Technicity and the Virtual

On the 19th of April I contributed to the ‘virtual space‘ event held by Passenger Films, combining short talks and film screenings that addressed the theme of ‘the virtual’. Passenger Films is a series of public events initiated by Amy Cutler, a cultural geographer at Royal Holloway, and supported by UCL UrbanLab, that combine talks and film screenings. I had the privilege of speaking alongside Rob Kitchin, Director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis (Republic of Ireland) and co-author of ‘Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life‘.

I gave a talk entitled ‘Technicity and the Virtual’ that aimed to provide an overview of some of the ways in which human geographers have addressed the idea of the virtual, as digital mediated activity or computer-mediated communications, tied together through the concept of technicity.

Geographies of the ‘virtual’

Geographers have been, I argue, relatively swift at investigating digitally mediated forms of experience. With the advent of the world wide web, in the early 1990s, several geographers began exploring and studying potential and reality of computer-mediated communications. Work by geographers such as Mike Batty, Nick Bingham, Stephen Graham, Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin amongst others offered some interesting insights into what was variously being described as ‘cyberspace’, the ‘information superhighway’ and the ‘virtual’.

My own interest in these matters stems from a fascination with possibilities opened up by computation. Following a degree in digital art and a brief sojourn as a web developer, I conducted research for my Masters dissertation on the metaphor cyberspace and our understanding of the novel forms of social connection afforded by the, then, popular social networking system MySpace. As I suggested in that work of 2006:

In struggling to accommodate the rapid intersection and integration of the globally networked, computer-mediated communications systems that are the Internet within everyday life we have adopted a variety of analogies and metaphors to make sense of the new mechanisms of communication the Internet has afforded. As a variety of literature has shown metaphorical conceptualisation is at the heart of our efforts to make sense of the world, which has in the case of computer-mediated communications and the Internet resulted in ‘a plurality of clashing, resonating and shocking metaphors’ (Pile, 1994: 1817). Spatial metaphors are a convenient means to understand new technologies but have proved dominating concepts in the unfolding of computer-mediated communications and the Internet. This veritable cacophony of spatial metaphors – ‘cyberia’, ‘cyberspace’, ‘information superhighway’, ‘I-way’, ‘the matrix’, amongst others – has been formed, adopted and suplemented by a variety of commentators and academics.

Interestingly, as we read lists, such as above, of past terms for the internet or mediated communication it is striking how dated they quickly became. The technologies have moved on, rather quickly, the interaction mechanisms have diversified, and the range of digital media devices we have accepted into everyday life have all had some influence on the ways in which we describe our use of communications technologies. The cyberpunk dream of ‘jacking in’ to an-other space has been somewhat superseded, if not refuted, by our increasing and diverse use of mobile digital media technologies.

More broadly, we can understand the appeal to an abstract sense of spatial potential, or liminality as ‘the virtual’, which has been broadly adopted to colloquially refer to the spatial experience of digital media. While the imagining of ‘the world in the wires’ has some popular currency, as form of cartesian spatial imagination, there are broader understandings of the virtual that are useful here. In his 2003 book ‘The Virtual‘, Rob Shields outlines a range of meanings for the virtual. We might thus variously understand the virtual as:

  • Memory – and our spatial experience mediated thereby.
  • ‘Real but not concrete’ – forms of potential present in the world that have not become consistent in our experience.
  • The sense in which people and things can be ‘almost-so’ or ‘almost-there’.
  • The in-betweeness of ‘metaxis’ or ‘liminality’ – that is familiar with the digital but also the thresholds that exist between public/private space, for example.
  • Simulation – particularly in the ways in which, following philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the simulation is treated as ‘more real than real’.

We can see then how the complication of the virtual as ‘cyberspace’ is founded not only in the diversification of the material ways of experiencing digital media but also in the variety of ways in which we can think about what that mediation is and how we variously perform it. The task is, increasingly, to describe and explain forms of agency and entities that have their origin with us but that have become autonomous and apparently foreign and yet they have a significant influence on our spatial perception.

For the purposes of my talk at the Passenger Films event I identified three particular themes of work in human geography that can be understood to address the idea of virtual space. These are, broadly, the ‘automatic production of space’, spatial mediation or mediality, and spaces of calculation.

Automatic production of space

In a 2002 paper, Nigel Thrift and Shaun French described ‘more and more of the spaces of everyday life come loaded up with software… that are installing a new kind of automatically reproduced background’ that they describe as the ‘automatic production of space’. Thrift has variously examined digital art, software and ‘intelligent’ environments in terms of the various constructive apparatuses that formulate our spatial experience with and through technologies. This has been significantly augmented and extended by the work of Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin, who have over a course of years developed an agenda for studying what they have come to call code/space, the now widespread automatic production of space.

In their recent book, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, Kitchin and Dodge offer a wealth of examples of the forms and formulations of Code/Spaces, as automatically produced spaces contingent on code, and ‘coded spaces’, that are imbued with software but do not depend upon it. Incidentally, Rob Kitchin has provided the notes to his talk that offer more details of their conceptualisations of code/space.

Since the 1990s, Stephen Graham has developed a range of work that has provided compelling critical reflections upon the increasing agency of digital communications technologies and their infrastructures. Cities are at the centre of Graham’s work, with examinations of infrastructure for telecommunications networks, associated policy, the forms of socio-economic development thereby developed and the ongoing shifts in spatial experience of the city engendered by the growth in digital media technologies. More recently, Graham has shifted focus to examine how the rationales for technological urban development have a strong relationship with military technoscience.

In a 1998 paper, ‘The end of geography or an explosion of place?‘, Graham expresses the ‘powerful role of spatial and territorial metaphors’ that anchor discourses of information technology (in the late 1990s). He offers three broad categories of spatial imagination of technically mediated spatial experience:

  • Appeals to a substitutive or transcendental form of experience, whereby ‘cyberspace’ affords the ability to move out of or beyond the body – following author William Gibson’s coining of ‘cyberspace’ as a ‘consensual hallucination’ that escapes the body.
  • Expressions of a co-evolution of social and electronic spaces that maintain a cartesian difference between the physical and the digitally virtual.
  • Articulations of re-combinative, topological, understanding of socially constructed forms of spatiality that are ‘sociotechnical’ (i.e. linkages between ‘heterogeneous’ actors, including humans, machines, technology, texts, money and others, formulate spatial experience).

Graham, and many others, have identified the problematic form of Cartesian dualism (mind/body split) implied by the first category, which also somewhat underlies the second also, and the uncritical technological determinism that often accompanies this somewhat fanciful race away from our embodied existence.

There are, of course a range of other enquiries into automatic productions of space, including children’s experience of mobile media (Jones et al.), air travel (Budd and Adey) and much more (please see my Bibliography for studies of code/space). Outside of geography, there have been popular articulations of ‘pervasive’ or ‘ubiquitous’ computing by writers such as McCullough and Greenfield, and the growth of ‘Digital Humanities’ research offer further insights, see David Berry’s work particularly.

Mediation/mediality

Embodied forms of (inter-) mediation of everyday life and various (specific) activities with and through technology have been the focus of geographical enquiry. In particular, there have been explorations of how technologies such the web (Valentine, Holloway and Bingham), maps (Crampton, Zook and Graham), social media (Wilson) and video games (Ash) play a role in the contemporary spatial understandings of everyday life. Equally, outside of geography there have been investigations into the role of restraining and surveillance technologies (Troshynski et al., Wood), such as, what ‘wirelessness’ means to our experience of everyday life (Mackenzie).

Technologies for mapping have a long history in the mediation of our understanding of space and place (see, in particular: the work of Jeremy Crampton and Gunnar Olson’s ‘Abysmal‘), with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) being the computational development of cartographic technology and technique. A range of work has been conducted around the meaning and uses of GIS, critical reflections on the techniques and technologies, and the ways in which non-specialists and publics can participate in mapping.

Social media have also, more recently, emerged as a site of concern for geographers interested in our social spatial understanding of our everyday lives, and in particular the environs of the city. Matt Wilson has offered some useful observations about the forms of technically mediated ‘conspicuous mobility’ that form emergent cartographies of everyday life. In addition to geographical study, social networking systems have featured as a central concern in discussions around how our capacity for attention is mediated.

The phenomenological relationship between body and screen in the act of playing video games has been identified by James Ash as fruitful locus of geographical enquiry. Ash has variously investigated the affectual responses, spatial awareness and temporal sensibilities that emerge and are refigured by video gameplay.

Spaces of calculation

The growth of networked information and communication technologies has augmented the techniques and technologies of calculation and governance that are employed to control, regulate and secure spaces. Geographers have variously tackled this issues in terms of (for example): access, government, security and surveillance. Digital communications, information and media technologies can be understood as a part of the ongoing development of political arithmatic, population statistics and political economy.

Governance has been addressed as a technological concern in terms of the constitution of ‘technology’ zones to encourage production, network infrastructures, civic engagement and regulation of digital reproducibility. In a wide-ranging analysis of the increasing importance of networked information technologies, Andrew Barry’s ‘Political Machines‘ covers a diverse range of concerns. While technology development has moved on apace since the publication of this book, the critical engagement with the role of technology in politics, and vice versa, remains valuable. The protocols of network technologies have themselves been the topic of analysis in the work of media theorist Alexander Galloway, who has addressed the ways in which logics of computation have at their heart the principals of control and not, as net evangelists might argue, freedom. Thus with the increasing importance of network technologies in everyday life, (computational) protocols are becoming more influential.

Access to and the security of regulated places has been studied as an prevalent form of the automatic production of space, as code/space. Both Budd and Adey and Kitchin and Dodge have identified the airport as the securitised code/space par excellence. Airports are entirely contingent upon the affordances of code, with almost all of the functions of the airport as a complex facilitated and controlled by software. In our more mundane quotidien spaces we can also look to electronic access systems for transit and building entry, as well as to the automated management of infrastructures for energy, water and waste for examples of coded systems of management and control (see Kitchin and Dodge 2011 for more discussion).

Technicity

Central to all of the investigations of ‘virtuality’ or technical mediation I have reviewed above, I argue, is a slightly hidden or, at least, assumed understanding of the nature of our relation with and through technology. A useful way of thinking about what technology is and does in relation to the human is the concept of ‘technicity’. Geographers have broached the concept of technicity from a few perspectives, largely drawing on theoretical resources associated with phenomenological understandings of being. There are broadly two ways we can understand technicity:

  • ‘the productive power of technology to make things happen’ -Kitchin and Dodge 2011
  • the ‘co-constitutive milieu of relations between the human and their technical supports’ – Crogan & Kennedy 2009

First, following Kitchin and Dodge’s articulation of the concept (drawing on the work of Adrian Mackenzie), we can understand technicity as the power technologies have, both on their own and in combination with the human body, to make things happen in the world. We can accordingly understand the automated agency of software and other technologies in the production of code/space as a form of technicity..

Second, following my colleagues Patrick Crogan and Helen Kennedy, we can think of technicity as the ways in which humans and technology mutually co-constitute one another in an ongoing formulation of associated milieu. The reciprocal arrangement does not have the human at its centre but is a form of ‘trans-individuation’ whereby the human and technical individuals concretise in relation. Technicity in this sense is not a capacity but an emergent form of relation through which we come to understand ourselves and our technical supports.

Further to the second definition, following the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, we can also understand technicity as the absence, or aporia, of origin for the human. As I have previously observed, the interesting resolution of this aporia is that the mental interior is only recognized as such with the advent of the technical exterior – or, our conscious self-knowledge is only possible with the ability to externalise thought as language and gesture. Stiegler explains this aporia of origin as a paradox:

‘The paradox is to have to speak of an exteriorisation without a preceding interior: the interior is constituted in exteriorisation’ (Stiegler, Technics and Time 1).

Technicity can be thought of as a double-bind between being both constitutive and a supplement of ‘the human’. Therefore, the interior and exterior, and with them the contemporary understanding of the experience of being human and what we understand to be technology, are mutually co-constituted.

We can accordingly understand technicity as the relation between the human and the technical that facilitates our externalisation of memory, recorded not only for our own use but also for transmission, both through space but also across time. As Stiegler suggests these forms of ‘retention’ precede us and yet they are a part of us, there are forms of retention that were created long before the birth of an individual and yet that person can access them as a form of ‘cultural memory’. Thinking through this relationship between the interior and exterior affirms the relationship between actual and virtual, the virtual is always and already twinned with the actual.

Thinking beyond code

To conclude my brief exploration of geographical investigations of ‘the virtual’ I invited the audience to consider the very material constituents and consequences of the technologies and systems that facilitate our contemporary interactions with and through what can be understood as the digitally ‘virtual’.

If we attempt to think contemporary digital media ‘ecologically’, in terms of the widest variety of constituent entities that enable their production, use and maintenance, we might ask the following questions:

  • What are the material constituents? How are they made?
  • What are the ethical and political implications?

Whereas those in the West might be tempted to unproblematically assume the existence of a ‘knowledge economy’ founded in the growth of ‘immaterial labour’, there remain very real physical labour issues in the parts of the world where technologies are manufactured. Equally, as Sy Taffel has raised, many of the digital media technologies require rare earth metals that are mined in politically troubled countries (further explorations of these issues is available at followthethings.com).

We also might attempt to attend to the ‘others’ that form part of digital media system. Rather than focus our studies solely on the ‘expert’ producer and the somewhat passive ‘consumer’, we should perhaps be looking to the ways in which digital media trouble such distinctions. Whereas in the industrial economy the ‘proletariat’ had very limited access to the means of production, digital media open out some new opportunities for what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler has called an ‘economy of contribution‘. Consumers or users are empowered, in particular ways, to produce new forms of media and participate in the production of organisations and events without some of the traditional barriers to access. The technologist Christian Fauré has articulated this as the difference between ‘employment’ and ‘work’. A person is employed when they labour only to receive remuneration, they ‘work’ for interest or because of enthusiasm. In an economy of contribution then, facilitated by digital media, it has been suggested that we are invited to become ‘amateurs’, literally ‘lovers of an activity’, in the mutual production of the web. There remain, of course, significant cultural, political and spatial questions – and these are, of course, the emerging objects/subjects of ongoing geographical enquiry.

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