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.

call for papers on assembling smart + social difference for EASST conference

The SCiM team is organising a session at the EASST conference in Lancaster, UK, in July. The conference homepage is here and you can find details of the call for papers here.

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The conference will take place from 25-28 July at Lancaster University with the theme “Making science, technology and society together”.  The SCiM team is inviting contributions for a session on Assembling the smart city: exploring the contours of social difference. Smart cities are being figured as meeting places where multifarious things come together gathered by a vision of digital-led urban transformation. We invite papers that follow some aspect of this to better understand how Smart participates in patterning social difference. We seek insight into what sorts of ways of urban life specific versions of Smart make more or less possible; when, where, for whom?

Short abstracts of fewer than 300 characters and long abstracts of fewer than 250 words must be submitted via the conference’s online form (not by email) before midnight CET on February 14th, 2018.

Members of the SCiM team will be there, sharing some of the results of our research into the co-production of smart technologies, policies and practices with various processes of social differentiation both familiar and emergent. Do join us!

call for papers for smart city session at the RGS-IBG conference 2018

The RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018 will take place from 28-31 August at Cardiff University with the theme “Geographical landscapes / changing landscapes of geography”. You can find more information about the conference here. This is a call for papers that address the spatialities of cities turning ‘smart’.

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As smart technologies, practices and polices of various kinds are rolled out by diverse actors in more and more cities worldwide, the need to understand their engagement with each other and with existing urban landscapes becomes more pressing. While many advocates of the smart city conceive the smart city as a rational landscape structured by flows of big data, this session explores a different smart geometry, which comes about when a range of smart things encounter the pre-existing complexity of cities. Here, networks of many different ‘smart’ things – sensors, apps, policy frameworks, citizen groups among them –  emerge, assemble, fragment, collapse and re-form. The session will therefore focus on smart entities as diverse and distributed. It will explore how smart outcomes are achieved between and across diverse actors and spaces, as well as how they fail to be achieved. Questions that might be addressed include:

  • what diverse things compose the ‘smartness’ of a city?
  • how are they distributed and what spatialities do those distributions enact?
  • what are the various forms of social agency that are enacted through smart activities?
  • how do different smart things interact? What are the modalities of those interactions, and what effects do they have?
  • how do smart city projects encounter the social and institutional diversity of urban spaces as they extend and move?
  • how do specific smart entities co- and re-constitute forms of social difference both familiar and new?
  • how do the ideas, discourses and objects of smart travel?
  • what happens when something smart that has been designed in one place lands in another?

Papers are invited which address these and other questions to explore the (dis)connections between different smart activities in a city, between those activities and the social spaces of the city, and between smart in different cities.

Abstracts not exceeding 200 words, including the presentation’s title and the names, emails address(es) and affiliation(s) of the author(s), should be sent to Gillian Rose (gillian.rose@ouce.ox.ac.uk) and Oliver Zanetti (oliver.zanetti@ouce.ac.uk) by 10 February 2018.

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looking for culture in the unlikeliest of places: MK and smart

Milton Keynes, smart cities – and culture?! I’ve caught up with a fascinating video which made me pull these things together: it’s called Looking for Culture Through Economy, Through Capitalisation, Through Milton Keynes (LCTETCTMK for short. Well, kind of short). It’s directed by Sapphire Goss and was made as part of the Journal of Cultural Economy’s tenth birthday celebrations.

A whole bunch of people were involved in its production, including Liz McFall, Darren Umney, Dave Moats and Fabian Muniesa. It starts tongue firmly in cheek, saying that it’s exploring the notion of ‘culture’ in a place often thought not to have any: Milton Keynes. The film then discusses what culture is, how to spot it, how it was planned and designed in MK, and its relation to capital. All of this is animated by the presence of someone who kind of becomes another team member: Stuart Hall. The cultural theorist appears in a range of archive footage, and one of the film’s many pleasures is to see him animated, poised and as relevant as ever.

Another pleasure of the film is its rigour. This is a film about theory as much as it is about MK. Hence that clunky title. The arguments at the heart of the film are that culture remains a vitally important analytical category and that culture isn’t a thing. Culture can be The Arts, but the film is much more interested in culture as Hall understood it, as the ordinary, taken-for-granted meanings and values that animate everyday life. In that sense, culture is everywhere, mediating how we understand and what we see.

The film enacts that everywhereness, filtering its views of the city through odd edits, collaging and splicing, using fuzzy archive film and repeating images. There aren’t that many clear views of the city, and the ones that are offered – the planners’ models, architects’ drawings, drone footage of layouts and geometric patterns below – tend to be shown as existing only in those forms. Once they become realised as part of the city, or the camera gets down to ground level, the clarity of their design and its intentions goes awry. They go fuzzy, multiple, the idealistic plans never quite work out, buildings fail and social markets are abandoned. It’s noted that capital should be seen culturally, as an approach to making value. And then there are a few closing remarks about how culture is now increasingly also capitalised as things are seen more and more in terms of the value they might realise in the future.

All this is great on its own terms, and it’s wonderful to see the city provoking such careful and complicated thoughts.

It also got me thinking about how another of the city’s current manifestations – MK as a smart city – also needs to be thought of in terms of this understanding of culture. ‘Culture’ and ‘smart’ are in one way quite often brought together now, in discussions about various discourses about what smart city should be; there are now several discussions of how talk about and pictures of smart cities are riven through and through with values, visions, interpretations, truth claims and situated evidencing. The smart city as something that can create capital by innovating new products and making efficiencies is a strong theme too.

The more pervasive sense of culture, though, culture as everyday (rather than as something only marketeers and artists do) is less often explored. I was chairing a conference organised by Inside Government last week which was discussing how smart cities might transform service provision, and the day was full of the need to be brave, to take risks, to have vision, to make leaps of faith (as well as much more pragmatic discussions about mechanisms for collaboration between key stakeholders). (You can read my report on the day here.) Organisational culture, then, was actually at the centre of the discussion, that is, the everyday assumptions embedded into workplace practices.

But LCTETCTMK also suggests a more deep-seated relation between smart and culture. The film ends with Stuart Hall suggesting that, after the 1970s, the sphere of culture is in “permanent revolution”. There are no set or stable frameworks of meaning now that can endure without challenge or renewal. Here then is a final thought provoked by LCTETCTMK: how are smart cities part of current cultural transformations? They’re about capitalisation for sure and about changing organisational culture. Perhaps their particular transformation, though, is more about the sort of everyday life that a smart city enacts. Mobile (so much of it is about movement), individualised (the phone screen, the data dot), agglomerated (databases), fast (nobody lingers in smart cities), colourful (all those glowing screens), customisable (what are your preferences?), distributed (hello, platforms)… this is a more pervasive sense of cultural shift, enacted with and through smart things.

Any other thoughts on what it would mean to think of smart MK, or indeed any smart city, through the lens of LCTETCTMK’s sense of culture? Do watch the film and ponder. And you can find more about MK, culture and smart on OpenLearn, here.

 

academic selves and academic careers

I visited the wonderful Department of Geography at Maynooth University a couple of weeks ago, and I was kindly invited by the Supporting Women in Geography Ireland group there to a discussion session about developing a career as an academic. I was sent a bunch of questions beforehand, which clearly articulated some of the key issues for this group: how to manage multiple demands to do different kinds of academic work, how to manage caring responsibilities with academic work, how to get on…

I don’t usually post about this sort of thing, though I do retweet about women’s experiences of academic life, on occasion. But the invitation and the questions gave me an opportunity to pull together a few thoughts around these topics, and also to reflect on how lucky I’ve been in my career: I’ve (almost) always had supportive line managers, I’ve never been asked to teach to the exclusion of research, I’ve never to have had to move from one fixed-term contract to another. I have though taken extended maternity leave and worked part-time for several years. So here, for what they’re worth, are seven things I think are important to make the time to think about and act on, to manage in pressured times. I’m sure there are more. But here goes:

1 figure out your ‘brand’. Ok, so it’s a horrible term to use, ‘brand’, but it’s a question I once heard a colleague ask of candidates at a job interview and I think if you do figure yours out, it’s a very useful way to simplify lots of decisions you’ll face. Your brand summarises the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be. What’s your key research area and how does it contribute to the wider (sub)discipline? What sort of teaching do you want to be superb at? What sort of administrator or manager are you, or would you like to be? What are you most committed to? What fires you up, what do you loathe? But also, what sort of colleague are you? Are you a loner, a collaborator, a leader? Work those things out and you have some priorities to focus on.

2 find a mentor and work with them to figure out that ‘brand’ and how to achieve success on its terms. A good mentor will give you time to reflect on what you want to be and do, and how to be and do it most effectively given your current circumstances. I think everyone should have a mentor, no matter how senior and experienced you are, actually. There are always decisions to make, paths that divide, roles that are offered or not. Having a mentor might also make it easier to say ‘no’ to some things (if you can), and being clear (to yourself and to the refusee) why you have to say that.

3 learn to say no, politely. Of course, there are some things you won’t be able to say ‘no’ to. But not all things are compulsory.

4 think about the difference between ‘excellent’ and ‘good enough’. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, hence point 3. But also, some things you will want to put  your heart and soul into: they are core to your sense of yourself as an academic and you’ll want to be excellent at them. Other things are still important, but for a lot of tasks, ‘good enough’ is, well, ‘good enough’. Do those tasks thoroughly and competently but do them in a sensible timeframe.

5 make the time to plan and manage your time and your self. Pause every six months, and review your commitments. Do this with your mentor, don’t overcommit, allocate appropriate time to each task (see 2, 3 and 4 above). Use citation management software and notemaking software to organise stuff (and make your stuff searchable). If you need help to do anything, get help: your mentor, software, training.

6 find or make networks that enable you to do what you want to do. Networks can also be very effective ways of dealing with the sh*t that can happen in academic life, particularly to women and minorities. One complaint might be taken as a moan. Several, documented, from diverse sources (aka the network) might initiate some change. Also, networks can be fun, they can be friends, they can be incredibly supportive, and they can get you invited places…

7 do something else that isn’t academic. When you’re not working, don’t check work emails, do immerse yourself in that other thing. Lots of academics I know do something physical or tactile in their downtime: gardening, the gym. Or they read trashy novels (sci fi seems the guilty pleasure du jour), or watch box sets. Or they parent really hands on. If you need to justify this to yourself, remember that you’ll be far more efficient at work if you’re rested, healthy and happy.

If this all sounds very instrumental – it is. But when times are tough – as they are now – I think caring for the self is really important. It’s not something women in particular are encouraged to be very good at. And to be clear, this is not an excuse for individualistic gung-ho ego-tripping. (Who could I possibly be thinking of…) A lot of non-academic time will be spent by some people caring for others – and reflecting on who you are as an academic will mean, in all but psychopathic cases, also reflecting on your relations with others, your necessary relations, with colleagues and managers and students, as well as who you care for outside of academia.

So there you are. Just a few thoughts. The discussion at Maynooth ranged far wider… and do feel free to extend the list in the comments box below.