Archive for place

Urban Spectator

Here’s the cover of my book.  It’s finally going to come out, even though it’s still months away.  The book looks at something I call possessive spectatorship in the American city, a way of looking that doubles as a kind of collecting.  I trace this idea from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, culminating in a discussion of what I call the digital possessive, which is manifested in the Database city – a city with no content other than to grant access to content.  The book covers a good span of American urban history, but I’m careful not to characterize the book as an urban history.  It does not  really tell the history of the American city; however, that history is a backdrop to a history of urban spectatorship.

Urban Communication Meeting

UCF Logo

So I’m down in DC this weekend, not for the cherry blossom festival (although the cherry blossoms are quite nice), but for a board meeting of the Urban Communications Foundation (UCF). We’re meeting today primarily to discuss the nature of the “communicative city.” The question is: what does it mean for a city to excel at communication? Digital infrastructure? Innovative use of public spaces? Safety? Neighborhood cohesiveness, perhaps? The question is important because the foundation is keen on creating another framework by which to judge urban health and prosperity, beyond the typical economic factors. Upon first blush, the concept is nebulous. But with further contemplation, it is seems perfectly logical to insert communication in amongst issues of design, flows, and markets. Of course, communication is implicit to those issues, but by making it explicit, it potentially foregrounds the humanness of each. Designs, flows and markets, while operating within their own internal logics, have an external logic of communication. There is a grammar and syntax to each.

So, what does this all mean? What can an organization with a little bit of money do to alter the course of urbanism? It can lobby local or federal governments to promote healthy communication in cities; it can fund innovative, interdisciplinary research, that can translate to policy white papers; it can promote a certain brand of scholarship through establishing a journal or web presence. It’s an interesting dilemma, really. There is lots of great work being done on issues of urban communication, urban semiotics, etc., but there is a great need for an umbrella organization to mobilize that intellectual work towards real changes in political or cultural priorities. There are some great organizations that currently exist: most notable is the Project for Public Places. They promote place-based growth in cities. Their Great Cities initiative is making great strides to work with actual communities in promoting a certain philosophy of development. The UCF is working towards similar ends; it’s really a matter of how it can compliment work already being done.

The Evolving Concept of Network Locality

Over the last few days, I’ve refined my thoughts on the concept of network locality. Up until this time, I’ve been thinking about how geographical space functions within the connectivity enabled by digital networks. But as I pursued this idea, I began to realize that starting from geography was not the most productive way to approach it. Geography is one component of network locality, but it is not the most powerful, or even the most important. The concept of the local within contemporary culture is a product of two things: access to stuff and mobility. Let me explain:

Access to Stuff is not solely possible via geographical proximity. The local begins from that which is near us. And the sense of nearness begins with that which is accessible. Other people, places, ideas, culture, neighborhood information, if accessible on networks, are near to us. They are what Heidegger called ready-to-hand. Network accessibility makes everything near. We keep our photographs, diaries, correspondences, and work documents on a network, so that they are always accessible, always near. The local emerges from this stuff, both our personal stuff and the stuff of others.

Mobility implies freedom of movement – a freedom made possible by the freedom from the aforementioned stuff. There is a distinct shift that has come with digital artifacts away from ownership and towards possession. Napster 2.0 promises access to everything, without owning any of it. Netflix provides access to millions of DVDs (and now, millions of files), without having to own. Zipcar provides access to automobiles. Google Docs provides access to software. Increasingly, digital networks provide consumers the opportunity to, as Napster’s ad campaign touted, “possess everything and own nothing.” Untethered to stuff, bodies are more free to move around in physical space. Mobility is a product of accessibility. Together, they are rearranging the cultural function of the local.

My argument in this book is that the Internet is being formed by the perpetual manufacturing of local spaces. Access to stuff and the resulting mobility provide the local frameworks through which knowledge, community, and identity get shaped.

Mobile Places

I’ve had this question running through my head for some time now: what’s the connection between mobile computing (i.e. cell phones, PDAs, GPS, etc.) and local computing (neighborhood networking, digital civic forums, etc.)? On first blush, these are entirely separate phenomena. But, the more I consider it, the more I see them as parallel. What is truly significant about mobile computing is, in fact, not computing. What is peculiar about mobile computing, is that the computational device is far less important than what the device enables. The device enables people to move without having to carry along their data. As more and more of our data is stored on placeless networks (from Google to Facebook to Flickr), individuals are more free to move from place to place, with the capability of accessing their data wherever they happen to be. But how does that alter the concept of neighborhood networking? Well, if people no longer need to be tied to their data, we might be able to say the same about places. Places are becoming less dependent on spaces. Data about a place, the stuff that enables a meaningful engagement with space, is also stored in a placeless network and accessible from anywhere. This is not to suggest that space no longer matters; only that space is annotated by mobility. The discussions that take place in online forums, the commentary left by bloggers, the reviews of a local restaurant – all of this data, accessible to the individual from multiple locations, thickens engagement with place.

So I’m trying to say something like this: mobility, a cultural phenomenon enabled by new technologies, is transforming how we think about our cities and local places. While it is by no means pervasive, it suggests a promising model for local and community politics.

Persistence of Presence (Twitter)

Film is based on an illusion of mobility.  ‘Persistence of Vision’ is the way a number of still frames, when moving very quickly through a machine and separated by a black bar, creates the impression of movement.  Cinematic movement is an illusion that is so successful that we hardly question its authenticity.

Twitter

 

It’s for this reason, that I find an interesting correspondence between the primary illusion of cinema and the primary illusion of social media.  But instead of the persistence of vision, we can talk about the persistence of presence.  Consider an application like Twitter – a micro blogging system that encourages users to answer the question "what are you doing?"  (I just wrote a twitter that said I was writing a blog entry about twitter.)  People can then follow other people’s twitters as they periodically declare their activities.  But what’s important about twitter is not the activity, but the declaration of presence.  Regardless of what you’re doing, you’re stating that you’re doing something.  You are present.  Through these periodical instances, trackers construct an illusion of of presence of the person tracked.  While I don’t have constant access to those twitter-ers I track, a comment every few minutes, hours, or even days, assures me of that person’s existence.