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

Smart Cities in the Making website is now live!

One of the most pressing questions emerging from all the hype about smart cities is how  people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies. That’s one of the questions driving the ESRC-funded project Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes, and I’m delighted to say announce its website is now live, at www.SCiM-MK.org.

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SCiM-MK is a research project which will examine Milton Keynes as a smart city ‘in the making’ by a whole range of actors, including MK citizens, the city’s governance, smart products, smart data and various visualisations of smart. SCiM-MK will look at the social effects of all these aspects of a smart city. In particular, SCiM-MK will find out how social difference affects participation in smart, and whether smart creates new forms of social difference.

Since a better understanding of how different kinds of people in a smart city actually engage with smart technologies is now clearly needed in order to maximise the gains that those technologies offer, the project’s findings will be of local and international significance, learning lessons to be disseminated to cities across the UK and worldwide.

You can find out more about the project, the team, our partners and our activities on the site, as well get in touch with us, at www.SCiM-MK.org.

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.

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.

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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.

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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

exhibitions visualising digital data

There seem to be a few exhibitions around at the moment – as well as one that ran for a few weeks and closed at the end of November, in Riga, called Data Drift – that look at the intersection of digital data and digital visualisations of various kinds.  Maybe there’re always these sorts of exhibitions around and I just haven’t noticed them, but if there aren’t, it’s kind of interesting that I found four in the past month or so.

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One’s at Somerset House in London, focussing on data and called Big Bang Data, until the end of February.

Another is called Animated Wonderworlds at the Museum fur Gestaltung Schaudepot in Zurich.  It’s curated by Suzanne Buchan and runs til 10 January.  I was hoping to get to this one, but my plans were scuppered so I’ve had to make do with the exhibition catalogue and a YouTube video.  It’s focussed on animation rather than on digital data specifically but does include some data visualisations, and the catalogue has a great essay by Suzanne, which talks about just how pervasive digital animations are now.

And the third is at the Institute for Unstable Media (what a great name – though I guess all institutes are made of unstable media…) in Rotterdam.  Its title is Data in the 21st Century and it’s on until 14 February, exploring the frictions between ‘data’ and ‘reality’, according to its homepage.

As I haven’t actually been to any of these shows, this is more of a hand-wave than a proper blog post.  Interesting, though, that there’s so much work by artists, designers and digital humanists (Lev Manovich features in all but Digital Wonderlands, I think) using visualisations to interrogate data.  The claim that data – especially the big data sets generated by so much of the digital infrastructure of everyday life now – is understood more easily if it’s visualised is one that’s made very often.  I’m not so sure.  As others (like Johanna Drucker) have worried, once data is visualised, certain questions about it are prioritised over others.  A visualisation (as Suzanne Buchan argues about animations) invite affective responses, they let us “see the unseeable”, to quote Suzanne, and we can get carried away into their beautiful, glowing worlds.  That can be a wonderful thing.  But it also makes the robustness of the data, and the process of visualisation (both the technical process and the labour process) much harder to see, in fact.  Making something visible always seems to entail making something else much less visible.

prezi as tool and symptom

For my keynote lecture at the International Visual Methods conference held in Brighton in September this year (you can read it and link to the Prezi here), I prepared a Prezi.  Prezi is cloud-based software for making visual presentations (or at least the free version is cloud-based), and I’ve been using Prezi instead of Powerpoint for some time now. I’ve got to the point of reflecting on it not just as a new toy to be played with but also, like any toy (or digital device), thinking about how it’s shifting what I do in presentations.

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Prezi is basically an empty space onto which you can position various things – images, text, audio files, videos, links to websites – and you then frame them in various ways with boxes and brackets and arrows and so on. You then specify a route for moving between the frames, and can do that in any direction. You can also zoom into the space and zoom out again. According to its Wikipedia entry, this means Prezi works in 2.5D because it positions things closer or further away on a flat screen.

It’s useful for a number of reasons. You don’t have work through a linear text in the way that Powerpoint encourages; you don’t have to exit to play a YouTube video; you can zoom into points of detail and then zoom out again to get an overview of your main argument. So Prezi is a useful tool for positioning things in relations, in hierarchies, in networks (it’s as much spatial as visual).

I like it for presentations because it can show the structure of an argument or an analysis really clearly, as well as carry lots of empirical material. At the International Visual Methods conference I also heard a couple of other uses for Prezi, which both used it more as a way of organising research data than as a presentation device.

The first of these was the Everyday Childhoods research cluster at the  University of Sussex.  Their Face 2 Face research project looked at how young people use different kinds of media devices.  Researchers conducted micro-ethnographies which involved researchers spending an ordinary day with each child and documenting their lives across home, school, leisure spaces etc.  They asked their research participants to keep a diary of their media use over 24 hours, and take photographs too, and the research team then used Prezi to collate the resulting materials.  You can see the Prezis here (you can choose to make a Prezi public and shareable) – use the ‘case studies’ tab at the top of the page.  Not only do these Prezis carry a diverse range of materials, you can choose to explore the young people’s days chronologically or not.

A second use of Prezi as a means of presenting research data was discussed by Darren Umney.  He describe how he used it to manage part of the data he was gathering for his research on debates about a nineteenth-century railway development: his Prezi contains scans of 61 newspaper articles that covered the building of a railway line in the 1830s, and he uses Prezi’s collage-ing and zooming abilities to annotate the articles, arrange them in time-lines, group them into thematic categories and show the relations between those categories, and the links between categories and his conceptual terms. As you move from the data to the concepts, you zoom out in the Prezi. You can explore his method for managing data in this way on his blog here.

Prezi is notorious for that zooming, and for the nausea that it can create in people watching a Prezi, especially if it’s being projected onto a big screen. All the advice you can get on using a Prezi therefore tells you not to zoom too much, too fast or too often. I’d agree with that: don’t zoom too much. My other bit of advice is to map the layout of your Prezi before you start – I wonder how much pre-planning Darren did before using Prezi to work on his thesis analysis. (There’s much more good advice on Prezi’s own site, of course, and also on this LSE Impact Blog post – give yourself a couple of hours to watch the tutorials and practice and you should be good to go.)

I’m also now thinking that moving from Powerpoint to Prezi may have a relation to how visual culture is changing. Thomas Elsaesser has argued that the ubiquity of digital visualisations of many kinds means that a shift is taking place, from framed images structured by the rules of Cartesian perspective to a mobile, unharnessed, 3D visuality. His main example is 3D cinema, but Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I also used his essay to think about the spatiality of still CGIs. And Prezi’s frameless zooming also looks like a perfect exemplification of his argument.

The question I have to ask myself though is about my predilection for the final zoom that reveals the grand structure underpinning my presentation. Does it make my position so clear that its positionality and construction are also evident? Or is it rather too close to comfort to the god’s-eye viewpoint so thoroughly critiqued in the early 1990s by Donna Haraway, among others?


 

Elsaesser, Thomas. “The ‘return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century.” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 2 (2013): 217–46. doi:10.1086/668523.

Rose, Gillian, Monica Degen, and Clare Melhuish. “Networks, Interfaces, and Computer-Generated Images: Learning from Digital Visualisations of Urban Redevelopment Projects.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 3 (2014): 386–403. doi:10.1068/d13113p.

 

 

new publication: ‘producing place atmospheres digitally’

Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I have a new paper just published online in the Journal of Consumer Culture.  The full reference is:

Degen, Monica, Clare Melhuish, and Gillian Rose. “Producing Place Atmospheres Digitally: Architecture, Digital Visualisation Practices and the Experience Economy.” Journal of Consumer Culture

This is its abstract:

Computer-generated images have become the common means for architects and developers to visualise and market future urban developments. This article examines within the context of the experience economy how these digital images aim to evoke and manipulate specific place atmospheres to emphasise the experiential qualities of new buildings and urban environments. In particular, we argue that computer-generated images are far from ‘just’ glossy representations but are a new form of visualising the urban that captures and markets particular embodied sensations. Drawing on a 2-year qualitative study of architects’ practices that worked on the Msheireb project, a large-scale redevelopment project in Doha (Qatar), we examine how digital visualisation technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these computer-generated images are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers. Such development has two key implications. First, we demonstrate the importance of digital technologies in framing the ‘expressive infrastructure’ of the experience economy. Second, we argue that although the Msheireb computer-generated images open up a field of negotiation between producers and the Qatari client, and work quite hard at being culturally specific, they ultimately draw ‘on a Westnocentric literary and sensory palette’ that highlights the continuing influence of colonial sensibilities in supposedly postcolonial urban processes.

atmosphere, obscured: London, August 2014

expressive infrastructure, obscured:
London, August 2014

the production, composition, audiencing – and circulation – of images

I’ve been spending the first few weeks of this year thinking about how to revise my book on Visual Methodologies for its fourth edition.  Among other things, I’ve been thinking about what difference digital technologies – as both topic and tool – are making to its arguments.  And I’ve decided on at least one significant change for the fourth edition: the three sites through which the book organises its discussion of visual methods are now four.  The site of ‘circulation’ has been added to the sites of the production of an image, the image itself, the site(s) of its audiencing.  ‘Circulation’ is intended to emphasise that all images, to some extent or another, travel.  Images are mobile, and how they travel matters to what effects they have.

This isn’t an insight created by the development in the past few years of massive, extended social networking sites that now carry vast numbers of images between all sorts of different screens.  In fact, the keyword that I’ve attached to it in the book is the idea of a “visual economy”, which comes from anthropologist Deborah Poole‘s book on the way images travelled between the Andes and Europe between the seventeenth and the early twentieth century.

However, I do think that there are some methodological issues involved in looking at – or even thinking about – those huge hoards of online images that require an emphasis on their circulation.  I think it’s important that we pay attention to the work that goes into enabling that circulation, for example, in the workplaces where the labour is done to make those platforms feel so easy to use: the coders and the checkers, the servers and the cables.  Also, images on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook aren’t stored in some ginormous virtual contact sheet, and not every image has an equal chance of appearing on a Google Images search result screen.  Instead, how those images get seen is shaped by algorithmic patterns.  Search results are shaped by your previous searches, by your location, by what other people are also searching; and what you see on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also depends on your social network.  I think we need to figure out methods that can show us, somehow, the patterns and processes through which those image collections are structured, just as twenty years ago Foucauldian historians like John Tagg and Alan Sekula showed us how filing systems and labels organised earlier forms of photography archives.

This is a problem with Lev Manovich‘s cultural analytics, I think: it engages with the huge numbers but does so by adding them all up, and creating collages of the total.  This shows us some interesting things – what Tokyo looks like in 50,000 Instagram images is provocative in terms of thinking about what a photograph now is, I think – but it doesn’t engage with the uneven distributions that shape the circulation of social media images at all.

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter).

50,000 Instagram photos from Tokyo, organized by brightness mean (radius) and hue mean (perimeter). from phototrails.net

I don’t know where methods might be emerging from that could do that, or what they might look like, though – so please post a comment below if you do!

looking at smarter London as smooth: simplified and friction-free flow

I visited the very interesting Smarter London exhibition at the Building Centre on Store Street, London last week. The exhibition is organised by New London Architecture with a range of other partners, including the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London.  Several large screens hang on the black walls of a dimly lit room, all looping various text and video projections related to London as a ‘smart city’. You can see most of the videos from the exhibition and download a report by the exhibition partners here.

The exhibition is based on a fairly minimal definition of ‘smart’ – “a smart city is one that uses data, technology and analytics to change the way we design, build and manage the city digital technologies” – and the exhibition is correspondingly diverse, though mostly focussed on various aspects of the built environment.  So, for example, and predictably, a lot of attention is given to big data and its real-time presentation, including dashboards like Greater London Authority’s London Dashboard (other products are available, including CASA’s City Dashboard) and animated 2D maps showing the distribution of various objects over various timescales, including, in London, buildings, Boris bikes and Blitz bombs. There are also  3D digital models of various cities, including Seattle as well as London; the London one is hooked up to what I assume was a Connect, so when you stand in front of it you can flap your arms and bank and wheel “like a pigeon” above London (this is going to help planners a lot, apparently).

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my arm failing to be captured as a pigeon while photographing the installation

Then there are a range of examples of mapping underground infrastructure, like cables and sewers and train tunnels, a digital model of Hammersmith flyover generated by laser-beam measurements, visualisations generated by projects using Building Information Modelling,  models of pedestrian flow across a bridge, analyses of tweets to show traffic flow… and the report has many more examples of ‘smart’ urban projects, including shopping apps and residential retrofits.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the sheer diversity of ways in which digital technologies are shaping the design, management and experiencing of urban spaces.  In that sense, it’s a refreshing alternative to the visions of smart cities offered by big corporations like IBM, Cisco and Siemens, all of whom offer a much more integrated approach to the management of urban spaces using big data.

In other ways, however, the technologies, as they appear in this exhibition, visualised in various ways, have quite a few things in common.  One of them that struck me was how rarely pictures of people appeared in this exhibition’s images of ‘smart’.  There’s a clip from a tv news report showing construction workers using an augmented reality app on an iPad, a couple of talking head experts, a video (screenshot below) of lovely people smiling at an animated 3D model of buildings, and there was the pedestrian flow model. Other than that, these images either showed people converted into data points, or were entirely people-less.

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The images were also all somewhat abstract. Indeed, in the image above, the glowing 3D city appears as (what looks like) a photograph of a real city fades away. Otherwise there were very few photographs, and very few pictorial digital visualisations (though the report on the exhibition has more of the latter). Instead there were maps, diagrams of different kinds, and rather ‘reduced’ images, like the one above, of urban environments in which buses and buildings become simple cuboid shapes and sewers and tube lines became, literally, lines in empty 3D space. The 3D urban models were more complex, but still very stripped back.  Even when many of these visualisations showed very complex assemblages of objects, their individual components were simplified.  Most were animated, too, zooming you in and out and around and through buildings.

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This pared-down visual style is quite striking, and seems to permeate a lot of the commercial advertising for smart city technologies too. It conveys a minimalism, a feeling of efficiency and smoothness and even a kind of pleasure in  blemish-free surfaces and volumes.  There’s also an insistence on smooth flow in their animation.  The point of view in these images glides, swoops, revolves, even moves through walls, with nary a hesitation or trip – in the case of pigeon, if ‘you’ fly too low, the ‘building’ you’re about to ‘hit’ dissolves into Minecraft-like pieces.  There’s no friction in this world, no nubbly texture or glitchy stumbling.  (Paul Dourish recently tweeted about a whole range of ‘frictions’ this emphasis on smoothness of digital technologies obscures, for example software updates and incompatabilities,, dodgy wifi signals and reboots, using the hashtag #truthinadvertising.)   This perfectly echoes Hito Steyerl’s comments about digital images inducing a kind of free-fall effect in their viewers (my last blog post was about her fab book The Wretched of the Screen).

And Steyerl’s question about this mobile point-of-view could therefore be posed to this emerging visual aesthetic of ‘smart’: is this the latest incarnation of the god-trick of presuming to see everything from everywhere?  Or does it open out the possibilities of seeing things from different points of view?  More radically, perhaps, is this aesthetic suggesting that this is no longer about human spectators at all, since, as the literature on smart/sentient/intelligent cities never tires of pointing out, none of this software and digital infrastructure is visible to the human eye anyway?  In which case, the visitors to this exhibition are as invisible in its field of vision as the people (not) in its visualisations.

three ways cultural geographers can start to think about digital culture

I’ve been working on the lecture I’m giving at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of  British Geographers at the end of August, and I want to enthuse about three books which I thought were great first time round, and are all even better second time round as I re-read them to write the lecture.  They all look at the pervasiveness of mass online engagement, and they all argue strongly and convincingly that the last twenty years have seen profound changes in popular culture, and they all conclude from this that scholars interested in understanding that culture really need to engage with that pervasiveness, with the online and with the mass.  A point that most cultural geographers seem to have missed, and which is my lecture in a nutshell.  So a big thanks to:

John Hartley and his book Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies.  This book goes first because it’s one of the very few academic books that have made me laugh out loud (because it’s deliberately funny, that is).  I posted about it here after I read it the first time.  It’s a very persuasive argument for looking at populations of images rather than single images.

Helen Grace and her book Culture, Aesthetics and Affect: The Prosaic Image.  The first chapter is one of those where you start making notes and realise that you’re pretty much copying out the whole thing.  An amazing and passionate argument for those populations of banal images being vital new form of mass cultural expression, written quite specifically from Hong Kong.

Nana Verhoeff and her book Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, which you can download for free here.  Like Grace, Verhoeff explores the pervasiveness of digital screens, large and small, in the urban everyday, and argues for a new kind of spatiality that’s performed when we navigate through the spaces they offer us.