is a digital visualisation an object?

I’ve finally managed to do some reading for my own purposes rather than HEFCE’s, and in particular I’ve enjoyed a chapter in a book called Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, edited by Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior.  The chapter is by Roger Burrows and David Beer, on what they call urban informatics.  It’s a neat overview of a big field, and provocative to boot on its implications for sociology.

The chapter’s about the digital, it’s about the urban, so I was reading it as part of my efforts to finish a paper on the digital visualisations of new urban developments: part of the ESRC-funded ‘Architectural Atmospheres‘ project that I’m working on with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish.

mcaslan webpage

And I couldn’t fit the visualisations we’ve been studying into their argument.  Indeed, they don’t really fit into the much wider literature on how software scripts urban spaces – on ‘urban informatics’ – either.  Burrows and Beer do have a paragraph on objects that were once analogue and are now digital but nothing much else about them has changed: digital watches, televisual billboards.  They describe these sorts of objects on page 72 as “the least interesting sociologically” of the intersections between the digital and the urban.  And that’s how those visualisations have been understood so far, in the very few passing references to them that I’ve found in the literature; they’re just the latest version of the kind of place marketing imagery that has existed for many years.

And maybe that’s true: perhaps we have just spent two years looking at something that’s not very interesting…

… on the other hand, that does depend on how you see those visualisations.  In particular, all the literature on urban informatics seems very focussed on material objects – unitary coded objects, logjects permeable and impermeable, spimes and assemblages are Burrows and Beer’s favoured ones, following Kitchin and Dodge’s important work in their book Code/Space.  But the visualisations that picture new urban developments aren’t objects in that sense of a solid material objects.  They aren’t therefore like billboard posters (though they can be materialised as such), and shouldn’t be understood as objects in the usual sense.  They are digital files which, when run, create a visualisation of a view that can take many different material forms (webpage image, billboard poster, book page illustration).  Their digitality means that they are constantly modifiable, and can be materialised in many different ways.

I do think that’s interesting.  Specifically, I think it suggests that ‘objects’ might not be the only direction from which to think about the urban and the digital.  The nature of these digital files is such that they do not intervene into urban spaces as objects – as ideological, or spectacular, or infrastructural, or seductive objects – or at least, their interventions are not only that.  Indeed, to approach them as objects endows them with a solidity and durability that they simply don’t possess.   They suggest, perhaps, that urban informatics needs to think beyond software embedded in objects, and to think about the implications of digital files that are distributed across multiple objects and devices: computers, servers, printers, screens, books, softwares… the notion of ‘the object’ starts to look a little too stable, a little too undispersed, to address the digitality of these visualisations.

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