digital research methods at #AoIR2018

I had a great day at a digital methods workshop run by Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Richard Rogers, Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver this week at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Montreal. Well, actually it was a workshop on social media research. Given the small matter of GIS as a digital research method, not to mention semiotics and political economy as part of the app walkthrough method, I might start a one-person campaign to get a bit more precision in the labelling here. However, that is my only niggle about the entire day, which was incredibly interesting and helpful and thought-provoking. Here are my take-aways:

  • Tim started off by urging us to be experimental and innovative. He pointed out that much social media research has relied on API-based methods, but Twitter is really now the only platform that allows decent access via its API, and Tim’s sense is that wasn’t going to last. Richard Rogers repeated this: increasingly, there is limited or no access to data to social media data, data is being deleted and data is not being archived. Jean too urged us to go beyond the database model of research.
  • another issue about social media data is that the media themselves keep changing. New features are added, old ones tweaked or removed. Instagram posts can be edited and comments added months after the original post. So how do you as a researcher keep up with those changes?  (Tim and Tama have a book coming out on Instragram – and Instagram has altered hugely since they started working on it, with Stories probably being the most significant change.)
  • a crucial reminder from Richard Rogers: begin with your research questions and then figure out what metrics might work – don’t start with the method! And lots of the day focussed how to generate the answers to empirical questions. But of course there are, or should be, theoretical positions driving those empirical questions. All the methods we discussed were what Richard refers to as “forensic”: the detailed analysis of clues, big and small, to identify a truth (there’s an interesting parallel with the Forensic Architecture research agency here). But forensics have to achieve particular forms of evidentiary reliability and I did wonder what sorts of questions and answers might be co-generated digitally if we worked with a different term to describe a different kind of method: symptomatic? evocative? machinic?
  • there are lots of resources for learning more about these methods: the residential schools run by the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam and the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology are standouts here but there are also some QUT MOOCs here. (There are lots of other summer schools too – I know about the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford as well as the Oxford Internet Institute’s – please add any you recommend in the comments box below.)
  • and finally, some words. “Mouse over” as a verb – as in “if you mouse over this dropdown menu…” – and the adverbs “appification” and “platformification”. (They’re what’s happening to identity, apparently.) And quantiquali, or qualiquanti – when digital methods are used to generate data that is then analysed using qualitative methods, or vice versa. Which kind of sounds like mixed methods, so perhaps another prompt for a more radical rethink about ‘digital methods’.

Finally finally, a big thanks to the presenters for a great day.

geomedia conference 2019: revisiting the home

I’m coming to the end of my first visit to Karlstad University as the Ander Visiting Professor of Geomedia. It’s been a fun two weeks, and I’m looking forward to coming back later this year.

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Before I go, I just want to publicise next year’s Geomedia conference. The theme is ‘revisiting the home’ and there are some great keynote speakers lined up, including Melissa Gregg and Tristan Thielmann.You can find out more information, submit paper proposals and register, here.

session on feminist digital geographies at AAG conference April 2019

This is a call for papers for a session at the next conference of the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in Washington DC 3-7 April next year on feminist digital geographies, organised by Agnieszka Leszczynski (Western University) and me. It’s sponsored by both the Digital Geographies and the Geographic Perspectives on Women Speciality Groups of the AAG.

In the context of a flurry of activities coalescing around digital geographies, we invite papers that consider the “enduring contours and new directions” of feminist theory, politics, and praxis for geographies concerned with the digital (Elwood and Leszczynski, 2018). We broadly welcome interventions that proceed from, utilize, and advance feminist epistemologies, methodologies, theory, critical practice, and activism.

We are open to submissions offering empirical, theoretical, critical, and methodological contributions across a range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • big data
  • digitally-mediated cities
  • artificial intelligence and algorithms
  • social media
  • feminist/digital/spatial theory
  • progressive alternatives and activism
  • feminist histories and genealogies

Please submit abstracts of no more than 200 words by October 15th to aleszczy@uwo.ca and gillian.rose@ouce.ox.ac.uk. Please include a title, your name, affiliation and email address in the abstract. We will respond to authors with confirmation by November 1st.

Reference:

Elwood S and Leszczynski A (2018) Feminist digital geographies. Gender, Place & Culture25(5): 629-644.

seeing what (we want) driverless cars to see (but they don’t)

Just back from the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, which was held in Cardiff last week – and inspired enough to write my first blog post in quite a while.

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Well actually there was a lot that was inspiring at the conference, but here I just want to focus on one thing. The Digital Geographies Working Group sponsored a pre-conference event, called Navigating Data Landscapes (the conference theme was landscape). I helped to organise it with Tess Osborne from Birmingham University and Sam Hind from the University of Siegen. Sam’s contribution was a workshop on YouTube videos showing what driverless cars ‘see’, and Tess’s which was a chance to play with a range of virtual and augmented reality devices. Mine was to screen a short film made by speculative architect Liam Young called Where the City Can’t See.

At the end of the afternoon, all the participants got together for a panel discussion with James Ash, Clancy Wilmott and Emma Fraser. Here are some of the comments that I took away from the afternoon from various contributors, specifically around the visualities of Lidar scans.

Images of what driverless cars ‘see’ deploy a cartographic language, not least because Lidar is a technology that uses light to map space by calculating distance. So although Lidar is a technology – like photography – that depends on light, it does not create photographs. This shows in visualisations that layer Lidar scans on top of one another so that it seems the viewer can look through one surface (or rather points scattered across that surface) onto another.

This is a spatial sensibility and not primarily a visual one – so the Lidar images aren’t really landscape images. Sam’s preferred term for what they show is ‘terrain’, a more topographic notion.

In fact, it’s quite possible that Lidar tech doesn’t really see anything at all. Which means that driverless cars – that use Lidar technologies to calculate the distances to objects around them – don’t ‘see’ either. The videos that purport to show us what driverless cars see actually show us a highly mediated version of the data that a Lidar scan has generated. It’s a visual imaginary of what humans think a driverless car sees.

And humans want to think that driverless cars see because this reassures us that we understand how they operate, the principles of their operation – that they are like us, in some way.

All of which means that videos of what Lidar scanners see are not actually what Lidar scanners see, they are what humans working with Lidar scan data desire the scanner to be seeing. Thus the videos showing what cars see are actually what humans (want to) see… and another symptom of this is that so many of the images of what driverless cars see aren’t from the car’s point of view at all, but rather they hover in mid-air. From a drone, perhaps – or perhaps just another, rather minor, god trick of seeing something from nowhere. (I’m trying to remember – surely there must be a deity of automobiles in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods?)

seeing the smart city on Twitter: colour and the affective territories of becoming smart

I have a new paper out! It’s co-authored with Alistair Willis and is Online First in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Here is its main image and abstract:

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This paper pays attention to the immense and febrile field of digital image files which picture the smart city as they circulate on the social media platform Twitter. The paper considers tweeted images as an affective field in which flow and colour are especially generative. This luminescent field is territorialised into different, emergent forms of becoming ‘smart’. The paper identifies these territorialisations in two ways: firstly, by using the data visualisation software ImagePlot to create a visualisation of 9030 tweeted images related to smart cities; and secondly, by responding to the affective pushes of the image files thus visualised. It identifies two colours and three ways of affectively becoming smart: participating in smart, learning about smart, and anticipating smart, which are enacted with different distributions of mostly orange and blue images. The paper thus argues that debates about the power relations embedded in the smart city should consider the particular affective enactment of being smart that happens via social media. More generally, the paper concludes that geographers must pay more attention to the diverse and productive vitalities of social media platforms in urban life, and that this will require experiment with methods that are responsive to specific digital qualities.

digital | visual | cultural

I’m very excited to announce a new project: Digital | Visual | Cultural.   D|V|C is a series of events which will explore how the extensive use of digital visualising technologies creates new ways of seeing the world.

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The first event will be on June 28, when Shannon Mattern will give a public lecture in Oxford. Shannon is the author of the brilliant Code and Clay, Data and Dirt as well as lots of great essays for Places Journal. ‘Fifty Eyes on a Scene’ will replay a single urban scene from the perspective of several sets of machinic and creaturely eyes. That lecture will be free to attend but you’ll need to book. Booking opens via the D|V|C website on 23 April. It will also be livestreamed.

I’m working on this with Sterling Mackinnon, and funding is coming from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, and St John’s College Oxford.

The website has more info at dvcultural.org, and you can follow D|V|C on Twitter @dvcultural and on Instagram at dvcultural. There’ll be a couple more events in 2019 so follow us to stay in touch.

So that’s the practicalities. What’s the logic? Continue reading

the horror, the horror: ‘Annihilation’, or not mixing it up

I was one of those fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s amazing Southern Reach trilogy eagerly anticipating the film of the first book. It’s called Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland. The books are about a piece of land – Area X in the books, the ‘shimmer’ in the film – which has  gone very different in the books and in the film is occupied by something alien. Various military/scientific teams are sent in to investigate and only one man ever reappears.  After doing poorly at the box office in the US – apparently because it was too ‘high concept’ – it’s only available via Netflix in the UK.

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So I watched it and boy was I disappointed. And not just disappointed: actually quite angry. Here’s why.

1 as I recall the Southern Reach books, one of their major themes was perception and its difficulties. In Area X it’s not clear what’s happening: objects shape shift, sounds are inexplicable, time and space warp and fold. You would have thought that film is a great medium to explore awry perception, visual and otherwise. But no. What’s happening in the shimmer is spectacularised in the film so that it’s all about objects that are shown to have changed form. That is, everything is rendered visible, whereas in the books a lot of the fascination is that the visible is no longer a reliable guide to what exists.

2 the main character in the film is given an elaborate back story about her husband. We get happy scenes, we get sad scenes, we get her having an affair (wot? oh yes, we get to see Natalie Portman having sex)… all entirely irrelevant to the central problematic of the books but hey, core to maintaining patriarchal heteronormativity in wannabe Hollywood blockbusters with female leads.

3 the film explains what’s going on in the shimmer. Whereas the whole point of the books (as I read them) is that what’s going on is incomprehensible. Nobody knows, nobody understands, nobody has an explanation, or at least not one that works. But in the film, we get an Explanation. Again, while the books contemplate what an encounter with something radically alien might feel like, the film reduces it to a puzzle that can be solved by science.

4 the Explanation of the shimmer’s effect is genetic mixing. This is the horror, the film tells us. Genetic mixing is what gives animals human voices and bodies writhing intestines and plants more than one kind of flower and trees coloured fungus.

5 and can the film accept this mixing? (The final book of the trilogy is called ACCEPTANCE). Nope. What does the main character do to its source? She firebombs it. Literally, she sets off an incendiary grenade which burns all the effects of the mixing. ANNIHILATION, geddit?

Now I understand that films can’t be the same as novels. That’s why they’re called adaptations, I get that. And yes, I enjoyed seeing a film full of strong, intelligent, diverse women. But what this adaptation has done, I think, is to systematically strip out the really very radical weirdness of the novels. It’s removed every vestige of unknowability, incomprehension and bafflement, and replaced it with convention, science and control.

And that it represents mixing as a horror that must be violently undone is just apalling. I perhaps feel this especially strongly as I spent today reading Simone Browne’s book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which is a very powerful account of how surveillance technologies of many kinds have both observed and invisibilised black bodies over centuries, and legitimated terrible racist brutality. At one point she discusses how Hollywood versions of biometrics are imagined as tethering people to a fixed identity (and thus also to gendered and racialised hierarchies of power). What Annihilation does, it seems to me, is to visualise the flipside of that desire for biological tethering: the apparently grotesque horror of fluid identity, of mixing it up.

Barbara Creed wrote a book a long while ago about how so much Hollywood horror depends on monstrous, out-of-control female bodies. I can’t help thinking that Annihilation also takes something excessive to dominant norms and makes it horrible. However, as Browne’s book makes very clear, that horror of mixing has generated, and continues to generate, a far more powerful and violent terror than anything Annihilation appears able to imagine.

moodboard as method?

I’m very excited to be taking part in a methods workshop for PhD students and early career researchers, to be held in the Ringkøbing-Skern municipality on the west coast of Denmark on 18-22 June 2018. There’s more information here and you can apply here.

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It’s the third in a series organised by Anette Markham, Anne-Marit Waade and Kat Tiidenberg, and as the series is called Visuality, Culture, Method, I imagine a fair few readers of this post might be interested.

There’ll be lots of activities to develop participants’ visual research methods, but the one that most intrigues me is the design of a moodboard as “a speculative, future oriented method for making sense of, analyzing and visualizing culture”.

Mention of a moodboard immediately makes me think of the advice given by interior design magazines for ‘tasteful’ home decorating: create a moodboard of materials, colours, objects. I guess it’s a kind of collage, but one that has perhaps rather less didactic intent than many academic uses of collage. Its aim is not to place contradictory images in relation as a form of critique, but rather to layer things together to create, well, a mood. This seems an interesting model in relation to the ongoing interest in affect and atmospheres. I’d love to see what participants in the workshop do with this as an analytical tool.

The idea of a moodboard also reminds me of the digital equivalent: Pinterest.

Pinterest seems to me to be shamefully understudied as a social media platform. I’m pretty sure there’ll be technical reasons for this lack of attention: quite how you’d scrape the front end stream of images I don’t know. Particularly as they appear to me to be closely related to the sorts of things that an individiual user searches for and pins onto their boards (those pesky algorigthms): so each stream will be different for each user. And then there are the boards created by users, some of which are public but many of which are private.

There are also the difficulties in analysing large numbers of digital images. To what should your method be attentive: content? Colour? How do you sample? Should you sample?

I also wonder if there are other reasons for the neglect of Pinterest though. It has a very high proportion of female users, and much of it is devoted to feminised concerns: domestic design, relationship advice, fashion, weird cures for fixing bad skin or flab. (There’s also a professional design/architecture engagement with Pinterest which is less visible to me, given what I use it for.) Does this also contribute to the lack of attention it’s received?

Which raises the question, how will a method based on moodboard gain credibility and traction? I very much look forward to exploring these questions – and I’m sure many more – in June.

smart cities on YouTube

I was very happy to receive a copy of a new edited collection last week: Geomedia Studies: Spaces and Mobilities in Mediatized Worlds, edited by Karin Fast, Andre Jansson, Johan Lindell, Linda Ryan Bengtsson and Mekonnen Tesfahuney.

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I have a chapter in it called “Look InsideTM: Corporate Visions of the Smart City”, which discusses the most popular corporate videos on YouTube (or at least, they were the most popular when I wrote the chapter eighteen months ago). These are videos that try to explain and/or sell the idea of the smart city or an urban Internet of Things.

The chapter discusses what the videos show – all digital flow and glow, and (mostly men) explaining digital flow and glow – but also emphasises how easy it is to criticise that representational content. It then suggests that perhaps that’s not therefore where their power lies. Perhaps rather it’s their affective resonances that matter most: that flow, glow, speed, seamless mobility, in spaces where coloured light substitutes for data, everything is mutable and nothing ever seems to stop.

There are lots of other great chapters in the book, and the editors make a strong case in their introduction for the importance of studying geomedia: “an expanding interdisciplinary research terrain at the intersections of media and geography” (p.4). Bring it on.