The Chronicles of Democratic Access to Information, or: the History of Mobile Media

The first mobile media emerged thousands of years ago when papyrus was used in ancient Egyptian society, allowing written messages to spread more quickly and easily than stone inscriptions (Farman, 2012, p. 11).  As the centuries progressed, these paper-based documents enabled the transportation of ideas and messages across vast distances, both temporally and geographically.  This influenced perceptions of space among communities with access to this information and drove the development of mapmaking practices as a way to represent the places they lived and visited.  Before paper maps, travelers depended on oral and textual guides for navigation, neither of which represented place in a relatively accessible, navigable manner.  Maps were the first material guides that annotated place in a form that permitted autonomy for the user (Liao, 2015), dramatically changing individual–and cultural–mobility.

As maps connected communities across continents, the spread of ideas naturally followed.  In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press not only accelerated the production and proliferation of mobile textual materials, but also revolutionized the societal perception of space wherever it was available (Farman, 2012, p. 12).  For the first time, European commoners had the ability to record new ideas and spread them beyond those close enough to hear them shout (or, more likely in that Vatican-controlled society, whisper).  In addition to transforming the relationship between messages and physical space, the printing press made the written word no longer exclusive to the elite or the Church.  (Click here for more information about propaganda during the Reformation) The printing press, in conjunction with the emergence of reliable maps, destroyed the previous technological barriers to the transmission of political, religious, cultural, and scientific messages, democratizing the annotation of events and ideas throughout history.

In the early modern era, the invention of the telegraph by the Chappe brothers in 1790 (Solymar, 1999, as cited in Goggin, 2006, p. 19), and its subsequent commercialization in the century that followed, played an influential role in the turbulent geopolitics of the era (Headrick, 1991, as cited in Goggin, 2006, p. 20).  The invention of the telephone at the end of the 19th century and its popularization in the beginning of the 20th century was accompanied by the rise of affordable transportation across long distances with the railways and steamboats and locally with mass-produced automobiles (Goggin, 2006, p. 20).  Knowledge and material goods–and technologies–crossed the globe at unprecedented speeds to be consumed and absorbed by the masses.  As European colonialism was reached its peak, local histories were written and rewritten by the dominant culture while inadvertently exposing previously isolated communities to new mobile technologies and transforming their sense of geographic, historic, and temporal space (Farman, 2012, p. 12).

The popularization of the CB radio in the 1970s (Goggin, 2006, p. 27) led to the first location-based mobile experience of space by allowing travelers to communicate with other nearby CB radio users (Farman, 2012, p. 14).  Information related to a given place was no longer bound by the finite nature of paper maps and guides (Liao, 2015); individuals using CB radios could reach others in the area, allowing them to share their own messages of navigation, resources, and histories.  Simultaneously, commercial cellular networks were launched in the United States (Goggin, 2006, p. 29), followed by handheld devices from Motorola (Farman, 2012, p. 17).  Consumers eagerly embraced this technology as a means of communicating while in motion, which transformed perceptions of place.  Previous technology allowed the instant exchange of messages across vast distances, but mobile phones were the first to introduce this practice into public spaces.

By the 1990s, mobile handsets became commonplace and offered features beyond voice calls as new technologies were integrated into these devices (Goggin, 2006, p. 32).  The addition of cameras, GPS, and web browsing tools in response to consumer demands speaks to the free-thinking cultural trends of the era and remarkable developments in the annotation of place.  Navigation tools provided constant feedback for the first time, and web-based information could be updated instantly to reflect the latest changes and preserve new stories associated with a given place.  The paradigm shift in digital mobile media occurred in 2009, when handheld devices were used more for data transfer than voice communication (Farman, 2012, p. 17).  Augmented reality services are the latest development, combining the benefits of location- and web-based programs with powerful new tools to shape the representation of space (Liao & Humphreys, 2014, p. 2).

The applications of augmented reality are truly limitless, as it creates a non-exclusive space in which an infinite number of augmented representations are possible in the same real-world space (Liao, 2015).  The annotation of place is no longer confined to material space as users can share experiences using the place as a prompt for information, or modify a space by adding a virtual hologram only accessible through the augmented lense (Liao & Humphreys, 2014, p. 4-5).  This technology has great potential for subversive applications, as it permits the creation of virtual presences to promote new discourse or tell suppressed histories in places that would otherwise restrict the presence of this information (Liao, 2015).  Augmented reality is the culmination of mobile media transforming perceptions of place across millennia–the first technology to provide access to three-dimensional navigation, boundless information, and the democratic creation of narratives.

Works Cited

Brown, M. (2015, January 3). Motorola StarTAC Introduced – This Day in Tech History. [embedded image link] Retrieved February 1, 2015, from

Farman, J. (2012). Historicizing Mobile Media. In N. Arceneaux & A. Kavoori (Eds.), The Mobile Media Reader (pp. 11-17). New York: Peter Lang.

Garcia, D. (n.d.). Treasures from the London Library: Visual propaganda during the Reformation. Retrieved February 2, 2015, from

Goggin, G. (2006). Making voice portable: The early history of the cell phone. In Cell phone culture: Mobile technology in everyday life (pp. 19-32). London: Routledge.

Liao, T., & Humphreys, L. (2014). Layar-ed places: Using mobile augmented reality to tactically reengage, reproduce, and reappropriate public space. New Media & Society, 1(18), 2-5. Retrieved January 22, 2015, from
Liao, T. (Director) (2015, January 28). Augmented Reality. Mobile Media. Lecture conducted from Temple University, Philadelphia.


One thought on “The Chronicles of Democratic Access to Information, or: the History of Mobile Media

  1. I thought you did a great job of constructing a history of mobile media. I also thought it was interesting that you brought up ideas of propaganda and censorship throughout the essay in relation to how the media of the time allowed for people to express themselves. This was a great way to lead into how AR is an extension of the mobile media throughout history. However, being that freedom of expression is such a large aspect of AR, I wish you had gone into just a bit more detail, perhaps using examples such as Tiananmen Square and the US/Mexico border like we talked about in class. But overall I think it is a very interesting topic and you did a great job of showing how all mobile media throughout history has had a role in giving people a voice.

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