Review of ‘Code/space’ by Kitchin & Dodge

I submitted a review of Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge’s Code/space, in slightly revised form, for a review symposium in the relatively new journal ‘Dialogues in Human Geography‘. I thought I’d share an earlier version here, just to give a flavour of some of the things I’ve been thinking about…

Kitchin, Rob and Dodge, Martin 2011 Code/Space: Software and everyday life, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press

Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge’s Code/space has been rightly celebrated in a number of reviews (Adey 2013; Wilson 2012; Zook 2012) and with the Association of American Geographers’ Meridian Award for outstanding scholarly work in Geography in 2011. Code/space offers a future-oriented glossary for the understanding and description of the increasingly technical, ongoing reconfiguration of everyday life.

Building from a longstanding and prolific writing partnership (see the Code/space bibliography), in the book Kitchin and Dodge offer a really useful engagement with code and software via geographical sensibilities. They describe a range of examples of the ways in which software is integral within and modulates the spacings and places of (largely Western capitalist) everyday life.

Code/space offers a rigorously argued framework of concepts for understanding software in everyday life. Furthermore, the book hones this framework through case studies concerning air travel, the home and consumption. In the final, impassioned, and more speculative, section of the book, the authors engage their theoretical framework with the speculative ruminations of urbanist Adam Greenfield concerning ‘everyware‘, the proposition of ubiquitous computation embedded into the fabric of the everyday urban environment. To conclude, Kitchin and Dodge offer a manifesto for the emerging discourse and disciplinary context of ‘software studies’ that insists on an ontogenetic understanding of the capacities of code.

Code/space is valuable for two reasons. First, it elaborates a useful and very clear conceptual framework, drawing on contemporary philosophies of technology. Second, and importantly, it brings into conversation a range of important work concerning digital technology that has previously been somewhat distant: geographers concerned with the ‘automatic production of space’ (like Stephen Graham, Nigel Thrift, Matt Wilson and Matt Zook); computer scientists studying human-computer interaction (such as Paul Dourish) and humanities scholars critically reflecting on computation and software (like David Berry, Matt Fuller and Lev Manovich).

Software code, in the terms of Code/space, is perhaps the best example of the human ability not only to produce other entities and forms of spatial experience but more significantly to create things that in themselves produce space–that are ontogenetic. The agency of software must be understood, following the book, as its quasi-generative properties, accomplished through code, which Kitchin and Dodge call ‘secondary agency’, following Adrian Mackenzie (in his book Cutting Code).

Code, in Kitchin and Dodge’s terms, is both a process and a product, both a means of systematically calculating the world and an operational grammar for action, or ‘worlding’, as Nigel Thrift has suggested. To account for this capacity Code/space offers a taxonomy of coded entities: coded objects, coded infrastructures, coded processes and coded assemblages.

Kitchin and Dodge thereby describe the distinction between ‘coded spaces’ and ‘code/space’. Whereas there are many examples of software and code augmenting the production of space, which the authors call ‘coded spaces’, there are increasing examples of the modulation of and making anew of spatial experience through code, which are ‘code/spaces’.

Building from space conceptualised as ‘constantly brought into being as an incomplete solution to an ongoing relational problem’, Kitchin and Dodge offer an account of forms of space that are co-constituted with software, because code ‘modulates the conditions through which space is beckoned into being’. It is this reiterative and transformative modulation that forms one of the central theoretical tenets of Code/space – conceptualised as ‘transduction’.

The conceptualisation of ‘code/space’ and the account of ‘transduction’ are the foremost of a number of significant contributions that Kitchin and Dodge make in this book. Indeed, the former is arguably a particular empirical category of the latter. Code/space is accordingly something of a watershed moment, for geography, in the operationalisation of the work of the philosopher Gilbert Simondon. He was a significant influence on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Brian Massumi and Bernard Stiegler, amongst others.

Simondon was a philosopher of technology, or more accurately of the human-technology relation in terms of ‘technogenesis’. The theory of technogenesis is that humans and technology co-evolved together, that you do not get one without the other. It is this form of human-technology relation that is being described when we consider the processes of transduction described by Kitchin and Dodge, themselves drawing the concept from Adrian Mackenzie who translates it from Simondon. Transduction, in Simondon’s terms, decentres the human, it is

a procedure of the mind as it discovers”¦ [that] consists in following being in its genesis, in carrying out the genesis of thought at the same time as the genesis of the object is carried out (Simondon, translated in Combes 2013).

In offering a kind of ‘Simondonian’ analysis of software and everyday life, Code/space strikes directly at the heart of the question of what it means to be human in an age of a perceived increase in technological agency. The account of the human here is not one of miraculous separation from nature, or from technology. It is a case of imbrication and becoming with a wealth of other entities. This is not a deterministic relation, for the authors, precisely because: ‘The nature and transduction of code/space is then never fixed, shifting with place, time and context (social, political and economic relations and situations). Code/spaces are relational, emergent, and peopled’.

As Kitchin and Dodge suggest in the fourth chapter, in the formation of code/spaces and the en-coding of parts of everyday life, we are negotiating the ongoing reformulation of what it is to be human. Indeed, this resonates with the account of technogenesis that is firmly established in other disciplinary contexts (for example in the work of philosopher Mark Hansen, literary theorist Katherine Hayles, sociologist Adrian Mackenzie and philosopher Bernard Stiegler).

While the major theoretical contribution of the book is the work synthesising accounts of transduction, a substantial portion of the book is given over to case studies of how code/spaces emerge in everyday life. Chapters seven to nine provide three case studies of air travel, the home and consumption. Those familiar with the prolific output of this writing partnership will recognise some of the content of these chapters, although the detail has been updated. Equally, the analysis has been translated into the new lexicon put forward by the book. This works to the extent that the project here is clearly to advance a form of ‘software studies’, though it could prove bewildering to some (there is a helpful glossary at the back).

The empirically based analyses draw out something like a dialectic of software, with its potential to both empower and control, which the authors carefully unpick in the mode of the later Foucault. Genealogies of the various assemblages of actors and discursive regimes in which code/spaces consist are critically discussed to demonstrate how and where labour, power and values are variously located.

In the penultimate chapter the analysis takes a distinctly speculative direction. The authors consider future code/space in the guise of the ‘everyware’ (following Adam Greenfield) of ubiquitous computing, a long-held aim for computation embedded into the fabric of everyday life (following Mark Weiser). Kitchin and Dodge entertain a significant range of speculations about a world of ‘everyware’, from enthusiasm for a prospective empowerment of citizens, to opposition of an increased ‘securitisation’ through ‘sousveillance’.

However, despite a well argued and impartial discussion of these themes there remains a tacit acceptance of these visions of ‘everyware’ without much critical reflection upon the source and reasoning behind the speculation. The ‘powerful discursive regime’ that the authors argue supports the embedding of software into everyday life and the implementation of ‘everyware’ should also be recognised to include speculative discourse (see some of my research). Thus there remains cause for further critical reflection upon such governmentalised representations of the uses of computation.

Code/space offers a wealth of examples of the transformations of everyday life through the transductive capacities of software and code. It is not only a snapshot of contemporary technogenesis with and through computation, and a critical response to such observations. It is also a rallying cry for further critical research in the shape of the concluding manifesto for software studies. Many geographers may ignore or skim the concluding manifesto, focusing instead on the case studies of chapters seven to nine. However, in many ways it is in the concluding chapter that we find Kitchin and Dodge’s challenge to geography.

The ‘digital’ is the latest significant step in the processes of the discretisation of knowledge and memory external to the body, as Bernard Stiegler forcefully shows, and code is precisely its ontogenetic vanguard. Following Stiegler, to study code and software, is to study the latest stage in the spatialisation of time-based forms. To transform the temporal flow of speech and gesture into discrete forms, such as text and mechanical movements, makes them spatial objects: they are constituted in various material forms (from sheets of paper to silicon chips). The transductive power of code can accordingly be understood as the latest phase in the process of what Stiegler, following the linguist Sylvan Auroux, calls ‘grammatisation‘, which describes:

all technical processes that enable behavioural fluxes or flows to be made discrete”¦ and to be reproduced, those behavioural flows through which are expressed or imprinted the experiences of human beings (speaking, working, perceiving, interacting and so on). If grammatisation is understood in this way, then the digital is the most recent stage of grammatisation, a stage in which all behavioural models can now be grammatised and integrated through a planetary-wide industry of the production, collection, exploitation and distribution of digital traces [see Stiegler’s broader work].

Software code is thus the ‘grammar’ of an increasing range of objects and activities of everyday life. Read through Stiegler Code/space echoes his formidable challenge for conducting ‘digital studies‘. Kitchin and Dodge invite us to study (and offer the analytical tools to do so) the ongoing, and increasingly automated, spatialisation of knowledge and the forms of space they reciprocally produce.

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