The deadline for pre-registering to participate in the online module on aspects of advanced image elicitation methods run by The Open University is 13 January. The module explores different modes of ‘participation’. Find out more here.
I’ve been trying to work on a paper about how smart cities look on Twitter over the past few works. One answer is this:
That’s a trial run I’ve done, working with the 900-odd images attached to a range of smart city-related hashtags, scraped over a week last month by my OU colleague Alistair Willis, and run through Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot software. Saturation increases closer to the centre of the image, and hue is distributed much like a colour wheel. Yes, smart cities are mostly either blue or orange!!
This is part of my effort to think about different visual methods that can respond – even if only partially – to the sheer scale of image circulation in digital visual culture now. It doesn’t touch on the dynamics of their circulation, but it does suggest, I think, a possible effect of the speed and numbers of images on social media platforms and the casual way in which they’re often seen: that we might see a certain sort of city as a colour field that enacts smart (for example) rather than a set of images that represent it. So the blue and orange mean almost nothing (though not entirely). What they might suggest, though, is something about the feel of the notion of the smart city, as it’s performed through Twitter.
What I’m now doing is digging a bit deeper into that ‘feeling’: what does a smart city hashtag on Twitter do with both smart cities and with the hashtag followers? What kinds of affect does it intensify? I think I’m kind of getting towards an answer, but of course I need to do some more reading. And here is my pile of books that I hope will help me think about what thousands of images of smart are and do, getting me away from smart and Twitter specifically and more towards thinking about the intersection of the urban, visual, cultural and digital. I’m also looking forward to reading a roundtable in the online journal Mediapolis, on the urban as an emergent key concept for media theory.
(I was going to make a snarky comment about it obviously being compulsory to use grey, black, red and white when designing the covers of these sorts of books – but then I realised that my workspace is pretty much the same colours….)
Three years ago now, I worked with Professor Helen Lomax and Dr Nick Mahony to produce three online advanced research training modules in image elicitation methods, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Module 1 looks at using image elicitation methods with ‘vulnerable’ research participants; module 2 examines discourses of elicitation and participation more generally; and module 3 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, and this is the last year that they’ll run.
Pre-registration for module 1 is now open here, and closes on 25 November.
That’s the title of the paper that I’ve just had accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and here is its abstract:
Accounts by geographers of the ways in which urban spaces are digitally mediated have proliferated in the last few years. This significant body of work pays particular attention to the production of urban space by software and digital hardware, and geographers have drawn on various kinds of posthumanist philosophies in order to theorise the agency of the technological nonhuman. The agency of the human, however, has been left undertheorised in this work, often appearing in the form of excessive resistance to the agency granted to the digital. This article contributes to understanding the digital mediation of cities by theorising a specifically posthuman agency: that is, a human agency both mediated through technics and diverse. Drawing on the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler as well as a range of feminist digital scholarship, the article conceptualises posthuman agency as always already co-constituted with technologies. Posthumans are simultaneously individuated and exteriorised in that co-constitution, and this permits agency understood as reinvention. The article also insists that such sociotechnical agency is differentiated, particularly in terms of the spatialities and temporalities through which it is organised. It concludes by arguing that geographers must reconfigure their understanding of digitally mediated cities and acknowledge the inventiveness and diversity of urban posthuman agency.
Annals divides each issue into four sections, and I think this will come out in the ‘Methods, Models, and GIS’ section (GIS stands for ‘Geographical Information System’). If you’d told me early in my academic career that I’d ever have a paper in any way associated with ‘GIS’, I would never have believed you. I was taught that GIS was the positivist (boo) technological tool of the military-industrial complex (double boo). Which I think at that point probably wasn’t too inaccurate.
But GIScience has changed a lot since then. Not only has does it now include many different theoretical approaches, including feminist work of course, it’s now embedded in a much more extensive range of practices, including data visualisations in journalism and geolocated social media analysis. So it’s expanding in all sorts of ways… and as I’ve argued before, I think at least some of the cultural geographers of the same sort of generation of me should be moving too, rethinking our work in the light of the practices and theorisations of ‘the digital’ that GIScience, among other things, is now generating. My paper tries hard to draw on that digital expertise, even if my goal remains focussed on what cultural geography was so interested in thirty years ago (oh my god it is thirty years ago): the making and remaking of meanings.
I spent some time this week making the final revisions to a paper. It’s about posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city (and I’m afraid that’s its actual title too, followed by “exteriorisation, interiorisation and reinvention”, just to make it sound a really fun read). It’s a theory piece, surprise surprise, working with Bernard Stiegler to conceptualise posthuman agency as both technically mediated and also differentiated. (Thanks must go to James Ash, Sam Kinsley, Kathryn Mitchell and Sarah Elwood, geographers who’ve already grappled with Stiegler and made my engagement with him a lot easier.)
The main literature my paper engages is the very rich body of work on digitally mediated cities, much of which has been written by geographers and much of which gives a great deal of agency to the technological without paying much attention to the complexities of ‘human’ agency (it’s usually left as just that, ‘humans’ who do things with technological devices).
I won’t give the whole paper way here (though I will post the abstract when it’s been definitely accepted). Because right now I just want to share a thought prompted by my efforts to write about the sense of the urban that Stiegler’s work generated for me. Here’s an edited version of my paper’s effort at articulating that sense:
…cities are particularly concentrated sites of the deployment of digital technologies, digitally mediated retentions and thus for the production of posthuman differentiation. A posthuman, remember, is greedy for those external signs without which they cannot exist, and cities are sites in which those signs are produced, circulated and encountered most intensively. Posthumans in cities are sociotechnically co-produced digitally with many different digital devices while doing many different things – communicating via Snapchat; travelling with Uber, Google Earth and Google Maps; being recorded by surveillance cameras and body heat sensors; playing PokemonGo; glancing at algorithm-generated advertisements on smartphone email apps; writing #blacklivesmatter in tweets; tagging and posting photos on Instagram; liking on FourSquare or Facebook; working on a computer generated image of an urban redevelopment project; viewing crowd-sourced i-documentaries, maps, witnessing plaforms and GIScience efforts to map marginalised urban lives; as well as the many things done with the platforms and databases that now insist that they are ‘the social’ – to name just a few, all of which generate data which is processed to generate innumerable tertiary retentions of many kinds, numeric, textual and visual. Cities thus host and are mediated by dense gatherings of retentions (both digital and not) – critical, hegemonic, banal, silly – which accumulate into a vast “stratified constellation of technical memory matter, composed of resources that shape political and cultural imaginaries… with depth, height, scale, extensiveness and duration… moving in different directions… Its forms may change and its content migrate, accruing or shedding textures in the process” (Withers 2015, 17). This is a reserve not only of retentions but of embodied practices, through which posthumans watch, touch, learn, think, hear, move and gesture, in streets, squares, parks and workplaces, mimicking, recombining, reinventing. It is from this urban “media manifold” (Couldry 2011) that multiple forms of digital posthuman agencies emerge, as myriad retentions are encountered and reinvented.
As well as Stiegler and his geographer-interpreters, that quote makes clear another inspiration for my paper: a book by Deborah Withers called Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission, which uses Stiegler to talk about the work of archiving the UK feminist music scene of the 1980s (Stiegler is very interested in memory). The book is wonderful, not least because it uses a fantastically suggestive vocabulary for describing what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, which Withers also describes as a “technical compost, an arena of composition and decomposition from which ideas, practices, knowledges and techniques emerge and diverge through dynamic processes of transformation, becoming, disintegration and solidification” (page 17).
Withers’s rich vocabulary is kind of implicitly organic somehow, suggesting change, growth, density, vegetal-ness. I hope I’m not over-reading the ‘compost’ here… and if I am (ok, I am), maybe it’s because I also went to see the truly amazing film The Girl With All The Gifts a couple of weeks ago – about the posthuman in a rather different sense – and I couldn’t get its image of spore-saturated people and London out of my mind when I was writing this – hence the image above (though actually that’s the one thing I think the novel does better than the film – while the film pictures a kind of plant, the novel pictures a fungal mould thing that envelops London. Oh and Radiohead was in the mix somewhere too – in my writing, not the film.).
Anyway, there I was, relishing and struggling with this feeling of the urban as a site of massified mycorrhizal tendril extensive mobile… with humans totally part of it…
… and I then came across a couple of great pieces in the ever-reliable Progress in Human Geography, one by Colin McFarlane on “geographies of urban density” and one by Ben Anderson. Ben’s is a review of current cultural geography (I wasn’t quite sure where the cultural was in the essay, but who cares, it’s a great piece). Both also evoke a similar language, of intensity, volume, densification, composition (ok, not compost, but close), morphing, extinction, decongestion, dispersal, flourishing, emergence…
This is all very suggestive, and is more complex than the by-now rather thin notion of ‘relational geographies’; as Ben notes, it’s surely a version of that kind of geography but its vocabulary multiplies the modalities of relationality in important ways. And while its theoretical sources are diverse, I want to flag just one in particular which I think hovers over much of this work as it addresses cities: not Stiegler but rather of the work of Nigel Thrift. Thrift wrote a volley of papers five or six years ago now that, as far as I can see, went nowhere in geography as an academic discipline – I tried tracking their citations a year or so ago and came up with very little. (I’ve listed them below, with a couple of more recent ones.) Indeed, I remember reading them myself when they were new-ish and being fascinated by them but also not feeling able to do very much with them, they were so part of Thrift’s own project, formidably referenced and almost visionary, actually.
But I wonder now if what we’re seeing is a kind of fallout from that work, its spores seeding quietly and invisibly, in this work which shares Thrift’s interest in affect and bubbles and atmospheres and intensities (not his alone of course) but is putting it to use in critical and grounded accounts of cities (as McFarlane suggests) and to explore inequalities and violences (as Anderson suggests). One of the repeated criticisms of Thrift’s work is that it isn’t critical enough (nor, as I argue in that forthcoming paper, posthuman enough). Perhaps we’re now seeing that critique come to fruition, as it were, in geographies which seem to me to be oddly fungal.
PS I’m not serious about mycorrhizal as the term for this sensibility, not least because my biology isn’t good enough to know if the term refers to what I’m trying to evoke (Wikipedia wasn’t very clear). I did think about ‘volumetric’ as an alternative but I like the more organismic, vital feel of the fungal… and this is only a blog post after all.
Thrift, Nigel. “Different Atmospheres: Of Sloterdijk, China, and Site.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 119 – 138. doi:10.1068/d6808.Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5 – 26. doi:10.1068/d0310.———. “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land.” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 2 (2012): 141–68. doi:10.1177/1474474011427268.———. “The Promise of Urban Informatics: Some Speculations.” Environment and Planning A 46, no. 6 (2014): 1263–66. doi:10.1068/a472c.———. “The ‘sentient’ City and What It May Portend.” Big Data & Society 1, no. 1 (2014): 1–21. doi:10.1177/2053951714532241.
I’ve just finished writing a chapter discussing the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are pictured in promotional videos. I’ve been working with twenty-one videos, all on YouTube, made by seven US and European companies: IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Siemens, Thales and Vinci. The chapter is heading for a collection edited by Karin Fast called Geomedia, out next spring I think. It continues my efforts to think about how cities are being visually mediated in distinctively digital ways, and also in ways that are both representational and operative.
In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.
- make sure that your video starts with an aerial view – of the planet or of a city, it doesn’t matter, just make sure you start from on high and zoom in.
- ensure that every single image – apart from talking head interviews – moves. Film must picture things moving, animations must constantly transform, and if you’re stuck with having to film something that doesn’t move, overlay some animated graphics onto it.
- make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
- you must have at least one shot of traffic, at night, streaming through a glowing urban landscape. In fact, make as many things glow and flow as you can.
- don’t interview women, unless they are so important that it’s really unavoidable (which means a national CEO or the director of strategy of a national organisation at least). If you have to interview a woman, see if you can get away with not naming her.
- use as many kinds of imagery as you possibly can: photorealist aerial views, massing study fly-throughs, panoramas (pan across them), maps with things moving across them, powerpoint bullet points lists (again, these must be animated), app interfaces, systems diagrams, electric circuit notation, documentary video, etc etc etc.
- if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
- avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
- avoid any suggestion that a smart city has surburbs or houses. If you must show a house, make sure there’s a female figure in it either cooking or with a child. In fact, all children must be shown with female figures regardless of location. If you feel like adding a pushchair to your urban scene, make sure it’s being pushed by a female figure, and if the children are in school, ensure the teachers are female.
- finally, use music but use it carefully. It must either be uplifting and orchestral, of the we-are-moving-into-glorious-futures kind (though try to avoid it sounding too much like Lord of the Rings); or, preferably, it must be the plinky plonky cutesy sort of soundtrack popularised by Apple some time ago.
Hope that helps, guys…
With Mark Graham and Jim Thatcher, I’m convening four sessions at the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers, which will be held in Boston, 5-9 April 2017. The tile of the sessions is digital \\ human \\ labour, and here is the call for papers (with thanks to Mark for the gifs):
The proposed Digital Geographies Working Group of the RGS/IBG and the proposed Digital Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG would like to invite submissions to a series of paper sessions and panels for the 2017 meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston, MA. Reflecting the shared interests of these groups, and their mutual desire to facilitate conversations between a wide range of geographical scholarship, this call is for papers exploring specifically the various intersections of ‘digital’, ‘human’ and ‘labour’.
We will also convene a concluding panel session, and encourage interested participants to submit abstracts for any of these three paper sessions:
1 the human labour of digital work
Discussant: Mark Graham
The spread of the internet to three and a half billion people around the world has significant implications for the human labour. It is now relatively straightforward to outsource business processes to anyone, anywhere, that has a digital connection. This session aims to bring together scholarship that explores the human labour of this digital work. Who carries it out? How does it affect the livelihoods of workers? What sorts of political and organisational governance regimes bring it into being? And what are the ethical, spatial, social, and economic implications of a world in which human labour is increasing disembedded into digital networks.
2 the digital labour of being human
Discussant: Gillian Rose
Digital technologies are now embedded in many aspects of everyday life in many places, mediating everyday experiences of embodiment, mobility, and communication. It is clear that many of these mediations are reproducing existing ways and forms of ‘being human’, but it is also clear that new forms of (post)humanities are emerging, co-produced with, for example, VR headsets, big data, and social media platforms. This session aims to bring together scholarship that addresses these monadic emergences. What new forms of distributed agency, performative gestures and navigational orientations could and should be mapped, and in what ways? What are their temporalities and spatialities, and what geometries of power and difference do they enact?
3 the algorithmic labour of being
Discussant: Jim Thatcher
Alongside the rise in access to internet technologies and their everyday usage, has come an entwined rise in the analysis and manipulation of digital information through algorithms. Just as new technologies introduce interfaces, mediations, and affordances to (re)produce representations of self, so too do the algorithms which sort, select, and present information constrain what can be done and known through the use of said devices. Similarly, even as the very real geography of the labor of digital work shifts and extends across the globe, algorithms increasingly insert themselves betwixt and between laborers, customers, and corporate interests, altering traditional employment relations through the mediation of technology. Building from the themes of the previous two sessions, this session aims to bring together research on the many ways in which algorithms and quantification function in the world. Questions of interest include, but are not limited to: What sorts of new spatial relations are possible through the algorithmic mediation of labor relations? Where is the work of algorithms done? What are the historical roots of this process? What new forms of knowledge and power have been enabled (and constrained) by these systems?
For consideration of inclusion, please submit abstract to Jim Thatcher (firstname.lastname@example.org) by October 15th, 2016. Please format your abstract in a text file of no more than 250 words, including a title, your name, institutional affiliation and email address in the document.
The call for papers for the fifth international visual methods conference has just gone live. The conference will be in Singapore in August next year, and you can find more information here.
I went to see the film Jason Bourne a couple of weeks ago, the latest instalment in the Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass (mostly) spy thriller saga. In my defence, it was a quiet week; I have argued that cultural geographers should be a lot more interested in popular (visual) culture (here, if you’re interested); and it was one of Sight and Sound magazine’s films of the month. So off I went.
Coming out of the cinema, I felt I’d been turned into a sort of visual punchbag, subjected to frequent slapping image impact for the movie’s full 123 minutes and 10 seconds. Once my head cleared a bit, though, it did seem to me that there were some interesting things about that visual experience, several of which are pointed to by Sight and Sound‘s review of the movie, written by Henry K Miller and which you can read in full here.
Henry starts his review by saying that:
The triple crisis of the modern spy movie is the redundancy of human intelligence, of the secret agent, and of spectatorial agency.
Wow. That’s quite a claim. But in Bourneworld it’s true: the spy is replaced by digital databases; no one can hide from digital surveillance now; and since what is knowable and visible is mediated by digital tech, the filmic ‘realism’ of classic cinema is redundant.
This has various consequences. For example, simply looking at the world isn’t enough any more to give movie spectators the evidence they need to figure out the plot; instead we have to be shown endless screens and their information (computer screens, desktop and laptop and wallsize, and phone screens, get a lot of screen time in the movie).
And if what screens show become a crucial part of the action so too, therefore, as Henry also points out, does the control room: the darkened room where CIA operatives stare at screens. (Interestingly, the more senior the CIA official in Bourneworld, the less glued to a screen they are – though the movie also suggests that understanding the culture of the digital world is increasingly important for such characters).
The aesthetics of those screens are interesting too. They carry all sorts of images, from photographs to printed text to maps to satellite images to real time data flows to animated algorithmic calculations to graphics of many kinds, and often switch from one to the other with complete ease (there’s no bugs or glitches in Bourneworld, though there are hackers, of course). They have a visual profligacy which is typically digital (I’ve written about a different kind of example of this here.) And data is shown in neon colours glowing on black backgrounds, which is very typical too: a lot of smart city visualisations use the same colour range.
In Jason Bourne, it’s screens that appear to offer greater insight into both the events structuring the film and into the films’ characters too. You don’t go to any of the Bourne movies for extended, introspective dialogue, as several critics have pointed out, it’s true. But it’s still striking that Bourne’s motivation and even creation is explained in the movie by an online document, which we read on a screen over Jason’s shoulder. And the camerawork that captures the characters as human bodies (rather than the screen aesthetics that capture them as data) is relentlessly mobile and choppy, fragmenting what can be seen into near-incoherence.
And if the characters are often represented as the data trail that they leave as they move, the final fistfight seems to take particular pleasure in emphasising the embodied human as disposable ‘wetware’, with blood and grunts and close-ups of stranglings, very visceral, and very vulnerable: huge numbers of bodies are simply felled in the movie by assassins of various kinds.
All this happens at speed: everything happens fast in the film. No-one starts a car slowly, or strolls aimlessly; engines are revved, walking is purposeful and more than likely to break into a run. The camera wheels and pans relentlessly. It’s all about flow – just like digital networks.
So, while the movie doesn’t advance the spy movie genre (though the final car chase is a pretty damn fine exemplar), or indeed the conventions of the franchise (as Henry also comments), it does offer an intriguing commentary on some of the visual recalibrations occurring as the visual field is more and more produced digitally.
(Oh I feel I should also mention that in the interests of gender balance, sort of, last week I watched Blake Lively defeat a monster shark in The Shallows. SPOILER ALERT. Also by using a screen: she records an SOS on a GoPro camera which then floats ashore.)
Earlier this month, Clare Melhuish, Monica Degen and I published another paper from our ESRC-funded project ‘Architectural atmospheres’, which looked at how computer generated images intervene in the architectural design process. This paper focusses particularly on how such images might be the sites for the postcolonial visualisation of urban redevelopment projects.
The paper is called “‘The real modernity that is here’: understanding the role of digital visualisations in the production of a new urban imaginary at Msheireb Downtown, Doha”, and it’s out in City and Society volume 28 number 2. Here’s the abstract:
This paper explores how Computer Generated Images (CGIs) have enabled the visualisation and negotiation of a new urban imaginary in the production of a large-scale urban development project in Doha, Qatar. CGIs were central not only to the marketing but also the design of Msheireb Downtown. Our study of their production and circulation across a transnational architectural and construction team reveals how their digital characteristics allowed for the development of a negotiated, hybridised urban imaginary, within the context of a re-imaging and re-positioning of cities in a shifting global order. We suggest that CGIs enabled the co-production of a postcolonial urban aesthetic, disrupting the historical Orientalist gaze on the Gulf region, in three ways. Firstly, they circulate through a global network of actors negotiating diverse forms of knowledge from different contexts; secondly, they are composed from a mix of inter-referenced cultural sources and indicators visualising hybrid identities; and thirdly, they evoke a particular urban atmosphere which is both place- and culture-specific, and cosmopolitan. The study emphasises the importance of research into the technical and aesthetic production processes which generate new urban spaces in the context of global market-led growth; and, by considering the circulation of CGIs between sites, contributes to the development of “a more properly postcolonial studies” (Robinson 2011, 17).