picturing the users of driverless pods in smart cities

I’ve posted before on this blog about the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are being pictured through some pretty sophisticated digital visualisations.  The Crystal exhibition space on sustainable cities built by Siemens in London has an extended digital film showing ‘Future Life’ in New York, London and Copenhagen, which is a good example of some of the techniques that seem to be emerging when a lot of resource can be devoted to high-end imagery.  I’m particularly struck in the Crystal film by the way photographic imagery of the city is literally made to fade away, revealing the glowing skeleton of a digital city, which is then controlled by smiling shadowy figures swiping and tapping in response to real-time data flows.

More prosaic – but currently reaching much wider audiences than the Crystal film  – are the images created to picture the driverless pods that currently seem to be the public face of smart city technology in the UK.  Discussion of the pods seems to be almost entirely focused on their safety – how do cars without human drivers avoid crashing into things?* – though apparently there are issues with how to insure driverless cars too.

In this, the discussion of driverless cars, or pods, or autonomous vehicles, seems to be taking the same direction as so much other current discussion about smart urban technologies, which is a focus on the technology at the expense of the thinking about the complex social context in which it is expected to work.  At least, the media discussion based on press releases announcing pilot projects with the pods seems to be uninterested in how different people might engage with driverless pods differently.  A set of visuals – which I think were released by the UK Department of Business and Skills as part of recent announcements about more funding to test the pods in three British cities – suggest a rather different story, though.

mk pod snowdome

There aren’t that many people in the futuristic landscapes chosen as backdrops for the pods (this is the Snowdome in Milton Keynes).  But when people do appear…

mk pod exec

… they seem to be almost entirely men.  Business men.  Presumably men with no time to lose driving themselves, looking for parking spaces or waiting for taxis.  Not women.  Or parents with a two toddlers, a buggy and the weekly shop.  Nor an elderly person with mobility difficulties.

I did find one image with a woman.

mk pods diagram

She’s not actually in the pod, in fact, but once again she’s in business, wearing a suit and a carrying a briefcase.  The imagined users of driverless pods don’t seem to be that diverse, then.  Sigh.  Indeed, the imagery seems to be suggesting that the people who most want efficient transport are business people, even that business is what deserves efficiency most.

What’s also quite interesting in this last visual – which comes from the Sunday Times newspaper – is the trope of opacity/transparency.  High digital tech in this image, just as in the Crystal film, is signified (though not really explained) by going beneath the surface and revealing the glowing, flowing tech below.  And also, there are those orange-y rays in the graphic which are meant to show various forms of digital information: ‘talk’ between pods, says the graphic, or sensors at work.  This also seems to be an emerging trope of smart city visualisations: information flow through wireless technologies, the generation of data, is made visible by things that look a bit like radiating circles.  In animated visuals, they are often pulses (Shannon Mattern, in her great talk on urban interfaces for the Programmable Cities project - available here – jokes about IBM’s exploding blue circles in their smart city animations).  Sensors, smartphones, pods: all pulse information in the smart city, which creates the data from which so-called ‘smart’ decisions will be made.

So is a visual language for bringing aspects of smart technology into visibility beginning to emerge?  If so, it raises a challenge to the persistent trope to be found in a lot of critical digital studies on the invisibility of code and digital infrastructure.  In these images, aspects of smart are being made visible.  The issue then might not be making smart tech visible per se, but the kinds of visibility it is envisioned through and who it’s being envisioned for.

* the answer: a lot more effectively than cars with human drivers…

the production, composition, audiencing – and circulation – of images

I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition.  Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments.  And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four.  The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing.  ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel.  Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.

This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens.  In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.

However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation.  I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables.  Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen.  Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns.  Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network.  I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.

This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total.  This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter).

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter). from phototrails.net

I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!

racism, cartoons, and the uneven distribution of rights in the visual field

I had started to think about how to write a post on the cartoons carried by Charlie Hebdo, but then I found this piece by Mustafa Dikeç on the Environment and Planning D: Society and Space blog.  I hope Mustafa won’t mind if I simply quote a paragraph from his eloquent and incisive essay which, among other things, makes it clear that, in a context where there is no agreement on what it is proper to render visible, that context is not simply the right to be able to picture whatever you like.  The appropriate context to think through should also include deeply embedded racism, which inflects the visual field such that some groups’ rights not to see certain kinds of images can be ignored with impunity.  Here is Mustafa:

It is one thing to criticise powerful and dominant groups in a society, another to constantly take the piss out of its most stigmatised by mocking their dearly held religious beliefs. The misdemeanours of Islamists and the abuses of Islam to mobilise hatred and violence are already widely criticised in the Muslim world. Even without the help of French May 1968 inheritors, many courageous people in Muslim countries are themselves capable of criticising, through mockery, such aberrations made in the name of Islam, without recourse to what one journalist called, with reference to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamophobic cartoons, ‘repeated pornographic humiliation’ of this religion, its prophet and followers. Charlie Hebdo was right to practice and insist on freedom of speech, but it was far from even-handed in its attack on organised religions…Especially after 9/11, as a former Charlie Hebdo journalist wrote in 2013, an ‘Islamophobic neurosis gradually took hold’ in the journal. If the whole point of satire, vulgar or not, is to criticise uses and abuses of power, just what a cartoon depicting a naked Muslim prophet asking ‘Do you like my butt?’ achieves remains obscure…

An excellent reminder, if one were needed, that the politics of visuality lie not only in how things are represented but also whether they are represented.

some early thoughts on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I gave a short talk at The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance a few weeks ago, as part of a workshop on methodological challenges for critical social science. As I’m going to start working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies this week (for publication in early summer 2016), this was good timing for me; it let me put a few very early thoughts together and explore them with an insightful and lively group. I thought I’d share my notes for the event here. Continue reading

almost a new year, almost a new look

One of life’s minor irritations is when a software you use a lot gets automatically updated with a new look and the new version makes you miss the old one. Sad as it is to admit, Evernote’s recent revamp made me me realise that I was actually really quite fond of its old, dark version.

Nonetheless, I’ve been feeling for a while that the theme of my blog – which was called Elegant Grunge, kind of the black nail varnish of WordPress themes – was indeed feeling a bit too grunge-y. Also possibly hard to read for those without mac screens.

So here is the new-look visual/method/culture.

Happy holidays.

pre-registration for online image elicitation methods training now live!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with Professor Helen Lomax and Dr Nick Mahony to produce three online advanced research training modules in image elicitation methods.  Each module will run once in the next three years, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and pre-registration is now live here.  If you have an interest in using image elicitation methods with ‘vulnerable’ research participants, look at module 1 here; if you’re interested in the discourses of elicitation and participation more generally, take a look at module 2 here; and module 3 here looks at a couple of possible futures for digital image elicitation methods.  They’re free and open to all researchers, but are aimed primarily at PhD students.

The Architectural Review’s first online edition with our essay on digital renders

The Architectural Review has just launched its first digital edition: you can see it here.  Among many interesting essays, it has a shortened version of the paper that Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I published on digital architectural renders here, retitled “Interfacial relations”, with the byline “Reconceiving the computer-generated render as an interface for human interaction rather than a static object”.  Accurate, if not very snappy.

The full version (which discusses some of the conceptual implications of this sort of imagery more broadly) is:

Rose, Gillian, Monica Degen, and Clare Melhuish. “Networks, Interfaces, and Computer-Generated Images: Learning from Digital Visualisations of Urban Redevelopment Projects.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 3 (2014): 386–403. doi:10.1068/d13113p.

we’re all cultural studies scholars now?

Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general.  For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.

Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):

thornberry

In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.

On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless.  It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter.  Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility.  Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.

Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well.  So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied.  The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people.  And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.

Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of  social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors.  As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”.  She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.

But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation.  Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded.  The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar.  And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?