CFP: Theorising digital space

In another of a series of what feels dangerously like back-to-the-1990s moments as some geographers attempt to wrangle ‘digital geographies’ as a brand, which I find problematic, I saw the below CFP for the AAG.

I am sorry if it seems like I’m picking on this one CFP, I have no doubt that it was written with the best of intentions and if I were able to attend the conference I would apply to speak and attend it. I hope others will too. In terms of this post it’s simply the latest in a line of conference sessions that I think unfortunately seem to miss, or even elide, long-standing debates in geography about mediation.

Maybe my reaction is in part because I cannot attend (I’m only human, I’d quite like to go to New Orleans!), but it is also in part because I am honestly shocked at the inability for debates within what is after all a fairly small discipline to move forward in terms of thinking about ‘space’ and mediation. This stands out because it follows from ‘digital’ sessions at the AAG last year that made similar sorts of omissions.

In the late 1990s a whole host of people theorised place/space in relation to what we’re now calling ‘the digital’. Quite a few were geographers. There exists a significant and, sometimes, sophisticated literature that lays out these debates, ranging from landmark journal articles to edited books and monographs that all offer different views on how to understand mediation spatially (some of this work features in a bibliography I made ages ago).

Ironically, perhaps, all of this largely accessible ‘online’, you only need search for relevant key terms, follow citation chains using repositories – much of it is there, many of the authors are accessible ‘digitally’ too. And yet, periodically, we see what is in effect the same call for papers asking similar questions: is there a ‘physical’/’digital’ binary [no], what might it do, how do we research the ‘digital’, ‘virtual’ etc. etc.

We, all kinds of geographers, are not only now beginning to look at digital geographies, it’s been going on for some time and it would be great if that were acknowledged in the way that Prof. Dorothea Kleine did with rare clarity in her introduction to the RGS Digital Geographies Working Group symposium earlier this year (skip to 03:12 in this video).

So, I really hope that some of those authors of books like “Virtual Geographies“, to take just one example (there are loads more – I’m not seeking to be canonical!), might consider re-engaging with these discussions to lend some of perspective that they have helped accrue over the last 20+ years and speak at, or at least attend, sessions like this.

I hope that others will consider speaking in this session, to engage productively and to open out debate, rather than attempt to limit it in a kind of clique-y brand.

Theorizing Place and Space in Digital Geography: The Human Geography of the Digital Realm

In 1994 Doreen Massey released Space, Place and Gender, bringing together in a single volume her thoughts on many of the key discussions in geography in the 1980s and early 1990s. Of note was the chapter, A global sense of place, and the discussion on what constitutes a place. Massey argues that places, just like people, have multiple identities, and that multiple identities can be placed on the same space, creating multiple places inside space. Places can be created by different people and communities, and it is through social practice, particularly social interaction, that place is made. Throughout this book, Massey also argues that places are processional, they are not frozen moments, and that they are not clearly defined through borders. As more and more human exchanges in the ‘physical realm’ move to, or at least involve in some way, the ‘digital realm’, how should we understand the sites of the social that happen to be in the digital? What does a human geography, place orientated understanding of the digital sites of social interaction tell us about geography? Both that in the digital and physical world.

Massey also notes that ‘communities can exist without being in the same place – from networks of friends with like interests, to major religious, ethnic or political communities’. The ever-evolving mobile technologies, the widening infrastructures that support them and the increasing access to smartphones, thanks in part to new smart phone makers in China releasing affordable yet powerful smartphones around the world, has made access to the digital realm, both fixed in place (through computers) and, as well as more often, through mobile technologies a possibility for an increasing number of people worldwide. How do impoverished or excluded groups use smart technologies to (re)produce place or a sense of place in ways that include links to the digital realm? From rural farming communities to refugees fleeing Syria and many more groups, in what ways does the digital realm afford spatial and place making opportunities to those lacking in place or spatial security?

How are we to understand the digital geographies of platforms and the spaces that they give us access to? Do platforms themselves even have geographies? Recently geographers such as Mark Graham have begun a mapping of the dark net, but how should we understand the geographies of other digital spaces, from instant messaging platforms to social media or video streaming websites? What is visible and what is obscured? And what can we learn about traditional topics in social science, such as power and inequality, when we begin to look at digital geographies?

In this paper session for 5 papers we are looking for papers exploring:

  • Theories of place and space in the digital realm, including those that explore the relationship between the digital and physical realms
  • Research on the role of digital realm in (re)producing physical places, spaces and communities, or creating new places, spaces and communities, both in the digital realm and outside of it.
  • Papers considering relationship between physical and digital realms and accounts of co-production within them.
  • The role of digital technologies in providing a sense of space and place, spatial security and secure spaces and places to those lacking in these things.
  • Research exploring the geographies of digital platforms, websites, games or applications, particularly qualitative accounts that examine the physical and digital geographies of platforms, websites, games or applications.
  • Research examining issues of power, inequality, visibility and distance inside of the digital realm.
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