Digital Geographies Working Group of the RGS/IBG

This post is one for the academics and/or geographers among you.  The RGS/IBG stands for the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, and it’s the organisation for geography professionals in higher education (the Geographical Association is the UK equivalent for geography school teachers).  Its research side is organised into Study Groups and Working Groups.  At this year’s annual RGS/IBG conference, Dorothea Kleine and I are convening a meeting to scope out the interest in the formation of a Digital Geographies Working Group.

The meeting will be held on Thursday 1 September at 13:10 – venue to be confirmed but it will be either in the Royal Geographical Society’s building in west London or nearby – the website for checking details is here.

Some important things to note:

  • the idea of the Working Group is to provide a platform for discussion among all geographers interested in researching digital things, or doing research digitally.  It is not about carving out a new subdiscipline – rather, it’s about facilitating conversations across the wide range of longstanding and newer encounters between doing geography and digital technologies.
  • the meeting at the conference is open to everyone, whatever your interest in things digital, whatever your career stage.  You can attend just the meeting without registering or paying the conference fee, but you do need to get a visitor pass in advance by emailing AC2016@rgs.org.
  • if you’re not coming to the RGS/IBG conference but you’re interested in the Working Group, please drop an email to jan.smith@open.ac.uk – she’s collating a mailing list for the Group.
  • if you’re not interested in the Working Group but you know someone who is – please pass this on to them!

Dorothea and I hope to see lots of people at the conference and to hear from lots more via email.

visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.

 

 

As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

smart cities in the making: a new research project

I was really happy to hear from the Economic and Social Research Council last week that they are going to fund a research project that a great bunch of OU colleagues put together with me: Nick Bingham, Matt Cook, Parvati Raghuram, Sophie Watson and Oliver Zanetti.

Motion-Map-for-news-image-1024x648Here is the short summary from the proposal:

The past decade has seen the widespread emergence of what are now often called ‘smart cities’. Smart cities are generally understood to use the data produced by digital technologies to enhance their sustainability (by encouraging more efficient use of resources), economic growth (through innovating new products and markets) and openness (by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance). ‘Smart cities’ are a global phenomenon at the heart of how many cities are planning for future growth, and the UK is no exception. Over half of UK cities are implementing smart projects, and the government’s Information Economy Strategy aims to make the UK a global hub of smart city delivery by capturing 10 per cent of the global smart city market by 2020. The government directly funds several large smart city projects, sponsors three innovation Catapults with direct links to smart initiatives, and the British Standards Institute is developing a framework for implementing smart city technologies.

‘Smart’, then, is increasingly central to UK urban development.  Smart technology in UK cities takes many forms, from smart grids, to sensors and chargers embedded in the built environment, to smartphone apps, to online open data repositories and dashboards. Smart cities are much, much more than their technological devices, though: a smart city also requires smart urban policy-making, it produces smart products, it has ‘smart citizens’ and it has visions of what smart is and should be, and all these things converge and diverge in all sorts of ways. Currently, although local community and citizen participation is repeatedly asserted to be a prequisite for a successful smart city, almost nothing is known about how the development and rollout of smart policies and technologies actually engage city residents and workers. Who are smartphone apps designed for and what social needs do they ignore? What kind of populations are described by smart data hubs, and who do policies using such data therefore address? Indeed, various concerns have been voiced by journalists, academics and urban activists that smart activity may well not reach socially marginalised groups and individuals, for example, and that it might therefore contribute to increased levels of social polarisation in cities between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

This project grasps the chance to answer these questions at a critical moment in the maturing of smart, and offers a real opportunity to generate social science that can both analyse and inform developments.

Through a detailed empirical study of an actually-existing smart city – Milton Keynes – this project examines how smart policies, technologies, products, visions and engagement activities imagine particular kinds of users, citizens and consumers. It will thus enable a wide range of public and private-sector local stakeholders in MK to understand much better who their smart activity is engaging, how and why. These findings will then help to ensure that smart city activities are as accessible to as many different kinds of people as possible, and that as many people as possible are engaged by the smart city emerging in Milton Keynes.

The project has been designed in collaboration with a range of local and national stakeholders in the UK smart city scene, including MK Council, MK:Smart, the Transport Systems Catapult, as well as Community Action MK, the umbrella group for voluntary and community groups in the city. This means that not only will its findings help MK to be a socially-inclusive smart city, but also that the project’s findings will have impact on smart cities across the UK and beyond.

 

There’s a nice presentation on smart activity in Milton Keynes here.

The project won funding of £750,000 from the ESRC (plus in-kind support from various generous partners in Milton Keynes of around £50,000), and will start officially on 1 January 2017.

more on ‘women’ and ‘smart’, mostly from smart women

My post last week on designing a smart city for ‘women’ generated a few different reactions on Twitter, as well as a range of resources for further thinking.  I thought it might be useful to gather them together.

Sam Kinsley (a smart man who blogs here) and Ayona Datta reflected on why smart city events are so full of men. Ayona pointed to the way in which tech businesses and startups are male-dominated, and also to the general ambience of ‘smart’ events.

Alexandra Notay usefully suggested some places to find female speakers on smart urbanism:

I got some nice reactions from people who I am now following and learning from.  For example, this one from the brilliantly named Urbanistas in London:

My favourite positive reaction, though, was probably this one, from City Regional Exchange in Cardiff.  I appreciated its self-critique – though who wouldn’t smile like that with £1.2bn…

I was also sent some very useful comments on how a specific part of ‘smart’ in cities is gendered: energy use.  Here’s geographer Harriet Bulkeley:

Harriet’s tweet also put me on to the work of Heather Lovell, who leads a project with the spot-on title of ‘smart grids messy society‘.

I also got to learn about the work of Yolande Strengers.  She kindly sent me links to several pieces she’s written on the gendering of smart homes specifically.  They’re great, and perfectly tread that line between acknowledging differences (especially gendered difference) but not reifying them.  Try this piece in The Conversation on how adverts for the smart home assume a male householder and no domestic labour. Or her excellent piece written for the Association for Computer Machinery here, on Resource Man: the rational, bill-paying individual assumed by the smart energy industry and also often by the smart city industry too (of course you want to travel the most efficient route home; of course you’ll reduce your water consumption if you see it’s more than your neighbours’).  (Her book is called Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).)

Vanessa Thomas shared a paper she’s written with Ding Wang, Louise Mullagh and Nick Dunn that explores what they describe as ‘situated understandings of smart cities’ – you can find it here, in the open access online journal Sustainability.

Eoin O’Mahony also got exactly where I was heading with my argument.

Which was great, because other tweeters took my post in rather different directions.

Does ‘smart’ happen when #women and #gender are added?  That Modified Tweet really did modify my argument.  My post focussed on how we think about ‘women’, ‘gender’ and ‘adding’.  (And something that Yolande Strengers points out is just how white so many visuals of smart energy users are; ditto with smart cities.  It’s not just ‘women’ who are either ignored or stereotyped.)  I was suggesting that smart cities would become more open to all sorts of social differences if the data on which they rely was interrogated more carefully as it was made and used, so that its assumptions about social practices could be explored and multiplied.  Yolande’s work similarly takes a somewhat sideways approach to ‘adding women’: she focuses not on the situatedness of data but on the complicated messiness of what humans actually do with objects and technologies, arguing that smart energy devices in homes need to be designed to engage with that messiness.  Once you’re looking for messiness, whether in data or in what people do, you start to be genuinely open in your understanding of both technologies and what people do with them.

Whatever the precise tactic, ‘smart’ cities will surely be better achieved by engaging with the complexity of social life rather than by attempting to erase it.

so what would a smart city designed for women be like? (and why that’s not the only question to ask)

I came across yet another smart city event yesterday with a line-up of speakers that was heavily male-dominated: 38 men and 12 women.  I tweeted, “what difference does it make that men outnumber women speakers at a #smartcity event by 2 to 1?  Sam Kinsley replied and pointed out, quite rightly, that this wasn’t actually as bad as some other events claiming to interpret the contemporary city (for a really shameful example, see Emily Jackson’s post here about a day conference organised by an ESRC-funded research project without a single female speaker – I can’t help thinking that someone high up in the ESRC should have a quiet word with the organisers).

Nonetheless, it’s not great, and it’s part of what seems to be a widespread marginalisation of women among the voices discussing and defining the ‘smart city’. (Ayona Datta joined in the twitter conversation, suggesting some reasons why it happens. ) One day I will find the time and energy to do a proper analysis of the gender balance in the images attached to the tweets of the main smart city players, for example, as well as a headcount of the speakers at the main smart city beanoes, just to confirm the point.  In the meanwhile, after I’d read that event’s line-up of speakers and done just a tiny bit of counting, here a few thoughts.

I’m assuming that the overwhelming dominance of men in the smart sector does have a major impact: on what tech is designed and how, on how potential markets are perceived, on what data is collected and what even counts as data, on how the smart city is imagined and therefore built.  (There’s so much relevant literature  on how digital tech design reinforces various kinds of social differences that I’m just going to point to a useful website that summarises some of it here.)  That impact will be both on what social identities are (often) visualised and assumed (both masculine and feminine) and also on what identies are then enacted as the data or device is used.  It would be great though to see some research really work at that question and interrogate my answer (and another ESRC-funded project, led by my colleague Prof Parvati Raghuram, promises to contribute towards that).

But maybe a more interesting question is: how to put women into the smart city?  Ok, so that’s already problematic.  ‘Women’ are a hugely diverse group of course, who do a gazillion different things.

However, as social scientists, we also know that there are patterns of activity within those gazillions.  Women still do more domestic labour than men.  Women still do more childcare than men.  Women still earn less than men.  Women are still objectified as sex objects in demeaning ways.  So a smart city for women might, say, be focussed a lot more on transport apps that don’t assume that the traveller is one adult, but might allow options for adult(s)+children+(contents of a shopping trolley).  It might entail crowd-sourced mapping that pays as much attention to the various forms of childcare (breakfast clubs, nurseries, kindergartens, childminders, after-school-clubs, youth clubs) as it does to drinking venues (as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued here).  The tech of a smart city would assume and enable a wide and diverse range of social actions by people in all sorts of combinations and conditions.

But of course we also want to challenge those patterns, and many other inequalities too.  I’m currently touring a talk about corporate visions of smart cities and I often get asked about “bottom-up, participatory, critical alternatives” (a lot of assumptions going on there that should also be unpacked); the example of lot of questioners come up with are the many apps that allow women to log how safe they feel in particular locations and to send messages for help really easily in an emergency.  On the one hand, great.  City spaces are certainly not always easy for women to inhabit, and some apps make that even worse (again, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski discuss this most excellently), so it’s fantastic that there are apps in response to that.  On the other hand, there’s something profoundly depressing – and disempowering – when the most frequent way women appear in smart cities is as the victims of violence.

So asking about putting ‘women’ into smart cities is maybe not the right question, or maybe not the only question to ask.  Not only does it erase the many differences among women, it also doesn’t always negotiate the line between ‘difference’ and ‘stereotype’ adroitly enough.

So maybe we also need a somewhat different agenda, which is more about moving between and against specific forms of difference via digital data and devices.  There are those all-too-familiar issues that ‘women’ face.  There are ways in which the design and use of digital devices can intensify those issues.  But other digital activity might have quite other effects.  In relation to those intensifications, for example, is there also something quite liberating, in some ways at least, to be mediated as a geolocated point in space, rather than as a visualised body encoded through gendered, classed, racialised and other ways of seeing?

Which suggests that, in a smart city, ‘women’ can be both: both embodied and a datapoint.  Among other things (a selfie, eg).  How then can ‘women’ be imagined, in a smart city?

This suggests that another approach to thinking about ‘women in a smart city’ would be to focus on how different social categories are constituted in the first place, when various things are done in cities with digital technologies.  That’s the sort of question asked by lots of sociotechnical scholars, of course.  But also by feminist scholars of data visualisations like Catherine D’Ignazio and the digital humanities like Johanna Drucker.  Their work focuses much more on the production of data in the first place and its problematic relation to social identities and the practices through which identities are enacted – data’s diversity, provisionality and unreliability, its uncertainty – and it focuses attention in particular on the process of turning data into something – a platform, an app – that enables certain social performances.  That is, it would be less focussed on ready-made categories of social difference and more on the processes of making data and making with data.

How would a mobility app or a city dashboard build that kind of data provisionality that into its interface?  I have no idea!  How would its users react?  Ditto!  But I would love to talk to interface designers about it.

Particularly because these are of course extremely sketchy and initial thoughts.  I hope to elaborate them in future posts on how smart cities are visualised in particular – but it would also be great to hear them raised too in some of those flashy smart city events.

photographing a smart city

MK:Smart is a large ‘smart city’ project based in Milton Keynes in the UK.  It’s hosted by my home institution, The Open University.  Its core work package when it was set up was the development of a open data hub: an repository of all sorts of big data about Milton Keynes, accessible to anyone.  As the project has developed, though, its efforts to enable local people to engage with such an open data source have increased.  One of these efforts is the website OurMK, and the project team also does lots of outreach in local schools.  You can find about more about their work to facilitate ‘smart citizens’ here and some of their publications are listed here.

As part of this engagement work, the MK:Smart team launched a photography competition in December 2015, with prizes for the best photographs picturing Milton Keynes as a smart city.  You can see the finalists here.

I think these photographs raise some fascinating questions about how a smart city is visualised by its residents (or, more accurately, what the judges thought were the best ways some residents had pictured a smart city).  Nineteen photographs made it to the final stage – not many, so I should be careful about drawing any big interpretive conclusions from them.  On the other hand, as I’ve remarked before, one of the liberating things about writing a blog is that sometimes the robust methodological procedures of the social sciences can be laid to one side and a little more speculative thinking permitted…

Car Park Drama

Car Park Drama by Suzanna Raymond. Suzanna’s caption read: The way the car park is integrated into the shopping centre looks like a smart design to me, making it an integral part of the layout rather then just a space added on as an afterthought.

So one thing that struck me immediately about these nineteen was how so many of them focus on the landscape of Milton Keynes, and especially on its ‘natural’ landscape: trees, parks, canals, lakes, skies.  There are no pictures of servers or data hubs or smartphones (though there are two photos of electric car charging points, one of a bus charging wirelessly and one of solar panels).

This preference for picturing a smart city as a green city perhaps speaks to the distinctive history of Milton Keynes.  Milton Keynes was designed as a new city in the late 1960s and early 1970s with plenty of experiments in (and symbols of) more sustainable living: houses powered by solar energy, cycle ways paralleling the roads, a dial-a-bus service, a tree cathedral… the whole city is full of trees and parks and is oriented along a ley line! Milton Keynes has a strong sense of itself as green, then, and these photographs might be speaking to that sense of place. The photos perhaps also draw on a rather English preference for rural landscapes, gardens and parks.

The other thing that struck me about the photographs was the way they display the sort of visual aesthetic that seems increasingly common in many digital images, which is a kind of glow against darkness, whether that’s lights gleaming at dusk or (elsewhere) live data feeds pulsating across a black background.  No less than seven are taken around sunset, and one more makes a striking play between a sky darkened by clouds and a golden building.

So, possibly, what we have in this admittedly tiny sample of photographs is an interesting play between what someone like Lev Manovich might suggest is an increasingly widespread visual aesthetic, driven by the extensive use of digital image creation/editing software – even a global visual aesthetic – and something that’s may be much more local, attuned to the specific histories of this particular city and its sense of place.

Now, of course, as Doreen Massey would immediately have pointed out, there’s no clear distinction between the local and the global.  Many of the ideas behind Milton Keynes, and implicit in its first visualisations, were imported by its architects from the west coast of the USA, for example, and I’ve already suggested that a love of rural landscape may be as much English as anything to do with Milton Keynes.  But it’s precisely this play between the new and the old, between existing ways of seeing and of making images with new ways of seeing and making, that I find so fascinating in this small collection of photographs.

 

 

remembering Doreen

I’m writing this short post after reading an email from OU colleague Steve Pile confirming that Doreen Massey did indeed pass away on the afternoon of Friday 11 March 2016. I saw earlier tweets to the same effect and tweeted myself, and now it’s for sure.

Doreen has accompanied all of my academic life.  I read her book Spatial Divisions of Labour as an undergraduate (still an outstandingly important text, in my view).  She examined my PhD thesis (and told me I needed to write a methods section at the end of it….).  I met her on and off as I worked on feminist and cultural geographies in London and Edinburgh after my PhD.  I joined The Open University in 1999 and in the following years I worked with her on an OU geography module on globalisation and on a small research project on public art in Milton Keynes.  And even after she retired, for some time anyway, she often was in her OU office just down the corridor from mine, working on talks and projects and politics, always ready to discuss and engage.

She wasn’t always an easy person to work with.  She could be very critical; she could insist on things being done her way; she didn’t like any kind of admin.  She could also, far more often, be incredibly warm – to everyone and anyone, absolutely – and she was one of the most charismatic speakers I have ever heard.  I remember her tiny frame absolutely filling one enormous lecture hall with energy and passion, extemporising from handwritten notes, intensifying the entire space.  I can hear her voice now, and her laughter.

Some of her ideas – spatial divisions of labour, relationality, a global sense of place, throwntogetherness – have transformed huge swathes of human geography and beyond.  So many of us simply would not be doing what we do and how we do it without her work, even if many of us are doing different things from her.  Her work transformed human geography’s ideas, but she also transformed many scholars as people, supporting them, pushing them, inspiring them.  And that’s not even to start on her political work, from the Greater London Council to the Kilburn Manifesto.

I think it’s that massive humanity – including its flaws – that made me realise, this morning, after reading those tweets, that it had literally never crossed my mind, even though I knew she was ill, that she might die.  Her energy, commitment, the sheer intensity and consistency of her engagement, somehow made such an outcome an impossibility.  But it’s happened and I feel a massive absence now, a silence.

My tweet said RIP.  But actually, now, I don’t want to think of her resting in peace.  I much prefer to think of her arguing on, being thoughtful and awkward and sometimes difficult, never ever taking things for granted, always thinking towards openness and a different kind of future.

roughing up digital visualisations of and in cities

I have a new chapter out, in a book edited by Shirley Jordan and  Christoph Lindner called Cities Interrupted.  The collection explores the potential of visual culture – in the form of photography, film, performance, architecture, urban design, and mixed media – to strategically interrupt processes of globalization in contemporary urban spaces.  My chapter looks at different ways that digital visualisations of new urban development projects can be ‘interrupted’ – that is, their smooth and glossy surfaces made a bit more problematic.

cities interrupted

The chapter covers a lot of different tactics, all of which engage with different aspects of these very complicated images, from picturing their decay to spotting their mistakes to satirising their atmosphere.  It also has one of the worst titles I’ve ever come up with: “Dimming the scintillating glow of unwork: looking at digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects”.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.

The book has lots of other great chapters of course – according to Tim Cresswell’s jacket blurb, we are “a stellar cast of authors”! – it’s a must-read if you’re interested in visualising urban spaces, or indeed cities more generally.

smart cities and drone warfare: a shared visuality?

Geographer Derek Gregory was in Cambridge recently, delivering the Clare Hall (that’s a college, not a person) Tanner lectures.  Called ‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’, the two lectures were fantastic, a forensic account of the histories and geographies of drone warfare delivered with panache and rich visuals.  (Derek blogs about his work here.)

reachfromsky

There were also three panellists responding to his lectures, journalist Chris Woods (check out his Airwars site), philosopher Gregoire Chamayou (author of Drone Theory) and legal scholar Jochen von Bernstorff, all also excellent.  Videos of both Derek’s lectures and their responses can be found here.

The first point to make – not a trivial one – is that at what, as the chair pointed out is one of the most prestigious lectures to be invited to deliver (at least according to Wikipedia), everybody without exception on the platform was a man.  And not only that, in the discussion time with the audience, the first 45 minutes were filled with men asking questions.  I was waving my hand NEXT TO THE WOMAN WITH THE MICROPHONE and the chair still contrived to avoid asking me to speak.  Finally, Chris Woods said he’d like to hear about drones from someone who wasn’t a man (thankyou, Chris) and I got to have my say.

So, what did I want to say?  Here’s an expanded version.

Well, Derek’s was a rich and nuanced account of drone warfare, embedding it in the historical geographies of aerial warfare more broadly.  One of Gregoire’s contributions was to say that there were also other contexts for understanding drones, not least the history of ‘counter-terrorism’, from urban police forces to colonial counter-insurgency operations.  But there is another context that kept occurring to me as Derek spoke: smart cities.

The link between drone warfare and smart cities isn’t that obvious on the face of it, but bear with me.  One of the reasons that drone warfare is increasingly acceptable to the states and organisations that conduct is that, as Derek described, it is embedded in a very specific set of spatialities, temporalities, visualities and subjectivities – and I would argue that many of those are shared with, or are at least very similar to, the rhetoric and practice of both drone warfare and smart cities.  Here’s a list of some of those similarities:

1 advocates of both smart cities and drone warfare share an absence of historical narrative so that their technologies can be seen as new, modern, better and more desirable.  (Which of course conveniently ignores various histories of failure, imprecision, rejection and unreliability.)

2 drone warfare and smart cities both claim to remove human actors from their practices.  This is often achieved via the generation of data (both smart cities and drone warfare convert (some) people into geolocated data in order to track them), and the execution of decisions on the basis of data.  There is thus a parallel between war being conducted by unmanned machines (drones) and smart cities being governed by databases and algorithms.

3 drone warfare and (many) smart cities are both managed through remarkably similar-looking command-and-control centres.

4 like drone warfare, smart cities rely on an elaborate cartographic and figurative visualisation in which the aerial view is central – and this appears in many of those command-and-control centres’ screens.

5 both are heavily masculinised fields of practice.  Derek is very good on this in the first lecture in relation to drones, and I’ve blogged previously about the dominance of men in smart policy, product design and marketing.  Derek also spoke at length about the ways in which drone warfare’s development was and is intimately bound up with (post)colonial power, and Gregoire underlined this too.

6 both smart cities and drone warfare are often resisted by the claim that they ‘dehumanise’ urbanism and war respectively (see point 2  above).  In drone warfare, not only are the victims of bombs delivered by drone rendered less-than-human (usually by being labelled ‘terrorists’ before being converted into geolocated data), but it is also argued that the men and women who control the drones are estranged and alienated by their work.  In smart cities, critics also complain that people are ‘reduced’ to data and that sentience is given to machines rather than people.  One of the things I found most useful in Derek’s lectures was the way he resisted this rhetoric by ‘peopling’ both the drones – which require a massive human as well as technical infrastructure to run – as well as their victims – as human agents embedded in complex societies.  Critics of smart cities tend to position the people/communities/inhabitants of cities against smart governance/corporations, as if the latter too aren’t run by people – which has various critical and theoretical ramifications, not all of which are helpful, I think.

Now clearly smart cities are not similar to drone warfare in the very fundamental sense that smart city tech is not designed to kill people.  And all those parallels that I have nonetheless proposed need nuancing of course.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to speculate on what drives those similarities.  The patriarchal and racist “god-trick” of seeing everything from nowhere, dissected by Donna Haraway many years ago?  A deeply masculinist coding culture embedded in software corporations?  Nigel Thrift’s (2011) neoliberal, affective, “security-entertainment complex”?   A resilient scopic regime of surveillance, of the sort described by Nicholas Mirzoeff (2015)?

Whatever the answer, it’s a question that needs a lot more interrogation I think.  And in relation to smart cities, it’s one which won’t entirely be address using the current critical theoretical tools of data ownership and participatory design…

 

Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5–26.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How To See The World. London: Pelican Books, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

online module on the future of image elicitation methods

I’ll be running the third of The Open University’s online modules on advanced image elicitation methods between 18 and 29 April. The module explores just a couple of the directions in which the use of digital technologies might push image elicitation methods: i-documentaries, and the analysis of huge numbers of social media images. We might think of i-docs as embedding audience elicitation into their participatory structure, and social media as a sort of mass elicitation. It’s open to all academics everywhere – including phd students – and is free.  Pre-registration closes on 19 February.  You can find out more about it here.