the media of thinking and arguing: paper, dust, discs and the cloud

I started a new job on 1 October as Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oxford, so over the summer I cleared out my office at The Open University. I’ve been at The OU for 17 years, so there was a lot of stuff to clear. And a lot of things to reflect on. One of which was the partiality of the shift in my scholarship media from paper to digital.

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There were piles of handwritten notes on books and papers in my office, some filed alphabetically by author, and a lot in piles depending on the project they’d been read for. Some lovely juxtapositions emerged as I began to empty the filing cabinets, probably possible only in the freedom of PhD years and in that most eclectic of disciplines, mine, geography.

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Some of these handwritten notes went back to my PhD and possibly beyond: faded and yellowing, I was torn between treating them as quaint souvenirs of a bygone age and horror at their unsearchability. Fading folders labelled ‘TO READ’ pricked my conscience, and I was also taken back to some very intense events, translated into academic offprints (remember those?). In the end, I put almost all of them into recycling bags.

Then there were the boxes of floppy discs and slides. The floppy discs made me smile and also gave me pause for thought. On them were copies of all the teaching material I’d used before I moved to the OU in 1993: lecture notes, handouts, overhead project transparencies. Aha, I’d thought then, I’ll put it all on discs and throw out the paper and acetate and save space and be modern. Now of course the floppy discs are unreadable and my materials are inaccessible. I particularly regret not being able to check out the handbook of my course on ‘The Cultural Politics of Landscape’ which I ran for several years at Edinburgh University and at Queen Mary before that – so many years ago, in fact, that the handbook might have the retro quality of a classic, I like to think – if only I could actually access it.

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Now, my notes are attached to pdfs in Zotero, and I use Evernote rather than hardback notebooks for ongoing Thoughts and Ideas. I still keep a folder of ideas attached to specific pieces of writing. But I don’t regret the shift to digital for pretty much everything else that I make to write. Evernote allows me to store written notes but also to add hyperlinks and attach documents and images, and Zotero has made citations and referencing a cinch. Both are searchable. And clean. I know dust has its qualities but, really, also, just yuk.

What I couldn’t throw out were things that I had made that felt more personal somehow. I have a folder for every paper I’ve ever written, with drafts and notes of my ideas, and every grant application. I have never gone back to look at any of these ever, but throwing them away was just too much. I still have my notes from conferences. And I kept my undergraduate lecture notes and dissertation too. I think I kept all of these because they all mark, more explicitly than reading notes, the process of my thinking, what I like to think of as the creativity of academic work. They now sit on shelves in my new office, impassive reminders of what has been done – but also, as materialisations of an ongoing and otherwise elusive process, I hope energising future work too.

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will the ordinary smart city please stand up?

For all its faults, Twitter occasionally throws up a total, unexpected gem, which is why I stick with it, and this is one: a stonking essay by Jacob Silverman called Future Fail which  I found via a Justin Pickard tweet (thanks, Justin). Silverman takes aim at the utopian techno-futurism of Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and sure hits the target. A sample: “At this apparently late date in our species’ history, as rising seas swallow South Pacific islands and chunks of Louisiana, the reverie of a frictionless, optimally engineered human prospect now demands considerable gall—together with a heaping of political naiveté, mindless consumerism, historical ignorance, and class and racial privilege.” And gendered privilege of course, which he acknowledges elsewhere in his essay.

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As Silverman notes, the flip side to this technologically engineered future utopianism are visions of the future as technological dystopias, horrendous scenarios of technology gone horribly wrong, with horrible consequences (Silverman points to climate change, pandemics and nuclear war – but the widespread fascination with zombies must be part of this dystopianism too).

That dystopia is intimately related to utopia is hardly news of course. In another example, the pair structure smart city discourse all the way down. Smart tech can save cities; smart tech will ruin cities. Smart tech will liberate people; smart tech will surveill and curtail them. Smart tech will make buses run on time; but only at the expense of giving up data privacy. And so on.

Silverman’s conclusion is to reject fantasies of the future entirely. “The future,’ he says, “with all of its ideological baggage, and its smoldering graveyard of unfulfilled dreams, has failed us. We’d do well to abandon it, and start figuring out how we might survive the present.” Well yes, absolutely.

Except that, as many a sci-fi fan will tell you, sci-fi as a genre can be a useful way of thinking how things might indeed be different. In the future, right now, doesn’t really matter it seems to me. Which gives me an excuse to enthuse about a couple of books I read over the summer. Nothing to do with smart cities: they’re both what I thought were really interesting efforts at articulating how it might be to think differently, to be different, to deal with difference differently. Ostensibly in the future but why not now too. The first challenges the current dominance of the octopus as the go-to animal for thinking life otherwise: The Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which won last year’s Athur C Clarke award. The second gradually lets you realise that its first-person narrator is not exactly the kind of life-form that the Western novel is based on: Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Oh, and both do interesting things with gender, too, reversing and refusing it. As this year’s winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, Colson Whitehead, said, “Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Which is why I’m wondering (back to smart cities, folks) – what kinds of cultural work is feeding into current visions of the smart city, sci fi, fantasy or other? Techno-futuristic utopianism and dystopianism, for sure. Black Mirror and Elysium and Interstellar, for sure. A series of Philip K Dick short stories are about to air on UK television. (And then there’s the totally weird Netflix film The Circle, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether total surveillance is a Good thing or Bad.)

But is there other sci-fi that just show smart cities as ordinary? Not horrendous, not heavenly, but just kind of a bit smooth, a bit glitchy, a bit fun, a bit irritating? And if there were, would that help us deal with their technologies? Answers in the comment box please.

(The title of this post was inspired by Hollands, Robert G. “Will the Real Smart City Please Stand Up?” City 12, no. 3 (2008): 303–20.)

do we know how to look at VR yet?

When we think about the spaces of VR, we almost always focus on the spaces that the VR user (is that the right word?) experiences while they’ve got the headset on. Equally important, though, it seems to me, are the spaces in which the VR experience takes place. This thought was prompted by Davina Jackson (thanks Davina!), who sent me a link to this video:

Quite apart from the rather groovy VR here – it’s called Mutator and it’s the work of William Latham and many colleagues – the video also shows the gallery space in which Mutator was installed, along with the VR users, tethered by cables and surrounded by large panels with images from the VR printed on them.

The spaces in which images are viewed – galleries, living rooms, cinemas, streets, trains – are not only material spaces but also social spaces, in which certain kinds of practices happen, and this includes specific, embodied ways of seeing.

But the viewing space in this video is quite unlike any other in terms of how things are being looked at. The panels suggest a gallery, except that looking at them is not the point of being there and few people are doing that. Nor can the gallery visitors doing the VR move around like you would in a gallery space. It isn’t like watching a film either; these viewers are totally isolated from other viewers when their headset is on, they’re using hand controls, they can’t see anyone else and they’re all probably all looking at something different anyway.

This profoundly unfamiliar viewing environment seems to me to be one of the major issues confronting the future development of VR. The idea that the images produced by many new visual technologies remediate aspects of old types of images is of course well established. Computer-generated images are often made to look like analogue photos, for example. But the same logic applies, often, to the ways in which new kinds of images are seen. Digital family snaps are looked at in much the same ways as analogue snaps. Google Maps on a smartphone is used in ways not entirely dissimilar to printed A to Zs. Illuminated adverts on large billboards framed our viewing of large digital screens. TV viewing was initially a bit like cinema viewing; and ambient TV (to use Anna McCarthy‘s term) was the precursor of our contemporary urban spaces where ambient screens often feel like they’re everywhere, not least in our hands. We learn how to look at new kinds of images in part by adapting the practices through which we encountered older kinds of images.

But what’s the precursor for watching VR? I don’t think there is one. In particular, I can’t think of another kind of viewing where the viewer cannot see anything of the place in which they are doing the viewing. This surely accounts for the feelings of isolation and – potentially – vulnerabilty – that some VR users report.

This uncertainty about the embodied practice of watching VR is also evident in one of the most amazing, boggling adverts currently doing the rounds: Samsung’s advert for what it modestly calls ‘The New Normal’.

A PhD thesis could be written about this ad, really – visuality, technology, domesticity, familiality, tourism, childhood, pedagogy, nature – it’s riddled with fascinating assumptions about all of these. But for now let’s just zoom into the sequence about a minute in, which shows a group of schoolchildren using VR to experience being chased by dinosaurs. (And let’s add ethics to that list of what deserves discussion in this ad.) What the bodies do in the VR experience, with the dinosaurs, is quite different from what they’re shown doing in the classroom. They run with and from dinosaurs in the VR but they’re sitting on the floor in the classroom; and when they are sitting in in dinosaur-world, it’s in a different arrangement from how they’re sitting in classroom-world. That is, the advert can’t align the bodies of the VR users in their VR experience with their material bodies.

Both the gallery goers pictured doing a VR art experience and the advert making VR part of the ‘new normal’, then, are both struggling with the embodied experiencing of VR. It’s not yet clear where VR can be seen appropriately, nor what embodied practices VR requires.  In a sense, then, both are suggesting that we don’t know yet how to look at VR.

swipe spaces and the lubrication of visual transformation

I went to the cinema on Saturday and was struck by the visuals in a couple of adverts screened before the film started. They were both very similar in the way that they showed people and locations constantly shifting one to another.

One of the ads was for Barclay’s contactless payment card which you can view it here. The other was for Uber. The Uber ad is called ‘Effortless Night’ and shows a young woman and man meeting, dancing, eating and so on. After each activity they climb into one side of a car, and then climb out the other side into a new location and a new cute event. The Barclaycard ad is very similar. A young woman stands at a photocopier, which folds open into a shop that she walks into, and the rest of the ad is her swiping her card and then leaning onto a surface (a wall) or going through an opening (a door), changing her clothes and location as she does so, ending up in a nightclub before flipping back to the office and her suit.

 

Neither ad uses obviously digital special effects; it all looks like film. (I realise that those distinctions are increasingly hard to sustain but I think you’ll know what I mean.) But it struck me that the constantly shifting locations and costumes were nonetheless influenced by the morphability that’s so central to digital visualisations. A digital film always has the potential to become an animation in which, to quote Suzanne Buchan, space and time become the real characters. In both these ads, the humans are just an excuse, it seems, to demonstrate a sort of hubbed temporality and spatiality, in which moments/locations are  visible and are connected only by the transition between each; there’s no flow or route, just sort of hinge from one thing to another: a car in the case of the Uber ad, and various walls and doors in the Barclays. Swipe spaces, if you like, a spatiality in which one location simply replaces another by an apparently routeless, kind of spaceless movement between them.

It’s the ease of these moves that seem to be the point of each advert, lubricated by the ‘effortless’ purchase of services and commodities, of course (neither of the ads make the workers in these spaces very evident: the Uber drivers are completely invisible). There’s something here about the alignment of flow, pleasure and transformation that much of digital culture seems to be cultivating right now. In these ads it’s sutured all too neatly with the apparently seamless, digitally-enabled flow of money. We’ve long been familiar with images of people constructed through the display of commodities they’ve bought: looks like this is the latest version of space/time being constructed through digitised commodification. Swipe space, anyone?

 

conference on images of urban technological futures

There’s an interesting conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2 June.  Title: Future Passe. You can find out more here.

The conference will explore how we represent urban change and technological development in visual and textual form, historically and in the present. How has visual rhetoric been used to normalize the disruption and destruction that accompanies modern ideas of ‘progress’? And what happens when these confident predictions of future relevance fail and we are left with dead-ends and obsolete technologies, the unwanted remains of modernity?
 
There’ll be academic speakers (yes I’ll be there, talking about visions of smart cities), V&A curators, artists and filmmakers. Looks fun – and it’s free!

Smart Cities in the Making website is now live!

One of the most pressing questions emerging from all the hype about smart cities is how  people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies. That’s one of the questions driving the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes, and I’m delighted to say announce its website is now live, at www.SCiM-MK.org.

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SCiM-MK is a research project which will examine Milton Keynes as a smart city ‘in the making’ by a whole range of actors, including MK citizens, the city’s governance, smart products, smart data and various visualisations of smart. SCiM-MK will look at the social effects of all these aspects of a smart city. In particular, SCiM-MK will find out how social difference affects participation in smart, and whether smart creates new forms of social difference.

Since a better understanding of how different kinds of people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies is now clearly needed in order to maximise the gains that those technologies offer, the project’s findings will be of local and international significance, learning lessons to be disseminated to cities across the UK and worldwide.

You can find out more about the project, the team, our partners and our activities on the site, as well get in touch with us, at www.SCiM-MK.org.

digital geographies event!

The Digital Geographies Working Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers is holding its first event. It’s got lots of various kinds of short presentations, opportunities to engage and interact so it should be fun and productive.

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The event will be at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 30 June and if you have any kind of interest in studying or doing geography digitally, you’re very welcome to attend. You can book now, here, and the panel sessions will also be livestreamed on the day.

 

 

 

 

 

urban living labs, smart cities – and culture?

I spent a really interesting day at a workshop on Urban Living Labs in Brussels on last week. I’m currently PI of a large research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes‘. The aim of the project is to carry out a series of close up, in depth analyses of how specific ‘smart technologies’ are embedding themselves (or not) in the town of Milton Keynes; in particular, we’re interested in how existing forms of social differentiation are being reproduced and how new forms are also emerging in that process.

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Milton Keynes is a new town, half way between London and Birmingham. It was founded in 1967, and its current population is around 260,000. From its beginning, it has always seen itself as an ‘urban laboratory’, and it has a long history of experimenting with innovations in energy and transport especially (the UK’s first solar-powered house went into action here in 1972, as did the UK’s first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992). More recently the city council has been very keen to attract new experiments into the city, under the rubric of ‘smart’. So for example, it’s one of the UK towns trialling driverless cars, and has developed a Data Hub with an innovation infrastructure to support local would-be entrepreneurs. It was really interesting at the workshop to hear Simon Marvin from the ‘Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the Role of Living Labs‘ project place Milton Keynes into the wider landscape of living labs in Europe.

My own research interest in smart cities is kind of marginal to way that smart cities have been pitched and marketed, and also to the extensive practices of the diverse kinds of urban living labs that I learnt a lot about on the day.  I’m interested in how digital visualising technologies are shifting the way that urban spaces are experienced. So I’ve looked for example at how digital visualisations intervene in the urban design process, and more recently I’ve been examining what sort of visions of the smart city are being promoted by the tech companies selling smart hard and software on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Except that I don’t really think that these visualisations are that marginal to smart cities or to their close cousins, urban living labs, really. I think images and visions are actually very powerful ways in which certain kinds assumptions about what cities should be like in the future get normalised. So in lots of adverts for smart city tech, it’s assumed that everything important to a city’s functioning can be turned into reliable and secure data – including its people. It’s assumed that that data flows freely (most ads show data being beamed through the air via wifi networks). And it’s assumed that decisions about how to run a city are purely rational and technical ones of efficiency and sustainability.

The whole notion of a ‘lab’ on the face of it continues that commitment to technocratic solutions to urban challenges.  A lab assumes a place where conditions are controlled, data is gathered and analysed, and data is then shared with other scientists/labs in order to enhance knowledge. In fact, and of course, on all those countes cities are nothing like labs, as scholars like Andrew Karvonen and Bas van Heur (who were both at the workshop) have demonstrated. (Well, there is one similarity, now I come to think about it – both labs and smart cities tend to be run by men.)

What I did find surprising about the workshop day – and perhaps this is something generated by that whole notion of a town or city being understood as a lab – is that questions of culture and conflict weren’t broached at all. Smart cities are increasingly finding that to fulfill the vision of a good city that smart offers, the people who live in the city really have to be involved. That isn’t a process that can be achieved by data gathering. Instead, it’s one that involves how people feel about their city, how communication and engagement happens in the city, what histories of place and belonging shape the city.  All those are cultural things, not data things.

This is another reason why Milton Keynes will be such an interesting place to discover more about how smart technologies and polices actually work, because from its founding it has also had quite a distinctive vision of community development, trying to facilitate residents of the city to do what they want to do for their neighbourhoods. It’s an approach which has nurtured relatively high levels of voluntary action in the city, and we’ll be working with one of its leading organisations – Community Action MK – to work out just how that participatory culture is being mediated by smart technologies.

But, of course, neighbourhoods – let alone cities – are not full of one single group of people with the same interests, feelings, histories or agency. Not everyone in a smart city might agree about what kind of smart they want to be. ‘Smart citizens’ are not a homogeneous category, and I never got to grips during the workshop with how the notion of the lab would deal with radically opposed visions of what a lab might be experimenting to achieve. There are a lot of anxieties about data privacy in some places, for example, while in others research suggests that people are perfectly happy to give up ‘private’ data to commercial companies if it guarantees, say, a better bus service. How would a city-wide data hub negotiate between those positions?

The collaborative vision of urban improvement that’s at the heart of the smart city and the urban living lab is great, and was powerfully advocated by participants at the workshop who came from places with long histories of social democracy and welfare state support. But not all places – and cultures – have those histories, and even those that are seem to be under increasing challenge right now. So notions of cities as labs or as smart surely need to engage much more directly with the complexity of urban societies, the possibility that there will be (may be, at least) irreconcilable differences between different parts of those societies, and the role of values and priorities – culture! – in both of those.