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 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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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.

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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.

is mycorrhizal geography becoming a thing?

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.)

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from the film ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’. Nothing mushroom-like in sight but the nearest I could get to the story’s vision of both the city and its people saturated with a fungus.

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. “The Material Practices of Glamour.” Journal of Cultural Economy 1, no. 1 (2008): 9–23. doi:10.1080/17530350801913577.

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.

so what would a smart city designed for women be like? (and why that’s not the only question to ask)

I came across yet another smart city event yesterday with a line-up of speakers that was heavily male-dominated: 38 men and 12 women.  I tweeted, “what difference does it make that men outnumber women speakers at a #smartcity event by 2 to 1?  Sam Kinsley replied and pointed out, quite rightly, that this wasn’t actually as bad as some other events claiming to interpret the contemporary city (for a really shameful example, see Emily Jackson’s post here about a day conference organised by an ESRC-funded research project without a single female speaker – I can’t help thinking that someone high up in the ESRC should have a quiet word with the organisers).

Nonetheless, it’s not great, and it’s part of what seems to be a widespread marginalisation of women among the voices discussing and defining the ‘smart city’. (Ayona Datta joined in the twitter conversation, suggesting some reasons why it happens. ) One day I will find the time and energy to do a proper analysis of the gender balance in the images attached to the tweets of the main smart city players, for example, as well as a headcount of the speakers at the main smart city beanoes, just to confirm the point.  In the meanwhile, after I’d read that event’s line-up of speakers and done just a tiny bit of counting, here a few thoughts.

I’m assuming that the overwhelming dominance of men in the smart sector does have a major impact: on what tech is designed and how, on how potential markets are perceived, on what data is collected and what even counts as data, on how the smart city is imagined and therefore built.  (There’s so much relevant literature  on how digital tech design reinforces various kinds of social differences that I’m just going to point to a useful website that summarises some of it here.)  That impact will be both on what social identities are (often) visualised and assumed (both masculine and feminine) and also on what identies are then enacted as the data or device is used.  It would be great though to see some research really work at that question and interrogate my answer (and another ESRC-funded project, led by my colleague Prof Parvati Raghuram, promises to contribute towards that).

But maybe a more interesting question is: how to put women into the smart city?  Ok, so that’s already problematic.  ‘Women’ are a hugely diverse group of course, who do a gazillion different things.

However, as social scientists, we also know that there are patterns of activity within those gazillions.  Women still do more domestic labour than men.  Women still do more childcare than men.  Women still earn less than men.  Women are still objectified as sex objects in demeaning ways.  So a smart city for women might, say, be focussed a lot more on transport apps that don’t assume that the traveller is one adult, but might allow options for adult(s)+children+(contents of a shopping trolley).  It might entail crowd-sourced mapping that pays as much attention to the various forms of childcare (breakfast clubs, nurseries, kindergartens, childminders, after-school-clubs, youth clubs) as it does to drinking venues (as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued here).  The tech of a smart city would assume and enable a wide and diverse range of social actions by people in all sorts of combinations and conditions.

But of course we also want to challenge those patterns, and many other inequalities too.  I’m currently touring a talk about corporate visions of smart cities and I often get asked about “bottom-up, participatory, critical alternatives” (a lot of assumptions going on there that should also be unpacked); the example of lot of questioners come up with are the many apps that allow women to log how safe they feel in particular locations and to send messages for help really easily in an emergency.  On the one hand, great.  City spaces are certainly not always easy for women to inhabit, and some apps make that even worse (again, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski discuss this most excellently), so it’s fantastic that there are apps in response to that.  On the other hand, there’s something profoundly depressing – and disempowering – when the most frequent way women appear in smart cities is as the victims of violence.

So asking about putting ‘women’ into smart cities is maybe not the right question, or maybe not the only question to ask.  Not only does it erase the many differences among women, it also doesn’t always negotiate the line between ‘difference’ and ‘stereotype’ adroitly enough.

So maybe we also need a somewhat different agenda, which is more about moving between and against specific forms of difference via digital data and devices.  There are those all-too-familiar issues that ‘women’ face.  There are ways in which the design and use of digital devices can intensify those issues.  But other digital activity might have quite other effects.  In relation to those intensifications, for example, is there also something quite liberating, in some ways at least, to be mediated as a geolocated point in space, rather than as a visualised body encoded through gendered, classed, racialised and other ways of seeing?

Which suggests that, in a smart city, ‘women’ can be both: both embodied and a datapoint.  Among other things (a selfie, eg).  How then can ‘women’ be imagined, in a smart city?

This suggests that another approach to thinking about ‘women in a smart city’ would be to focus on how different social categories are constituted in the first place, when various things are done in cities with digital technologies.  That’s the sort of question asked by lots of sociotechnical scholars, of course.  But also by feminist scholars of data visualisations like Catherine D’Ignazio and the digital humanities like Johanna Drucker.  Their work focuses much more on the production of data in the first place and its problematic relation to social identities and the practices through which identities are enacted – data’s diversity, provisionality and unreliability, its uncertainty – and it focuses attention in particular on the process of turning data into something – a platform, an app – that enables certain social performances.  That is, it would be less focussed on ready-made categories of social difference and more on the processes of making data and making with data.

How would a mobility app or a city dashboard build that kind of data provisionality that into its interface?  I have no idea!  How would its users react?  Ditto!  But I would love to talk to interface designers about it.

Particularly because these are of course extremely sketchy and initial thoughts.  I hope to elaborate them in future posts on how smart cities are visualised in particular – but it would also be great to hear them raised too in some of those flashy smart city events.

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.

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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.

spotted at Cambridge station – cut-and-pasted people talk back!

I always keep my eye out for building site billboards and their shiny (or not so shiny) digital visualisations to add to my collection, but at Cambridge station on Saturday I got a surprise. Someone has added speech bubbles to the figures cut-and-pasted into this hoarding.

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I took the photo above in June; below is the hoarding on 17 October.

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And here are some of bubbles in close-up.

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And finally, one that not many critics of this sort of glamourising of urban redevelopment schemes seem to consider:

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I have no idea who made this intervention, but my hat goes off to you.

to be invisible or not to be invisible: that is the power. or is it?

I’ve been pondering the rhetoric of ‘invisibility’ that surrounds so much critical discussion of digital technologies, particularly those that intersect with our everyday lives: the software that ‘hides’ behind smartphone screens, for example, or the intangibility of the ‘cloud’ that stores our photos and our contacts, or the invisibility of digital infrastructure. As a both Shannon Mattern and Adam Rothstein have pointed out recently, it’s a rhetoric that’s also used to describe an awful lot of other kinds of infrastructure too at the moment.

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015)

A number of things niggle me about this.

First, the assumption in a lot of this talk about invisible things is that to be invisible is A Bad Thing. It seems to be assumed that only the powerful hide behind a cloak of secrecy, obscuring their nefarious ways (Rothstein is particularly explicit on this).

Secondly, the rhetoric of invisibility of power implies that the adequate critical response is to make things visible. This creates a politics of revelation, if you like, in which describing something is also to rip away its secrecy and expose the working of the powerful. Algorithms, servers, databases, elites, tax havens, financial trading… all of these must be rendered visible, somehow, brought into the light, and thereby understood, and if that is done then power relations will also be seen for what they are.

Third, the rhetoric of invisibility thus implies that there is only one alternative, which is visibility. It seems to invite a binary positioning in which something is either hidden or seeable. This implies that description is an adequate critical strategy: describe something carefully, bring it out from the shadows, make it visible, will also make it understandable.

Ok, at this point I have to say that this is the sort of writing that the blog post was invented for – I can say these things without needing to reference any specific examples! – and I can also wonder what part the legacy of Latour is playing in all this, with his enthusiasm for description as a research method, again without having to build the citation trail. Still, having started the (most likely) over-generalising, let’s continue.

Because as Shannon’s essay also hints, there are a number of difficulties with this sort of rhetoric.

First, there are different kinds of visibility and invisibility, it seems to me. Sure, there’s the literal/material/physical hiding-behind-some-kind-of-screen kind of invisibility: the unnamed buildings in which high-finance trades, or the military surveills (or refugees hide – see my final point below). But there are also other kinds: material things not visible to the human eye, like wireless signals (has a history been written of the emergence of the the wireless icon, anyone?). And there are also things that are abstractions: commodity value, for example (for an interesting discussion of that kind of invisibility, see Stephen Cunningham’s essay in the Journal of Visual Culture in 2013). This means that making something ‘visible’ is not straightforward. There must be different strategies for it, depending on the kind of invisibility that’s being challenged.

Second, as Shannon and Adam point out, a lot of these things are not in fact ‘invisible’, because an awful lot of (cultural) work is being done to represent them: popular books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, that describe the internet’s physical infrastructure; the current obsession with algorithms; projects like James Bridle’s recent project Seamless Transitions that used digital visualisation to picture the secret places where UK immigration cases are decided; Timo Arnall’s film Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi; Adrian Mackenzie’s essays on financial trading in the London Review of Books. It seems to me, though, that the criticality being offered of these various projects are not being discussed very much at all, in part because of that prevailing assumption that simply exposing something is enough. But how is something exposed? How is it made visible? What are the effects of different kinds of making visible? And this is not only a question of aesthetic form, it is also a question of how images are seen, displayed, encountered, understood and even – as Shannon remarks – acted upon.

Third, it would of course be possible to argue that equating power with secrecy is a massive red herring because real power lies in full view as the prevailing commonsense. Indeed, ‘power’ can also be exercised in the act of making things visible. Re-reading the first chapter of my book Visual Methodologies earlier this year was an interesting experience in relation to this point: first written in the late 1990s, it has quite a strong line about the importance of seeing to Western and imperialising claims to knowledge (readers of a certain age will remember ‘the god trick’, cited by Rothstein only in order to claim that the artists’ projects he discusses are not guilty of it – or, more accurately, that they say they are not). But obscured buildings and infrastructures are not invisible to the people who work in them; do their views count as Art? And a recent example of the way that making something visible can also be a claim to power was evident in the debates that followed the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, of course.

Finally, even if it is the case that the dynamics of power are hidden, it’s not only the powerful that require invisibility on occasion, as all the debates about online privacy suggest. Ok, so privacy is not quite the same as secrecy. But nonetheless, I seem to recall a powerful argument made by Peggy Phelan at the height of the AIDS crisis about the right not to be visible, the right to not to be seen. How does that relate to the current suspicion about invisibility?

All that is just to say, really, that the visual field is complicated: certainly more complicated than a simple division between that which is visible and good and that which is invisible and bad.

Mad Max and its feminist fans

Of the many reasons to be grateful for the journalist Laurie Penny, her review of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road now ranks pretty high for me.  Thankyou Laurie – and Jessica Valenti – for tipping the guilty pleasure of the film much more towards the pleasure than the guilt, by writing fantastic reviews that suggest it’s a really feminist movie.  There’s also a great Tumblr site giving Max new lines, all feminist-y too.

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The bit I would add to support this reading of the film is when Max sees the five scantily-clad women escaping the mad patriarch washing themselves in the desert haze – I know, I know, but bear with me – whereupon he kind of blinks, like this is a totally stupid hallucination (like his others), entirely irrelevant to the task at hand, which is dealing with the woman who’s engineered their escape.  He doesn’t ogle, doesn’t look, doesn’t even think such a vision can be real.  Woo hoo.  (Unfortunately, not all viewers may share my interpretation of this scene; my 17 year old son among them, who pointed to it as evidence that the film was indeed sexist.)

Ultimately, though, the burning Mad Max question is: how does a professor get to be listed in a Mad Max film credits?!  I swear I saw two profs thanked as the credits rolled.  Who are they, what did do they do to get thanked, and (depending on the answers), can I do it too please?

on tinkering with digital debris: the work of Hito Steyerl

I picked up a copy of Hito Steyerl’s book The Wretched of the Screen at the ICA bookshop in London when she had an exhibition there a few months ago.  She’s a video artist based in Berlin and her work is a brilliant commentary on the mediation of different kinds of visuality by digital technologies.  The most interesting piece  in the exhibition for me was called How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .Mov File; you can see part 5 here.  It’s very articulate about the co-implication of digital cameras, image resolutions, entertainment and advertising (including, yes, architectural visualisations!).  It’s also kind of funny and downright weird in places, which disrupts the very easy binary model that so much current discussion about digital technologies and big data seem to be falling into, ie surveillance versus privacy, privacy versus open access, participation versus surveillance, etc etc etc.  Steyerl makes it all a bit less easy than that; her movie is in some ways actually not very didactic.

e-flux_Hito-Steyerl_364The book, which I’ve finally started reading, does a similar thing.  I haven’t read it all yet, but the opening chapters are very stimulating, especially the essay ‘In defense of the poor image’.  Steyerl talks there about the millions and millions of poor quality images that now circulate: aesthetically banal, low resolution, copied, compressed and altered, valueless debris that whizzes around the internet, “the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores” (page 32).  As, she says, it is precisely their compression and speed of travel that makes this sort of image ideally suited to the contemporary visual economy in which attention is minimal and novelty is all.

But Steyerl continues, exploring how their dispersal across circuits of mobility also produces networks of viewers, spectators, who can dip and shift and alter poor images to suit their own ends.  Her account doesn’t evoke a radical grassroots challenging the digital corporations, so much as a rather aimless browsing and tinkering, which may or may not produce effects, further circulations, that might, or might not, be inventive of something new.

This seems to me to be closer to what’s happening now than the us-versus-them analyses that appears so common in discussions of big data and smart cities.  If we need to learn not to see high end glossy digital images as perfect images of perfect things – as I argue with Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish in our recent paper – maybe we also need to learn not to see poor images as too valueless to have effects.