In Chapter 9 of his book The New Digital Storytelling, Bryan Alexander considered the possibilities for mobile devices like smartphones, e-readers, and tablets as perhaps “the ultimate digital storytelling device.” Mobile phones, in particular, have become “the most popular computing platform in the world” (p139). Not only have phones made digital resources available to more people around the globe than larger more expensive computers, they’ve also made digital access a more constant part of everyday life for their owners. When creating or adapting stories for mobile devices, however, digital storytellers like historians need to make the most of the platform’s strengths and limitations.
The defining characteristics of mobile devices are their portability, facilitated by small size, and their wireless network connections. Together these attributes allow for “ubiquitous computing,” but they also necessitate a small screen and simplified user interface compared to a desktop or laptop. Rather than regarding these factors as obstacles to effective storytelling, Alexander argues that they make familiar digital stories, whether in the form of games, social media, or texts, “accelerated, amplified, and somewhat mutated” (p142). Mobile storytellers need to streamline visual design and menus to make the most of limited screen space while also considering how on-the-go use of mobile devices might require delivering stories in a more fast-paced or bite-sized format.
Alexander considered different means of packaging and delivering stories for mobile devices, either as apps or mobile-optimized websites. I find websites the more accessible delivery format. It is true that apps can allow advanced features or offline functionality that are hard to implement in a website, but they must also be installed before use, a barrier to casual on-the-go engagement. Furthermore, apps are platform-specific, so developers have to create multiple apps if they hope to reach users of many kinds of devices. Mobile-optimized websites, however, can be accessed immediately with the default browser on just about any computing platform and can provide much of the same storytelling capability of an app.
Media do more than relay messages — they can wield power over perceptions, relationships, and people. Patricia Crain’s essay “Children of Media, Children as Media” illustrates this point. Crain shows how the idea of the optical telegraph, a media innovation of the French Revolution, influenced new theories of childhood education that spread far beyond use of the telegraph itself. At American Indian mission schools in the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the optical telegraph promised to discipline Indian children into messengers of white “civilization,” becoming an instrument of colonial power.
A distant precursor to the electric telegraph, optical telegraphs rose like mutant windmills across the countryside of Revolutionary France in the 1790s. Each optical telegraph featured large mechanical shutters that moved into various positions to display semaphore code. French semaphore lines located a telegraph tower every ten kilometers (6 miles), allowing operators with telescopes to receive and then replicate short messages down the line faster than a rider on horseback. By the early 1800s, semaphore lines linked Paris to most major French cities, speeding long distance communication and linking the nation under centralized military command. Optical telegraphs saw more limited use outside France, but Patricia Crain argues that the idea of the visual telegraph in public discourse had wider influence than its actual implementation.
For Joseph Lancaster, an English educational reformer, the metaphor of the visual telegraph held the key to making public education more efficient and widespread. Rather than small classes of students working closely with a teacher, Lancaster proposed the “Monitorial System,” which allowed a single schoolmaster to supervise hundreds of students by appointing advanced pupils as “monitors” to replicate lessons for smaller study groups. Lancaster recommended spacing these groups throughout a large hall around instructional posters that replaced textbooks and allowed many students to share simultaneously in a lesson. A simplified visual “telegraph” made of cards bearing short commands such as “SS” for “Show Slates” allowed the schoolmaster to quickly send instructions throughout the class. Obedience was rewarded with prizes, while those who disobeyed faced public shaming by wearing labels that telegraphed their misdeeds to their peers.