“Ready Lawnmower Player Man One”, or VR’s persistent future

For the last couple of years I have given a lecture that takes the “Virtual/Real” distinction and deconstructs it using various bits of geographical theory. I also talk about the enduring trope of the sort of eschatological narrative of VR, tying it back to a little bit of history, mainly focusing on how this has been propagated in pop culture. This year, for fun, I have decided to be a little bit more creative than resorting to my usual trick of showing the trailer for Lawnmower Man or Ready Player One – I’ve made a quick mashup of the two, which I think show quite nicely how the underlying narratives of the ‘virtual’ somehow counterposed to the ‘real’ but also in some way ‘crossing over’ is an enduring theme.

The other enduring theme here is that the forms of gameplay drawn upon are characterised as highly masculine (and normatively heterosexual – no queering of the digital here, sadly), which is something I will try to also blog about sometime…

Other film examples might include:

CFP: Theorising digital space

glitches image of a 1990s NASA VR experience

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.

Elemental machines – the becoming environmental of tech

Via dmf.

With: Andreas Broeckmann, Esther Leslie, Sascha Pohflepp
Moderated by Yvonne Volkart

“The concept of machines generally describes an assemblage of parts assigned to an overall function, designed by a human. Yet, the entwined histories of science, technology, and art are filled with ideas about nature functioning like machines, and of visions where machines become “natural” and organic. These two paths seem to merge as machines increasingly communicate autonomously and operate in fields beyond human perception and influence. Can we devise new perspectives for understanding the elemental machines that now seem to operate contingently within hybrid techno-ecologies like the forces of nature? What are the new aesthetic and political affordances or subjectivities involved in the process of technology becoming environmental?”

Amateur urbanism as political praxis, Andy Merrifield & Bernard Stiegler

Following a link posted by my colleague Clive Barnett I discovered the excellent collection of essays Andy Merrifield has collected in his website, which have all(?) been previously published elsewhere. I’ve been working through this treasure trove and was particularly struck by one of these essays.

Earlier in 2015, Merrifield published an ‘intervention’ on the Antipode website entitled “Future Shock“, in which he contemplates the absence of contemporary thinking of radical futures following a collapse of future thinking into a technocratic status quo.

Merrifield relates this to Edward Said’s 1993 BBC Reith Lectures on representations of the intellectual, and the amateur and the professional. Merrifield suggests:

[P]rofessionalism, said Said, can constitute a form of compliant behavior, of making yourself marketable and presentable to the powers that be. None of which denies the need for competence, for being conscientious about what you do, and for having the right skills to do it.

He argues that it is a form of professionalism that has facilitated a particular kind of ethos for corporate urban development, a development that

enables all sorts of ideas [to be] imposed on peoples’ lives from above, all kinds of paradigms that go from professional boardrooms to somebody’s drafty living room, if they’re lucky enough to have a living room.

He lays out an intellectual/ policy lineage from ‘authoritative’ urbanism to authoritarian ‘austerity’. Merrifield begins with Roger Starr, writer of Urban Choices: The City and Its Critics, who criticised the likes of Mumford, Jacobs and Gans as meddling amateurs, who became New York City’s Housing Commissioner and in 1976 masterminded a national program following directly from his earlier representations of urban reality: “Planned Shrinkage”.

Sketching forward to today, Merrifield asks us to consider the historical lineage between Planned Shrinkage and frenzied pursuit for “austerity.” he argues that Planned Shrinkage and austerity have two common characteristics.

First, is an overriding goal to rundown and/or plunder the public sector, to make “unproductive” public services productive for vested unproductive interests–you know, for financial parasites on the make. Second, both policies justify their programs though made up “evidence.” For austerity, just as for Planned Shrinkage, economists are the redoubtable voice of authority.

Thus, the amateur, counter-posed to the ‘professional’ is a political figure. Arguing, earlier in the intervention, through Said, Merrfield argues:

Professionalism means having an expertise to hide behind, an often narrow expertise, an esoteric language that sets you apart, that gains entry into a professional bodies, one strictly off-limits to rank amateurs. Amateurs, by contrast, aren’t moved by profit or pay; they usually care more about ideas and values not tied down to any profession; their vision is often more expansive, more eclectic, not hampered by the conservatism of narrow expertise, preoccupied with defending one’s intellectual turf. To be an amateur is to express the ancient French word: love of, a person who engages on an unpaid basis, a non-specialist, a layperson. Nothing pejorative intended. Amateurs sometimes care for ideas that question professional authority because they express concerns professions don’t consider, don’t see, don’t care about.

This has great resonance with a very similar understanding of the figure of the amateur, equally political, put forward by Bernard Stiegler. In the Ars Industrialis ‘vocabulary’, Stiegler argues that the amateur:

is the name given to one who loves works or who realizes him- or her- self in traversing such works. There are lovers of science and technology, just as one speaks of art lovers. The figure of the amateur extends the figure of taste, as suggested by the Enlightenment, as cognition of the sensible or mediation of the immediate, as the singularity of an educated sentiment. It accompanies, therefore, the question of the formation of a critical public (irreducible to the audience).

Thus, in counterpoising the amateur to the professional both Merrifield (via Said) and Stiegler (sort-of via Weber) argue that the role of amateurism is crucial to producing alternative ways of economic, political and social living.


For the urban is itself a political object, a very special virtual political object; so is the “right to the city.” Urban rights are ones that need inventing, need inventing offensively; they aren’t established safeguards already there, ones you can invoke defensively…

Since we amateurs don’t have that means or money, we must start concrete and try to scale upwards and outwards, try to realize our abstract renderings, our utopian and futuristic yearnings.


The figure of the amateur is the ideal type for the economy of contribution because the amateur is the one who builds him- or her- self a sustainable libidinal economy and does not expect industrial society to put it in place.

Both Merrifield and Stiegler offer laudable appeals to amateurism and the ground-up D.I.Y political action that, of course, also resonates with the forms of horizontalist political activism we are becoming used to seeing that operate both against austerity and towards alternative forms of urban life. Nevertheless, one might be left wondering, when reading both accounts, where the space is for collectivity? In both accounts the ‘virtual’ and the ‘transindividual’ are the conceptual footholds from which to forge such questions –it is in the immanent potential of the virtual that we, collectively, are produced and reciprocally produce the future and such a potential is performed within and through the various relations between our ‘selves’:

“The “I”, as a psychic individual, can only be thought in relationship to a “we”, which is a collective individual: the “I” is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits, and in which a plurality of “Is” acknowledge each other’s existence.”

[Stiegler, Desire & Knowledge]

This is an interesting (to me anyway!) parallel theorisation of the amateur and no doubt there are more… I think the close to Merrifield’s Antipode intervention is particularly effective:

Rights aren’t passive: they become your right by working through danger, by orchestrating effective political action. You make rights your right. Hence the reason why so many people misunderstand what’s meant by right to the city, where the future necessarily stalks the present; horizons open up for the virtual to be glimpsed, for rights to actualize themselves through politics. Virtual theory, as such, isn’t a theory that explains reality, nor even “corresponds” with reality; it’s more a theory that is correct because it enables politics to be correct. It nurtures the correct politics, a robust and possible Left politics: theory here opens up space for a radical politics that hitherto wasn’t there, that as yet has no space. It opens up the vastest and most thrilling futuristic space of all, the noblest of all cloud-cuckoo lands: the continent of hope.

The Matter of Virtual Geographies – Progress in Human Geography Paper Prize

I am really pleased to be able to share that my article “The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies”, published in Progress in Human Geography last year, has been jointly awarded the Progress in Human Geography Best Paper Prize 2015.

One of the great things about this prize being awarded is that the article is now free to read! So, you can read it on the journal website.

If you find the article interesting, you might also like another I’ve written: ‘Memory Programmes’, published in Cultural Geographies, which you can read here (on ResearchGate). I’m also very happy to discuss my work, so please do feel free to get in touch.

Contextualising ‘virtual’ geographies

Following on from the publication of my article in Progress in Human Geography, I wanted to post here some thoughts that didn’t quite fit into that paper but nevertheless feel like a worthwhile contextualisation of the long-running engagement with digital mediation and ideas of a ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber-‘ spaces in geography.

Discussions of alternative or transformed forms of spatiality constituted by computation have spawned a range of names and phrases for those spatial formations. As Pile argued, the descriptions of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the virtual’ are ‘a plurality of clashing, resonating and shocking metaphors’ (Pile, 1994, page 1817). In this post I want to begin to discuss the malleable nature of our descriptions of computation, data and software. In particular it seems pertinent to examine the role of metaphors and how some geographers have addressed that role. Sawhney (1996) describes metaphors as ‘midwives’ that ease new conceptualisations of spatial experience into understanding. However, metaphors that constitute discourses are not politically neutral. If metaphors ‘do things’ as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) assert, what they ‘do’ needs to be explicitly examined.

Paul Adams, Stephen Graham and Ken Hillis all offer examinations of the role of metaphors in understanding the spatial experience of ICTs that are worth revisiting (see also: Graham, 2013):

First, Adams’ (1997) useful review of metaphors in literary treatments of computer mediation identifies three, overlapping, ‘fields’ of metaphors: ‘virtual architecture’, ‘the electronic frontier’ and ‘cyberspace’. Adams argues that, despite fears concerning ‘a metaphor’s power to corrupt’ (1997, page 167), such ‘mythical geographies’ fill in the spaces between established knowledge to form what Tuan calls the ‘fuzzy area of defective knowledge’ (Tuan, 1977, page 86).

Second, Hillis (1999) highlights a background of mysticism to metaphors utilised to describe and explore virtual reality as a ‘cyberspace’. For Hillis, many of the metaphors draw upon understandings of light. Hillis (1999) offers three types of metaphor: virtual reality as a privileged position affording ‘vision’; virtual environments as facsimiles or simulations represented through light, akin to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, and the virtual as an ability to inhabit images as such. Both Adams (1997) and Hillis (1999) postulate a link between the types of metaphors used and the desire to affirm an elevated or omniscient perspective, drawing upon the remote gaze as a tool of imperialism (akin to Virilio, 1984) or the near-omnipotent reach of light to illustrate that desire.

Third, Graham describes the ‘powerful role of spatial and territorial metaphors’ that anchors discourses of ICTs (Graham, 1998, page 165). Graham (1998) identifies a typology of spatial metaphors through which space and place are conceptualised in relation to ICTs: ‘substitution and transcendence’, ‘co-evolution’, and ‘recombination’. Metaphors of substitution and transcendence, echoing Hillis’ (1999) critique, denote replacing physical territory with a ‘virtual’ using new technologies. A co-evolutionary perspective argues that, while remaining separate, both physical and electronic ‘spaces’ are necessarily produced together.

Finally Graham (1998) posits a re-combinative, topological, understanding of socially constructed forms of spatiality that are ‘sociotechnical’ (i.e. linkages between ‘heterogeneous’ actors, including humans, technology and others, formulate spatial experience). Graham (1998), along with Adams and Hillis, identifies the problematic form of Cartesian dualism (a mind/body split) implied by his first category, which also somewhat underlies the second, and the uncritical technological determinism that often accompanies this somewhat fanciful race away from our embodied existence.

Regardless of the apparently ephemeral or amorphous nature of the metaphorical ‘virtual’ or ‘cyberspace’, such evocations are still grounded in a resolutely material register. As Hillis (1999, pages 160-162) notes, language itself is profoundly spatial, and material, in its expression. Writing is the spatialisation of knowledge, what philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls the externalization of thought recorded as ‘tertiary retentions’ (Stiegler, 2007), most frequently orthographic writing (see: Stiegler, 1998), with different technologies of retention using space differently. The expression of ‘virtual’ spaces is, then, always already material in character. Hillis, in an argument similar to Stiegler (1998), presses further, highlighting the reciprocal, yet fragmented, relation between word and world:

language is not only a discrete, concrete thing”¦ Neither is it ephemeral, language can be thought of as an “embodied prototechnology”, both confirming us to ourselves existentially at the level of embodied voice and extending us to engage with the lived world through its symbolic affect (Hillis, 1999, page 161).

Metaphors and neologisms are, of course, not the sole preserve of geographers or, indeed, academics. Of course, much of this work speaks to broader popular (Western), late 20th century interests in ‘telematic culture’ (Ascott, 1990), the creation of ‘artificial experience’ and ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold, 1989, 1998), and the convergence of subaltern cultures experimenting with drugs and computing (Rushkoff, 1994). Alternative, less dyadic, conceptualisations of a ‘virtual’ are also offered by geographers considering the growth of digital mediation. Although perhaps now considered somewhat dated, we might note that ‘cyberspace’ or ‘virtual space’ has not been solely evoked as an abstract alternative realm, as Kitchin (1998) has argued:

Cyberspaces are dependent upon spatial fixity, they are embodied spaces and access is unevenly distributed”¦ cyberspaces do not replace geographic spaces, nor do they destroy space and time (page 403).

Following Adams (1997, 2011), Graham (1998, 2005), Hillis (1999) and Kitchin (1998, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011) we can see how, and perhaps why, metaphors and neologisms are used to describe computer-mediated spatial experience and also how geographers have situated the agency of those terms. Earlier engagements with computation were necessarily speculative and concerned with formulating understandings of nascent or imagined technologies. However, in the last decade the growth in ownership of digital technologies has created case studies of widespread everyday use. Some of these case studies are explored in my recently published article ‘The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies‘.

Some references

Adams, Paul C., 1997, “Cyberspace and virtual places” Geographical Review 87 (2), pp. 155-171.

Adams, Paul C., 2011, “A taxonomy for communication geography” Progress in Human Geography 35 (1), pp. 37-57.

Ascott, Roy, 1990, “Is there love in the telematic embrace?” Art Journal 49 (3), pp. 241-247.

Graham, Mark, 2013, “Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities?” The Geographical Journal forthcoming.

Graham, Stephen, 1998, “The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualising space, place and information technology” Progress in Human Geography 22 (2), pp. 165-185.

Graham, Stephen, 2005, “Software-sorted geographies” Progress in Human Geography 29 (5), pp. 562-580.

Hillis, Ken, 1999 Digital sensations: space, identity and embodiment and virtual reality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Kitchin, Rob, 1998, “Towards geographies of cyberspace” Progress in Human Geography 22 (3), pp. 385-406.

Kitchin, Rob, 2011, “The programmable city” environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38 (6), pp. 945-951.

Kitchin, Rob, Dodge, Martin, 2011 Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Lakoff, George, Johnson, Mark, 2003 Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Pile, Steve, 1994, “CyberGeography: 50 years of Environment and Planning A” Environment and Planning A 26 (12), pp. 1815-1823.

Rheingold, Howard, 1989 Virtual Reality: Exploring the Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds – From Cyberspace to Teledildonics. Mandarin, London.

Rheingold, Howard, 1998 The Virtual Community. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Rushkoff, Douglas, 1994 Cyberia: Life in the trenches of hyperspace Flamingo, London.

Sawhney, H, 1996, “Information superhighway: metaphors as midwives” Media, Culture and Society 18 pp. 135-155.

Stiegler, Bernard, 1998 Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. trans. Beardsworth, R., Collins, G., Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Stiegler, Bernard, 2007, “Anamnesis and Hypomnesis: The Memories of Desire”.) Technicity. Charles University Press, Prague, pp. 15-41.

Tuan, Yi-Fu, 1977 Space and Place: The prespective of experience. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Virilio, Paul, 1984 War and Cinema: The logistics of perception. trans. Camiller, P., Verso, London and New York.

Massumi on theorising ‘relation’ and ‘interactivity’

Brian Massumi speaks in the video interview below (which purports to have been recorded in 2001?!) about the ways in which we might want to think about ‘relation’ rather than ‘interaction’ when considering the design and use of (digital) media. Its interesting to see how much the ‘neural/neurological’ is threaded throughout Massumi’s argument – a condition of that moment in philosophy perhaps…

In particular, for me, Massumi’s proposition of attempting to design for ‘a-modal’ perception is intriguing”¦ sort of like designing for what might be something like ‘nonrepresentational interactivity'(?). The sense of indeterminate relations that Massumi elaborates in this sense is interesting”¦ Erin Manning’s more recent work, especially in Always More Than One, compliments and advances some of this perhaps…

Also, the conceptualisation of (affective) relationality that Massumi describes resonates with recent work in human geography around ‘affective atmospheres‘, in particular in the work of James Ash – especially in his forthcoming book “The Interface Envelope”.

All sorts of interesting stuff, more than I can précis here(!) so worth watching the video:

Via Synthetic Zero.

Stiegler on ‘immateriality’ and ‘virtual spaces’

Following on from my recent post about two new articles, I thought it apposite to highlight a couple of extended quotes from Bernard Stiegler’s work that I think offer a good critical response to the persistent use of the metaphor of ‘virtual space’ and its apparent immateriality. I am posting this as much as a reminder for myself as because I hope it is of interest to others too. I will leave commentary on these passages for another time… Continue reading “Stiegler on ‘immateriality’ and ‘virtual spaces’”

The techno-anthropological virtual

Over on our technophilia blog I recently posted this short introduction and translation of Christian Fauré’s recent commentary on the concept of the virtual:

Last week Christian Fauré, of Ars Industrialis, posted a new blog post concerning what he has called the techno-anthropological virtual. The main substance of his argument, I suggest, is that the conceptualisation of the virtual that we can understand through the work of scholars such as Bergson, Deleuze and Stiegler is founded on technics, as a default of origin for the human. We must therefore understand the virtual in relation to the human as a techno-anthropological issue – it is realised through processes of exteriorisation, as mnemotechnics, and thus intimately bound up with the ways in which human development (becoming) has extended beyond the body-environment relationship and is tied to the creation of organised inorganic matter. The techno-anthoropological virtual is the potentialities that emerge in the associated milieu of trans-individuation, the becoming of assemblages of bodies, technologies and environments, and is concretised in the recording of traces, as language. For humans, then, ‘the virtual’ is the means by which ‘the real’ is articulated and enunciated. Continue reading “The techno-anthropological virtual”