Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The politics of location in the networked city

"Mobile media devices are increasingly equipped with sophisticated location-awareness capabilities, which enable the devices and their users to be located and represented on digital maps of urban space. This recent development has the potential to transform and intensify the interactions between urban places and digital spaces. This project will assess the implications of this development for the governance of cities. It will provide a systematic overview of the different ways in which location-awareness capabilities are being put to use, and it will explain how these locative media projects are enmeshed in wider political contests over the nature of cities and the ways in which their populations are governed."
That's the rather dry summary of a research project proposal I submitted to the Australian Research Council in 2011. To my surprise and delight (and apparently to Quadrant's displeasure), that application was successful and I was granted some funds to conduct the research. Yay!

My interest in the politics of location that's emerging at the digital-urban interface first arose during a period of extended parental leave way back in 2008, when I actually had time to read a few novels. Among the books I read were William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Cory Doctorow's Big Brother. Both books are science fiction of the 'near future' variety, and emerging locative technologies are crucial to the worlds that their characters are trying to navigate. Shady government authorities, police, artists, advertisers, activists, crooks and teenage hackers are all busy trying to figure out what they can do with GPS, RFID, mobile phones, portable computers, and the like. The books speak to the ways in which these various locative technologies are being enrolled in a range of quite different projects with quite different political implications.

Here they are (will I regret admitting to reading teenage fiction on a blog?? Little Brother is Doctorow's first book for teenagers ... it's a good one!)

Reading both these books was exhilarating. In 2007, I'd published my first book Publics and the City, which is about struggles over the meaning and possibilities of urban public space.  That book concludes with some reflections on the significance of media for our experience of the city -- a significance which is too frequently overlooked with the persistence of the 'stage' as a metaphor for the city's contribution to public life. But reading Gibson and Doctorow made me realise just how little I had thought about the ways in which mobile computing and communications technologies were interacting with the urban in efforts to make publics and do politics.

How had I missed all this? Certainly, even way back then when iPhones were still a novelty, some people were on to this -- in my own academic discipline of geography, folks like Steve Graham, Rob Kitchin, Martin Dodge and Mike Crang were drawing attention to the role of code in producing space and the politics of 'sentient cities'. Beyond that discipline, people like Anne Galloway and Scott McQuire were writing about ubiquitous computing and the urban, and beyond academia, folks like Adam Greenfield and Dan Hill were also trying to raise awareness of the ways in which these technologies were becoming an invisible part of everyday urban life (Galloway's article in Cultural Studies was published in 2004, Greenfield's book Everyware came out in 2006, and McQuire's book The Media City came and Hill's wonderful essay on the street as platform appeared on his blog in 2008).

While it took those encounters with Gibson and Doctorow for me to finally pay attention, it seems I wasn't the only urbanist to have neglected these developments. When I finally put a grant application together in 2011, I did a quick search through some of the key urban studies/urban geography journals. I found that not a single article published in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Urban Studies, or Planning Theory had discussed location-aware mobile media devices or locative media even in passing. Only one article across these three key journals even made mention of ‘mobile media’. With notable exceptions like the people mentioned above, it seemed as though the 'digital' folks and the 'urban' folks weren't really engaging with one another. But it's crucial that they do if we are to get to grips with the rapid on-going developments at the digital-urban interface.

Happily, more and more people are taking steps out of their disciplinary comfort zones, and exciting cross-disciplinary dialogues are starting to take place. This blog is intended to be a little contribution to that dialogue.

One of the reasons I'm incredibly grateful to have received funding for this research is that it means I'm not doing it alone -- Sophia Maalsen is now contributing her very excellent research skills to the project. One of her on-going roles is to scour the world for examples of the ways in which different actors are putting locative technologies to use for different purposes. And seeings as how we receiving public money to do this, it seems like a good idea to share!

So, when we find cool/creepy/crazy stuff, we'll post some of it here.

We'll also post some analysis and reflection along the way, in the hope that it might contribute to on-going conversations and maybe even receive some useful feedback.

Thanks for reading!

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