fears and anxieties of the night. I contend that our embodied experience of the urban night is mediated by, and through, our collective and individual fears, anxieties and perceptions of danger in the dark.

Co-opting Mobile Media: Multistable Experiences of the Urban Night

Reflecting on his own practices of walking at night, Dunn writes,

walking at night, however, offers something different, having the capacity to alter our ingrained, seemingly natural predispositions towards the urban surroundings, and our perceptions along with it. (9)

Indeed, the night can offer a “capacity to alter”; however, I suggest that it can also reinforce anxieties and fears of the dark (both real and imagined). As such, walking at night can also reinforce “ingrained, seemingly natural predispositions”. Postphenomenology is useful here, as it offers a way to think through practices of what Ihde calls “amplification” and “reduction” of the corporeal schema. Through both actions, mobile media users habituate themselves or take up residence in the urban night by and through their use of smartphone functionalities, as well as their sense of networked connectivity.

In the context of this article, the corporeal schema undergoes an amplification and reduction via the co-opting of mobile media, such as an embodied sense of networked connectivity or a tactile prop, to generate a “tele-cocoon” (Habuchi), “shield” (Verhoeff), or “bubble” (Bull Sounding). The corporeal schema can be understood as our lived experience of the world (Merleau-Ponty), whereby our “perceptual reach and bodily boundaries, is always-already extendible through artifacts and technologies” (Hardley and Richardson “Mistrust”). The digital cocoon afforded by mobile media is often gendered and overtly concerned with issues of personal safety and privacy, especially at night. For many women, generating an imagined boundary between the self and others in shared urban spaces is an important function of mobile media. As one Perth participant reflected,

my phone’s a good distraction when I’m alone in a public place, especially at night if I’m waiting for someone. Sometimes guys will come up and try to start a conversation—it’s so annoying. If I focus on my phone, it’s like telling them to leave me alone.

This tactical use of mobile media to carve out one’s own space in crowded social places was especially common among the women I interviewed. Yet, such practices are also deployed by men, albeit for different reasons. In Melbourne, Dane described the strategic use of his mobile phone as both a creative tool of connection and a means of communicating—especially to women at night—that he was non-threatening.

As a proud late-adopter of smartphones, he explained to me that his main reason for buying one had been the camera function; he refers to his smartphone as “a camera that rings”. He particularly enjoys taking photos at night, during which time his familiar streets become “moody and strange”. He spends many hours walking in his neighbourhood, capturing shadows and uploading the images to his public Instagram account. Referring to his dark skin and shaved head, he joked, “I’d look great in a line-up” and added:

sometimes I feel a bit self-conscious on the bus or train, particularly late at night, I think maybe I could seem like a threat or something. So, I’ll play a game or chat to friends about my photos via Instagram. I figure it works both ways—I don’t notice anyone and people don’t notice me.

As these participant stories reveal, the personal privacy bubble offered by our mobile devices is co-opted differently. Turning to Ihde’s notion of multistability, these examples can be analysed and understood as mobile technologies’ potential variabilities with multiple outcomes (Ihde Postphenomenology and Technoscience). To explore and explain this further, I consider the following participant story in which Britta, an American living in Melbourne, reflected on her night-time pedestrian practices across two cities, sharing:

at night, in Australia, my phone would be in my bra. In Philadelphia, it would be in my hand. It's totally different because of safety. When at University in the U.S., I would always talk to a friend while walking from one place to the next. It doesn't even cross my mind to do that in Australia. In Philadelphia, I would call one of the girls I lived with and if someone approached me, I could say, "Oh shit, I'm about to get mugged, this is where I am” and they could call the cops. It's a sense of being on guard. I would never walk using headphones in Philadelphia. In Australia, if I go running at night I listen to music with one earphone in.

In this vignette, Britta has habituated an acute awareness of her corporeal schema. As Wellner suggests, “the world is always a negotiation between humans and their tools, their artifacts, their technology, and their devices” (5). In this context, Britta has an amplified awareness of her situatedness, and uses her mobile phone to listen to music in different ways depending on her geographical location. There is a direct connection to her use of headphones to listen to music and her embodied perception of personal safety at night.

Turning to Ihde, this participant story can be explained through the term “non-neutrality”, which describes how “no technology is ‘one thing,’ nor is it incapable of belonging to multiple contexts” (Ihde Technology and Prognostic 47).  Such an example points to the non-neutrality of mobile media, and how “our perception and environment are mediated by the technology” (Wellner 15).

This analysis can be extended further to consider the use of headphones (as an extension of the mobile phone) and geographical location in relation to the concept of multistability—that is, the specificity of use. As Irwin writes, “how is it to be an earbudded body in the world? ... Earbuds are non-neutral and they are becoming deeply imbedded in daily life” (81). Indeed, Bull’s influential work on how personal stereos and iPods change users’ experiences of public spaces (Sound Moves) is useful here in understanding the background of what Irwin refers to as “keeping sound in and sound out” (81). It is, according to Irwin, “about privacy and isolation” (81); however, as Britta’s vignette shows, mobile media practices of privacy and isolation in urban spaces can be impacted by geographical location and urban darkness, and are also distinctly gendered.

Applying the concept of multistability allows me to consider how, in some instances, mobile phones are often deployed as a proxy Do Not Disturb sign when alone in public (Hardley and Richardson “Mistrust”). While, in other instances, one’s embodied experience of being an earbudded body in the world can increase their perceptual sense of risk based on various factors, such as geographical location. Beyond this, it also speaks to the relational ontology between body and technology and the mutability of perception. In Britta’s example, her corporeal schema in the urban night is amplified by and through her personal and situated embodiment of mobile media use, particularly her decision to use headphones in specific ways depending on her geographical location.

In 2017, I conducted a home visit with Dominique, a woman in her 30s living in Perth. During this visit, she reflected on her use of a Bluetooth earpiece, especially at night, sharing:

I use a Bluetooth earpiece to talk over the phone. I also sometimes wear it at night even if I'm not on the phone or expecting a call as I can quickly request that Siri call someone for me without having to actually dig out my phone, unlock it and make the call. I prefer having my hands free. It can make me feel safer at night.

Dominique’s description of having her mobile phone on standby can be understood as a habituated practice to overcome her anxieties of being alone at night in urban space, as well as to apprehend her sensory experience of the urban night by remaining “hands free”. Similar to Britta, Dominique’s embodiment in the urban night had become habituated and sedimented over time—or, in other words, “[a] force of habit” (Rosenberger and Verbeek 25). In this way, Dominique’s embodiment is configured depending on her contextual specificity, such as being alone in public spaces at night.


This article contributes to the emerging interdisciplinary field of “night studies” and “darkness studies” by focusing on the relationship between mobile media practices and the urban night. I based my methods, including data collection, interpretation and representation, in a postphenomenological framework, and detailed how this framework is useful in reflecting deeply and critically on mobile media use at night. Drawing from the framework’s key concept of multistability, I suggest a particular analysis of how users co-opt mobile media functionalities in situationally unique and personal ways in the urban night. The ways in which users co-opt these functionalities are often gendered.

I unpacked how some of my research participants deploy mobile media functions as a means of managing their fears and anxieties of darkness and the urban night, and suggest that such uses are always dependent on the users specific situatedness, both within urban spaces and toward other city dwellers. In sum, this article has stressed the importance of situated and embodied experiences of darkness, and deploys postphenomenological insights to glean ways in which mobile media is implicated in the configuration of embodiment of the night.


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Author Biography

Jess Hardley, Murdoch University

Jess is an Associate Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Murdoch University, and a PhD candidate in Media and Communication at RMIT University. Her research interests include phenomenology, feminist theory, ethnography, embodiment, mobile media and the urban night. She is co-author of Mobile Media and the Urban Night (Palgrave, forthcoming), has published in Convergence, and has presented research at several international conferences. She is also on the editorial board of the journal Digital Geography and Society