seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.

smart-vid

Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

smart cities on Twitter: or, urban / cultural / visual / digital

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:

trial 3 brightness_median vs hue_median copy small.jpg

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.

IMG_1635.JPG

(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….)

 

 

ten top tips for making a smart city promotional video

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.

smart-vid

In the meanwhile, I’d like to offer these ten top tips for the makers of these videos.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. make sure you only film crowded public spaces, preferably with lots of kinds of transport. Then add some more transport.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. if you have to mention the health sector in relation to smart cities, or retail, make sure you picture only female nurses and shoppers.
  8. avoid any suggestion that there might be any discussion about the purposes, merits, functionality, reliability, unintended consequences or cost of smart tech.
  9. 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.
  10. 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…

digital visualities in a spy movie

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.

Bourne-970-80

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.)

new paper on CGIs as postcolonial visualisations

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.

Doha fieldtrip Days 1 & 2 171

a model and CGIs of the Msheireb Downtown project, photographed in early 2011

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).

visualising the smart city as flow and glow

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter for a book called Compact Cinematics – it’s edited by Pepita Hesselberth and Maria Poulaki and will be out from Bloomsbury early next year.  The chapter is called ‘Screening smart cities: managing data, views and vertigo’.  It’s a short chapter – Pepita and Maria hit upon the conceit of asking contributors to write compact pieces on examples of compact cinema, so we were given just 2,500 words – and it focuses on just one example of how smart cities are being visualised now: a promotional digital animation created by ISO Design for Siemens called Future Life.  What I explore in that chapter is why the animation is a really interesting example of the spatial and visual relations through which the smart city is being imagined into existence.

 

 

As well as on YouTube, you can view the animation on a panoramic screen in Siemens’s exhibition space in London, The Crystal.  It purports to show London, New York and Copenhagen in 2050, and it’s really provocative for thinking about how future cities are being imagined now.  And while in some ways the visuals are very familiar, with lots of pale white and grey buildings, lots of windows, thousands of trees and screens of all kinds, sunny skies and happy people, all managed from control centre using a holographic model of the city, there are also some rather more interesting aspects to this vision.

In my chapter I focus on the visuality and spatiality of the animation.  I think the visuality exemplifies what Thomas Elsaesser suggests are the ‘default values of digital visuality’: an immersive mobility in which the frame dissolves and the spectator is transported into the image.  The spatiality is thus highly and smoothly mobile, as the animation’s point of view shifts and glides up and down and over and through.  But there’s more to say about this animation, which in a longer chapter I would have explored.

For example, throughout the animation its types of visual content smoothly morph from one to another, from landscape photograph (or at least a photo-realistic computer generated image) to a 3D massing model, to a luminous flow of data or energy in a black empty space, to an aerial photographic view.  This visual profligacy – in which what were once very different kinds of images, wtih distinct materialisations, uses and ways of being seen are now available to a digital visualiser as a kind of drop-down visual menu, to be selected and used at will – also seems to me to be typical of digital visuals, though not many exemplify it to the extreme as this animation does.  There’s also a lot of interesting things to think about in terms of the temporality of this vision.  It’s a vision of the future seen through the current favoured aesthetic of architectural and real-time data visualisations; and a future which seems to have no past but also no sense of its own time passing, since nothing in its urban environments seems to have aged.

And in terms of things ageing – that chapter has already aged in my eyes, after I talked about the animation in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago, as a guest at the University of Amsterdam’s wonderful School for Cultural Analysis.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown the animation to academics, and  audiences always bring their own interpretations to the animation, of course.  A favourite game that developed in several previous audiences has been ‘spot the visual reference’: audience members like to discuss what influenced the animation, and the list they’ve developed collectively is long, from Disney to Bauhaus, from Hollywood superhero movies to nineteenth-century panoramas, from computer games to maquettes – and as I’ve already suggested, that eclecticism is part of what makes the animation uniquely digital I think.  It’s a high-end, smoothly edited, elegantly visioned, visual mash-up.

In Amsterdam, though, I got rather different kind of questions – closer to what the animation might be doing with audiences less familiar with the relatively recent cultural history of a small part of the world, I think.  My favourite came from Judith Naeff from Radboud University.   I’d always thought of the floating point of view that’s performed by much of the animation, hovering in a slightly wobbly way, engine buzzing quietly in the background, over cities pictured in various ways, was the viewpoint from a helicopter.  Judith, though, made a different and much better suggestion: that the animation inhabits the viewpoint of a drone camera.  Absolutely.  It’s a machinic vision, mediated not only by a camera (apparently) but also by a mobile machine: a hypermediated vision that’s increasingly shaping urban spaces.

You can read my chapter on the Future Life animation  here.  And here’s the Elsaesser reference:

Elsaesser, T., 2013. The “return” of 3-D: on some of the logics and genealogies of the image in the twenty-first century. Critical Inquiry, 39(2), pp.217–246.

photographing a smart city

MK:Smart is a large ‘smart city’ project based in Milton Keynes in the UK.  It’s hosted by my home institution, The Open University.  Its core work package when it was set up was the development of a open data hub: an repository of all sorts of big data about Milton Keynes, accessible to anyone.  As the project has developed, though, its efforts to enable local people to engage with such an open data source have increased.  One of these efforts is the website OurMK, and the project team also does lots of outreach in local schools.  You can find about more about their work to facilitate ‘smart citizens’ here and some of their publications are listed here.

As part of this engagement work, the MK:Smart team launched a photography competition in December 2015, with prizes for the best photographs picturing Milton Keynes as a smart city.  You can see the finalists here.

I think these photographs raise some fascinating questions about how a smart city is visualised by its residents (or, more accurately, what the judges thought were the best ways some residents had pictured a smart city).  Nineteen photographs made it to the final stage – not many, so I should be careful about drawing any big interpretive conclusions from them.  On the other hand, as I’ve remarked before, one of the liberating things about writing a blog is that sometimes the robust methodological procedures of the social sciences can be laid to one side and a little more speculative thinking permitted…

Car Park Drama

Car Park Drama by Suzanna Raymond. Suzanna’s caption read: The way the car park is integrated into the shopping centre looks like a smart design to me, making it an integral part of the layout rather then just a space added on as an afterthought.

So one thing that struck me immediately about these nineteen was how so many of them focus on the landscape of Milton Keynes, and especially on its ‘natural’ landscape: trees, parks, canals, lakes, skies.  There are no pictures of servers or data hubs or smartphones (though there are two photos of electric car charging points, one of a bus charging wirelessly and one of solar panels).

This preference for picturing a smart city as a green city perhaps speaks to the distinctive history of Milton Keynes.  Milton Keynes was designed as a new city in the late 1960s and early 1970s with plenty of experiments in (and symbols of) more sustainable living: houses powered by solar energy, cycle ways paralleling the roads, a dial-a-bus service, a tree cathedral… the whole city is full of trees and parks and is oriented along a ley line! Milton Keynes has a strong sense of itself as green, then, and these photographs might be speaking to that sense of place. The photos perhaps also draw on a rather English preference for rural landscapes, gardens and parks.

The other thing that struck me about the photographs was the way they display the sort of visual aesthetic that seems increasingly common in many digital images, which is a kind of glow against darkness, whether that’s lights gleaming at dusk or (elsewhere) live data feeds pulsating across a black background.  No less than seven are taken around sunset, and one more makes a striking play between a sky darkened by clouds and a golden building.

So, possibly, what we have in this admittedly tiny sample of photographs is an interesting play between what someone like Lev Manovich might suggest is an increasingly widespread visual aesthetic, driven by the extensive use of digital image creation/editing software – even a global visual aesthetic – and something that’s may be much more local, attuned to the specific histories of this particular city and its sense of place.

Now, of course, as Doreen Massey would immediately have pointed out, there’s no clear distinction between the local and the global.  Many of the ideas behind Milton Keynes, and implicit in its first visualisations, were imported by its architects from the west coast of the USA, for example, and I’ve already suggested that a love of rural landscape may be as much English as anything to do with Milton Keynes.  But it’s precisely this play between the new and the old, between existing ways of seeing and of making images with new ways of seeing and making, that I find so fascinating in this small collection of photographs.

 

 

roughing up digital visualisations of and in cities

I have a new chapter out, in a book edited by Shirley Jordan and  Christoph Lindner called Cities Interrupted.  The collection explores the potential of visual culture – in the form of photography, film, performance, architecture, urban design, and mixed media – to strategically interrupt processes of globalization in contemporary urban spaces.  My chapter looks at different ways that digital visualisations of new urban development projects can be ‘interrupted’ – that is, their smooth and glossy surfaces made a bit more problematic.

cities interrupted

The chapter covers a lot of different tactics, all of which engage with different aspects of these very complicated images, from picturing their decay to spotting their mistakes to satirising their atmosphere.  It also has one of the worst titles I’ve ever come up with: “Dimming the scintillating glow of unwork: looking at digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects”.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.

The book has lots of other great chapters of course – according to Tim Cresswell’s jacket blurb, we are “a stellar cast of authors”! – it’s a must-read if you’re interested in visualising urban spaces, or indeed cities more generally.

smart cities and drone warfare: a shared visuality?

Geographer Derek Gregory was in Cambridge recently, delivering the Clare Hall (that’s a college, not a person) Tanner lectures.  Called ‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’, the two lectures were fantastic, a forensic account of the histories and geographies of drone warfare delivered with panache and rich visuals.  (Derek blogs about his work here.)

reachfromsky

There were also three panellists responding to his lectures, journalist Chris Woods (check out his Airwars site), philosopher Gregoire Chamayou (author of Drone Theory) and legal scholar Jochen von Bernstorff, all also excellent.  Videos of both Derek’s lectures and their responses can be found here.

The first point to make – not a trivial one – is that at what, as the chair pointed out is one of the most prestigious lectures to be invited to deliver (at least according to Wikipedia), everybody without exception on the platform was a man.  And not only that, in the discussion time with the audience, the first 45 minutes were filled with men asking questions.  I was waving my hand NEXT TO THE WOMAN WITH THE MICROPHONE and the chair still contrived to avoid asking me to speak.  Finally, Chris Woods said he’d like to hear about drones from someone who wasn’t a man (thankyou, Chris) and I got to have my say.

So, what did I want to say?  Here’s an expanded version.

Well, Derek’s was a rich and nuanced account of drone warfare, embedding it in the historical geographies of aerial warfare more broadly.  One of Gregoire’s contributions was to say that there were also other contexts for understanding drones, not least the history of ‘counter-terrorism’, from urban police forces to colonial counter-insurgency operations.  But there is another context that kept occurring to me as Derek spoke: smart cities.

The link between drone warfare and smart cities isn’t that obvious on the face of it, but bear with me.  One of the reasons that drone warfare is increasingly acceptable to the states and organisations that conduct is that, as Derek described, it is embedded in a very specific set of spatialities, temporalities, visualities and subjectivities – and I would argue that many of those are shared with, or are at least very similar to, the rhetoric and practice of both drone warfare and smart cities.  Here’s a list of some of those similarities:

1 advocates of both smart cities and drone warfare share an absence of historical narrative so that their technologies can be seen as new, modern, better and more desirable.  (Which of course conveniently ignores various histories of failure, imprecision, rejection and unreliability.)

2 drone warfare and smart cities both claim to remove human actors from their practices.  This is often achieved via the generation of data (both smart cities and drone warfare convert (some) people into geolocated data in order to track them), and the execution of decisions on the basis of data.  There is thus a parallel between war being conducted by unmanned machines (drones) and smart cities being governed by databases and algorithms.

3 drone warfare and (many) smart cities are both managed through remarkably similar-looking command-and-control centres.

4 like drone warfare, smart cities rely on an elaborate cartographic and figurative visualisation in which the aerial view is central – and this appears in many of those command-and-control centres’ screens.

5 both are heavily masculinised fields of practice.  Derek is very good on this in the first lecture in relation to drones, and I’ve blogged previously about the dominance of men in smart policy, product design and marketing.  Derek also spoke at length about the ways in which drone warfare’s development was and is intimately bound up with (post)colonial power, and Gregoire underlined this too.

6 both smart cities and drone warfare are often resisted by the claim that they ‘dehumanise’ urbanism and war respectively (see point 2  above).  In drone warfare, not only are the victims of bombs delivered by drone rendered less-than-human (usually by being labelled ‘terrorists’ before being converted into geolocated data), but it is also argued that the men and women who control the drones are estranged and alienated by their work.  In smart cities, critics also complain that people are ‘reduced’ to data and that sentience is given to machines rather than people.  One of the things I found most useful in Derek’s lectures was the way he resisted this rhetoric by ‘peopling’ both the drones – which require a massive human as well as technical infrastructure to run – as well as their victims – as human agents embedded in complex societies.  Critics of smart cities tend to position the people/communities/inhabitants of cities against smart governance/corporations, as if the latter too aren’t run by people – which has various critical and theoretical ramifications, not all of which are helpful, I think.

Now clearly smart cities are not similar to drone warfare in the very fundamental sense that smart city tech is not designed to kill people.  And all those parallels that I have nonetheless proposed need nuancing of course.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to speculate on what drives those similarities.  The patriarchal and racist “god-trick” of seeing everything from nowhere, dissected by Donna Haraway many years ago?  A deeply masculinist coding culture embedded in software corporations?  Nigel Thrift’s (2011) neoliberal, affective, “security-entertainment complex”?   A resilient scopic regime of surveillance, of the sort described by Nicholas Mirzoeff (2015)?

Whatever the answer, it’s a question that needs a lot more interrogation I think.  And in relation to smart cities, it’s one which won’t entirely be address using the current critical theoretical tools of data ownership and participatory design…

 

Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5–26.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How To See The World. London: Pelican Books, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bang Data: some thoughts on an exhibition

I had a lot of fun a couple of weekends ago at the Big Bang Data exhibition.  It claims to show “how the data explosion is transforming our world”, and if it doesn’t manage quite that, it’s certainly worth a visit.  It’s on in London and its run has been extended to 20 March – not surprisingly, as it was packed out on the Saturday afternoon I visited.  Its website has lots of materials on things that are in the show if you can’t make it to London.

bigbang 2

There’s lots to say about it.  After a couple of artist installations to kick things off (Timo Arnall‘s Internet Machine and Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous, entrancing Data.tron – and We Need Us by Julie Freeman is installed towards the show’s end), the exhibition was divided into zones that reflected pretty accurately a number of current academic ways of thinking about digital data: the materiality of ‘the cloud’; the ‘quantified self’; the massiveness of ‘big data’; ‘data for the common good’, looking at participatory uses of data and digital devices; ‘data is beautiful’.  Each zone was full of examples of different kinds of engagements with digital data, by artists and designers and activists, and there were also a few (rather gestural) citations of earlier, pre-digital examples of images doing apparently similar things.  There was also a massive ‘London Situation Room’, with a number of very large projections of various data streams from the city by Tekja, as well as two consoles with interactive screens of various kinds.

london data streams tekja.jpg

London Data Streams by Tekja

The variety was fascinating.

However, the variety also served to obscure what I felt by the end was actually a rather uncritical approach to digital data.  Continue reading