Life Writing, Research Creation/Critical Media

Biographies of Phones, a personal history

Today’s blog post is going to be a brief one – exactly one 30m pom – because I have some marking, and I’m about to come into a huge wave of marking from the TA job and a grading job I picked up. So, I’d like to fit in some article writing as much as I can this week. But I also have to start working on the thing that this blog post is about: the biographies of the phones that are kept and never thrown away, or the personal histories one has with the various phones of our past.

This topic is, more or less, what I will be presenting at RCADE this year in April. And the presentation paper comes from and is about my time co-running the “Digital Rituals” CAFKA exhibit with fellow Critical Media Lab colleagues. Together, we created a funeral-home like space in which we would receive participants’ old cell phones that they would like to get rid of. From the appointment, we would take down certain information, generate a computer-generated obituary, create 3D printed miniatures of the participant’s phone that were placed on a marble slab outside in our garden, and then hold a brief ceremony bidding fair well to the phone. You can read some of the obituaries here.

The obituaries are what attracted me the most, but not the ones posted on the website. While I did enjoy the playfulness of the computer-generated obits, I was more interested in the stories that were shared when a participant came in and gave up their phone. While we did not receive that many participants (due to numerous circumstances), the few people who did would tell their memories of their phone, fiddling with the phone in their hands; putting it down, picking it back up; if it was a flip phone, they would open and close it, move their hands/fingers across it, recalling the muscle memory that came with operating the phone. I loved these stories. Equally, there were some who refused to give up their phone, but still shared a story or at least noted that they are saving it for personal reasons.

And while we intended to submit these phones to an e-waste company, we held onto the phones for personal reasons (or at least I still think that is the case – now that the CML has moved to its new location, I’m unsure if those items were saved).

So, my proposed talk is focused on the stories that were told within that exhibit. Few sources, but I will be building off of those sources because they got me thinking through Anna Poleitti’s “archive of play,” a concept that I really like and keep on returning to. I may have written about this before – it’s a concept in my upcoming article on Cibele, and it makes an appearance in my Game Boy Camera article that just got submitted – but here’s an excerpt:

In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing. Of course, not all play produces a material trace. That play that does, however, results in material that is…a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative. Materials in the archive of play are diverse and can include: stories, hand-drawn and digitally produced illustrations, letters, videos, photographs, puppets, costumes, collage, and automatic writing. Indeed, the kinds of materials in any individual’s archive of play is themselves informative and of interest, as I will discuss later. The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated (“Autobiography and Play” 113-4)

Excuse the lengthy quote, but I think it’s worth it for the nuance here. The reason why I like “the archive of play” so much is that it opens up what can be auto/biographical material. I love that material generated from play (and, use in general, perhaps?) is not always recognized as archive and may never be, and that it may or may not be cherished by the individual. But that material, that archive, becomes of value “once an auto[/]biographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others. For those few participants in “Digital Rituals,” the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an auto/biographical project. Perhaps “project” is too strong, too big of a word to describe those disclosures or brief narratives. But it was our project that initiated those disclosures from the participants and from ourselves. One participated shared a disclosure of their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve, how it reminded them of a friendship. Another participant discussed how they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky in their pocket. Others could tell you where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered.

When I upgrade to a new phone, I don’t think of my previous phone too much as an archive, just as I don’t think of my Game Boy Camera as an archive. Only when the thought of throwing the phone(s) out, then I think of it has an archive, of archive I need to keep – there are pictures that weren’t uploaded, voice recordings of song fragments, notes taken from who knows where that aren’t uploaded, etc. Some of it is trivial, may not be of any worth. But it doesn’t have to be.

The timer has gone off, my pom is over. But in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be re-reading Poleitti’s article and a couple more that may help with some theoretical backing to this presentation.

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