Border Bumping

While the lines drawn on maps, policed at crossings and customs posts, can apparently clearly delineate a border, other technologies that can also (be used to) place us, on one side of a border or another, may ebb and flow with atmospheric, material and technical differences. In particular, the relatively well known tendency for the cellular mobile phone system to record the location of a given device (via triangulation) as some distance from the actual physical location has been interrogated and played with by artists and activists alike.

One such meditation on the vagaries of the locational capabilities of the GSM system is the Border Bumping project. Julian Oliver has played around with how we traverse borders by examining how phones register with the network and redrawing a map of the borders accordingly. Oliver has created an app that lets owners of Android phones contribute to the project.

Here’s a nice video exploring ‘Border Bumping’:

Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future – Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson has blogged that he has an interesting new paper coming out in a special issue of the Journal of Transport Geography. See below:

Thanks to the invitation and editorship of Seraphim Alvanides and Kate Pangbourne, I’m happy to share the preprint of a forthcoming article in a special issue of the Journal of Transport Geography: Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future. The preprint copy is available here.Wilson, Matthew W. forthcoming. “Geospatial technologies in the location-aware future.” Journal of Transport Geography.

Arguably, there have been few shifts in the GISciences so paradigmatic as the emergence of locationally-aware mobile devices. GISc researchers in the US have witnessed these changes in just the last crop of PhD students, with topics on location-based services, the geoweb, volunteered geographic information and neogeography, somewhat eclipsing earlier, trendy topics on web-based GIS and interactive digital cartography. Indeed, there are new important players in GISc, with training in and outside of Geography, with backgrounds as diverse as the engineering/computational sciences and the digital humanities as well as critical human geographies. Mobilities researchers, qualitative GIS scholars, cyberinfrastructural scientists, and social and cultural geographers have configured research programs around the proliferation of locationally-aware devices and the ‘big data’ that have emerged from them. In this viewpoint, I shall outline these diverse developments and sketch what I argue are the foundational issues that comprise a research agenda with and about geospatial technologies in the location-aware future: technological development, the social life of data, and the everyday practices around mobile digital devices.

Close up at a distance, Laura Kurgan

There are a number of people engaging in really thoughtful and thought-provoking artistic, activist and political engagements/interventions with geographical (topographical) technologies, which are very much worth paying attention to. Work by Jordan Crandall, Laura Kurgan, Lisa Price and Trevor Paglen, amongst others, I think offers some really interesting ways of critically thinking about, and engaging with, the various kinds of mappings we (as socieities) are variously undertaking for sometimes not-so-benevolent causes.

Laura Kurgan’s recent Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics has attracted some deserved attention by geographers and, in a similar vein to Patrick Crogan’s excellent Gameplay Mode, offers an interesting critical engagement with the military origins of satellite mapping and imaging technologies. Kurgan argues that we cannot stand at a ‘critical distance’ to evaluate these technologies but rather –  we are “addressed by and embedded within them”. Thus – “Only through a certain intimacy with these technologies–an encounter with their opacities, their assumptions, their intended aims–can we begin to assess their full ethical and political stakes” (page 14).

Columba Peoples, from the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, has written a good review of Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance for the open access book reviews section of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, which is online here and well worth a read.

Also, Laura Kurgan and Trevor Paglen engaged in a fascinating conversation about their practice at Columbia University earlier this year, which was recorded and is available on YouTube:

Note: Trevor’s mic doesn’t work very well and he’s muffled for a bit at the beginning but it gets fixed so stick with it!

Digital geographies – two new articles

I have two new articles broadly concerning ‘digital geographies’ at different stages in the publication process. This represents a long-held interest I have held in the various ways we can think about and study ‘the digital’. In particular, these are the first articles to come out of a strand of my research which aims to advance understandings of the materialities that underpin digital geographies. In particular, this research focuses on the emergence of what have been called ‘spatial media’, the devices and systems we increasingly use to mediate our activities and way-finding in everyday life. Conceptually, this work significantly draws on my ongoing engagement with the work of the philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler.

The first article is in Geography Compass: ‘Beyond the screen’ addresses the different ways in which we can study ‘life online’, drawing together a range of methodological strands to demonstrate how geographical thinking can inform and enhance social scientific research concerning the internet, particularly in relation to the articulation of spatial experience and knowledge. I am grateful to my colleague Gail Davies for suggesting that I write this piece for Geography Compass, which is an excellent resource for scholars at all stages of their careers. Thus paper was published in the August 2013 issue of Geography Compass and so can be found on the journal website. I also have a pre-press version available here.

The second article will be coming out in Progress in Human Geography: ‘The Matter of Virtual Geographies’ revisits the articulation of ‘virtual’ geographies and reviews recent discussion within geography of digitally mediated activity. The aim of the article is to argue for a greater attention to the material conditions of ‘the digital’. This is achieved by articulating a theory of ‘technics’–the co-constitutive relation between the human and the technical,–and ‘transduction’–the iterative modulating and translation of a sociotechnical milieu from one state to another–through the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler. This article expands on existing work in geography, such as Kitchin & Dodge’s excellent ‘Code/space’, that is pushing for more sophisticated understandings of software, code, and the plethora of increasingly sophisticated systems and devices with which we mediate ourselves and our (spatial) experience of everyday life. I am happy to share pre-print copies of this paper, please contact me if you’re interested.

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.

Public Objects – the networked city and civic responsibility: Adam Greenfield

Re-posted from the Digital Cultures Research Centre blog.

Last night DCRC in collaboration with Bristol Festival of Ideas and the Pervasive Media Studio hosted a talk by Adam Greenfield, which he titled “On Public Objects: connected things and civic responsibility”.  During the talk Adam suggested that a significant question before us now is that of ‘networked urbanism’, the increasing range of ordinary things and places in the city that are identifying themselves to global information networks or being identified by them.  Clare Reddington, Director of iShed and the Pervasive Media Studio, created a Storify feed during the talk which contains lots of images and links to aspects of Adam’s talk – it is an excellent precis of the talk.

I’d like to offer a brief account of the talk, also drawing upon Adam’s recent essay “Beyond the ‘Smart City’.”

The argument of Adam’s talk was forged upon the theoretical impetus of Marxian scholar Henri Lefebvre’s contention of the right to the city. We are, according to Greenfield, living in a ‘networked now’ in which people are comprehensively instrumented with network communications technologies, even, and especially, in the developing world.  We operate with ‘locative’ and ‘declarative’ media, through which devices elicit geo-located information or people themselves announce their locations or activities. In turn, these media are leveraged by commercial interests by performing analytics such as ‘sentiment analysis‘. There are also an emerging range of declarative objects, such as London’s Tower Bridge, which has been endowed with a Twitter account to declare “I am opening for…” and “I am closing after…”.  Greenfield argued that objects are increasingly gathering, processing, displaying, transmitting and sometimes physically acting upon data.

Adam’s principal argument, therefore, is that we need a new theory (and jurisprudence) for networked objects.  Throughout the latter part of the talk Adam offered some observations about the ‘morality of objects’ such as a Finnish road sensor, a Japanese vending machine that profiles customers, and networked bollards that limit access to the Ramblas in Barcelona.  For Adam, it is necessary to find a new way of conceiving of things we encounter in public space.  He offered a working definition of ‘Public Objects’ as: “any artifact located in or bounding upon public rights-of-way”, “any discrete object in the common spatial domain intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public”, “any discrete object which is de facto shared by and accessbile to the public, regardless of its ownership or original” intention.

We are asked to consider what happens when power resides not in the material manifestations of the network, as in the physical ‘public objects’, but in code. Adam gave the example of software updates that facilitate new functionality, about which members of the public are not informed but could be seen to infringe their rights – for example: the addition of facial recognition pattern matching software to municipal CCTV systems without the public being informed.

Adam closed his talk by arguing that public objects, as defined above, must be open and usable by citizens.  This openness, he argued, should be figured through APIs (open interface platforms that allow people to interact with them); it should involve “read” and, sometimes, “write” access to data streams, so that people can access the data that public objects gather and sometimes be able to write into it; and that public objects should be non-rivalrous and non-excludable, i.e. in economic theory, they should be public goods.

In conclusion, Adam argued that we should be acting against the capture of public space by private interests and acting towards a revitalised public sphere.

This talk was recorded by Watershed and will shortly feature on dshed and in the DCRC Vimeo feed – check back with our blog for details soon!