Last Friday I acted as a discussant for three sessions (no. 1, no. 2, no. 3) on Digital Geography presented at the RGS/IBG conference in London. The papers were quite diverse and some of the discussion in the sessions centred on how to frame and make sense of digital geographies.
In their overview paper, Elisabeth Roberts and David Beel categorised the post-2000 geographical literature which engages with the digital into six classes: conceptualisation, unevenness, governance, economy, performativity, and the everyday. To my mind, this is quite a haphazard way of dividing up the literature. Instead, I think it might be more productive to divide the wide range of studies which consider the relationship between the digital and geography into three bodies of work:
Geography of the digital
These works seek to apply geographical ideas and methodologies to make sense of the digital. As such, it focuses on mapping out the geographies of digital technologies, their associated socio-technical assemblages and production. Such work includes the mapping of cyberspace, charting the spatialities of social media, plotting the material geographies of ubiquitous computing, detailing the economic geographies of component resources, technologies and infrastructures, tracing the generation and flows of big data, and so on.
Geography produced by the digital
This body of work focuses on how digital technologies and infrastructures are transforming the geographies of everyday life and the production of space. Such work includes examining how digital technologies and ICTs are increasingly being embedded into different spatial domains – the workplace, home, transport systems, the street, shops, etc.; how they mediate and augment socio-spatial practices and relations such as producing, consuming, communicating, playing, etc; how they shape and remediate geographical imaginaries and how spaces are visioned, planned and built; and so on.
Geography produced through the digital
An increasing amount of geographical scholarship, praxis and communication is now undertaken using digital technologies. For example, generating, recording and analyzing data using digital devices and associated software and databases; the collection and sharing of datasets and outputs through digital archives and repositories; discussing ideas and conducting debate via mailing lists and social media; writing papers and presentations, producing maps and other visualizations using computers; etc. A fairly substantial body of work thus reflects on the difference digital technologies make to the production of geographical scholarship.
Taken together these three bodies of work, I would argue, constitute digital geography.
At the same time, however, I wonder about the utility of bounding digital geography and corralling studies within its bounds. To what extent is it useful to delimit it as a defined field of research?
It might be more productive to reframe much of what is being claimed as digital geography with respect to its substantive focus. For example, examining the ways in which digital technologies are being pervasively embedded into the fabric of cities and how they modulate the production of urban socio-spatial relations is perhaps best framed within urban geography. Similarly, a study looking at the use of digital technology in the delivery of aid in parts of the Global South is perhaps best understood as being centrally concerned with development geography. In other words, it may well be more profitable to think about how the digital reshapes many geographies, rather than to cast all of those geographies as digital geography.
Nonetheless, it is clear that geographers still have much work to do with respect to thinking about the digital. That is a central task of my own research agenda as I work on the Programmable City project. I’d be interested in your own thoughts as to how you conceive and position digital geography, so if you’re inclined to share your views please leave a comment.