15 May

Where is the Where?

I just got back from the O’Reilly Where 2.0 conference in Burlingame, CA this morning. As someone who attends mostly academic conferences, it was both refreshing and disturbing to spend two days with this group. Refreshing because the group was composed mostly of developers, interested in figuring out how to transform the emerging possibility of location aware into a profitable business (and in some cases, productive social activism). This translated into fast-paced presentations and a perhaps constructed sense of commonality in the group – speakers marched on stage, presented their product and marched off. I took vigorous notes (see my del.icio.us links to the right). But with all that incoming information, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed in the lack of dialogue that took place. There was little effort put into backchannels – short of a meebo chatroom that was hardly used – and there was no time devoted to question and answer. The first few talks on the first day had a few questions from the audience, and there were even microphones positioned in the audience, but by the middle of the first day, that pretense had all but dissolved. So, why at a conference devoted to location-based social networking, was the place largely devoid of digitally enabled social networking? It would have been nice for O’Reilly to practice what it was preaching. Sure, we had a robust wi-fi connection throughout the event. But come on, let us talk to one another, the people in the same space, as easily as we can talk to people in the wide open Internet!

While I learned a lot about what some companies are doing in the “location space,” I didn’t hear a lot about why. I didn’t hear a lot about why location-aware computing is necessary, positive, or tranformative. I heard a lot of, “this is uncharted territory,” but not a lot of, “this is important because…” Let’s face it, I don’t need to have a network of computers aware of my location – but as a result of that awareness it just might transform my awareness of x,y and z. Sure, I have some opinions about this subject, but I want to see the developer community engaging with these questions. Software is not just a product, it’s a tool. Constructed needs will decompose eventually unless they are answering something a bit more fundamental. Location aware technology is transforming what we already do – location and place are already important to our personal and political identities. Developers need to act in response to social practices as opposed to acting by constructing social practices to fit a market niche. Ultimately, the market will be more receptive to the former anyway.

28 Apr

Urban Spectator

For the last several months, I’ve primarily been working on revising my book manuscript. And I finally feel as though the introduction is reflective of the text. I’m posting the first few pages here to solicit thoughts or commentary.

On the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, there are dozens of people looking at little screens, typing on little keyboards, with plugs extending from their ears. Each of these people is having a different experience, customized through their personal media. The college student with his iPod selects his music to correspond with the weather and time of day; the businessman types an address into his GPS-enabled phone to find his next meeting; and the tourist stares through her mobile phone camera to capture the Empire State Building in the distance. Mediated by little devices, these people are shaping their experiences of the city. Nicholas Negroponte (1995) famously noted that the world of atoms (our bodies) would no longer need to correspond to the world of bits (data) – that physical proximity would cease to be necessary for public life. But as we can see on that street corner, the world of atoms and the world of bits come together in the city. There is little distinction between the practices of everyday life, and the technologies that enable those practices. The soundtrack, the map, the photograph: these artifacts of the everyday, are constructive of environments. The practices one adopts to navigate and comprehend any space can never be seen as separate from that space.
New communication technologies complicate accepted notions of urban life, including the nature and scope of public interactions and the corresponding design of the built environment. Can one truly be engaged in public space if they are looking through a viewfinder or tapping sweet nothings with their thumbs on tiny keyboards? Can the city, as an entity, continue to matter when digital networks enable public gathering without requiring the public to gather in physical space? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.” The modern American city has never been bereft of these complications – from the hand held camera at the end of the nineteenth century to the mobile phone at the end of the twentieth, the city has always been a mediated construct. The city enters into the cultural imaginary as a hodgepodge of disconnected signifiers, often organized by the technologies that produce them. When Kodak introduced its hand camera in 1888, it provided a tool for people to record and retain experiences through visual reproduction. Photographers produced images and, even more importantly, possessed them and organized them to manage their memories. Likewise, when Google introduced its mapping software in 2004, it enabled people to record and retain experiences by marking places on a map, keeping notes and connecting images. Google Maps has been implemented as both a wayfinding tool and a personal organizing tool; through its simple interface, it serves to manage an individual’s understanding of space. Communication technologies certainly produce new information about the world; but they also have the facility to organize that information through the literal or metaphorical storage capacity of photo albums or archives. They provide the spectator the unique opportunity to at once experience space and possess its traces.

These traces, and their inherent possibilities, have substantially altered the nature of media and urban practices in the twentieth century. I call the spectatorship structured around the desire for possessing these traces, possessive spectatorship – a way of looking that incorporates immediate experience with the desire for subsequent possession. And while this phenomenon has had implications for the modern city in general, in this book I describe how it has been uniquely important for the American city. What’s distinctive about the American context is the timing in which the city becomes central to the cultural imaginary. The American city grew up in parallel to the technologies that enabled its possession. Not until the late nineteenth century, corresponding to the introduction of the handheld camera and the cinematograph, did the American city take on a meaning outside of mere urban concentration. Prior to that time, while cities were of course present in America, they did not present themselves as unique constructs. I argue that emerging media practices transformed urban practices by naturalizing the notion that individual spectators could not only see the city, but also possess it. And most importantly, I argue that this spectatorship altered the material shape of the city as urban plans were drafted to meet the expectations of a spectator eager to take control of the city’s assembly.

26 Feb

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.

08 Jan

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.

04 Jan

Urban Informatics

Journal coverA special issue of Information, Communication and Society just hit the stands and it’s worth a mention here. Yeah, yeah, I have an article in it, but more importantly, it’s a fantastic collection of work on the topic of “Urban Informatics: Software, Cities, and the New Cartographies of Knowing Capitalism.” Here’s the table of contents:

  • Mike Crang & Stephen Graham, “Sentient Cities: ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space”
  • Rowland Atkinson & Paul Willis, “Charting the ludochrome: the mediation of urban and simulated space and the rise of the flaneur electronique”
  • David Beer, “Tune out: music, soundscapes and the urban mise-en-scene”
  • Michael Hardey, “The city in the age of Web 2.0: a new synergistic relationship between place and people”
  • Eric Gordon, “Mapping digital networks: from cyberspace to Google”
  • Simon Parker, Emma Uprchard & Roger Burrows, “Class places and place classes: geodemographics and the spatialization of class”
  • Andy C. Pratt, Rosalind Gill & Volker Spelthann, “Work and the city in the e-society: a critical investigation of the sociospatially situated character of economic production in the digital content industries in the UK”
  • Nicholas Pleace, “Workless people and the surveillant mashups: social policy and data sharing in the UK”

Unfortunately, IC&S is not available online, so these articles might remain obscure to those without access to a research library. Seems a shame, especially considering the theme of the issue. We might be closer than ever to urban data, but academic knowledge remains quite distant.

That aside, it’s a privilege to have my work included in this excellent volume. And as I read through the journal and familiarize myself with the various projects, I hope that the issue sparks a greater debate about the politics of urban informatics – its potential benefits to democratic engagement and its potential risks to personal privacy and freedoms.

10 Dec

Situated Technologies

Situated TechnolgiesThe reception for the new Situated Technologies pamphlet series is taking place this Friday at the Urban Center in New York City. I really wish I could be there, but with the end of the semester fast approaching, I won’t be able to get away. This looks to be an amazing pamphlet series that will surely spark some necessary connections between urbanists, architects, technologists and media producers/critics.

BTW, the first release by Adam Greenfield and Mark Shepard, entitled Urban Computing and Its Discontents is available here as a free download.

13 Apr

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.

01 Feb

The Animated Menace

Yesterday, the city of Boston practically shut down because a transit worker spotted a "mysterious device" beneath a freeway overpass.  The Orange Line trains were halted at three stops, highway 93 was shut down, and later in the day, another subway line, two bridges, and a river were blocked.  As it turns out, the transit worker spotted a piece of "viral" advertising for the Cartoon Network’s "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."  While seeing a piece of electronic equipment with a battery and some wires protruding from its backside might understandably raise concern, one would think that after noticing it was a light bright with a cartoon character on it, that the panic would have subsided.  But it didn’t.  The panic continued throughout the day as people noticed more of these things (that had been around for weeks already) across the city.  We were under attack, and this time by some bomber with a taste for animation. 

By the late afternoon, Turner Broadcasting System (the owner of the Cartoon Network) announced that the mysterious packages were in fact theirs, and they apologized for the misunderstanding.  In the wake of these events, two men are in jail, the mayor of Boston is pissed, the city invested $500,000 to stop the animated menace, and a lot of people feel ridiculous.  But, something else happened on that frightening last day of January – we were introduced to the limits of convergence. 

The media are not boundless.  The intersection between everyday life and entertainment got tangled yesterday.  While for some, it is quite natural to see  fictional narratives extended into social and physical space (either in MySpace or their cell phones), to others, not as tuned to persistent media  streams, these physical tags are still disruptions.  Slight alterations to the physical environment, for a public still reeling from 9/11, can be a significant rupture in the precarious construction of personal safety.   Physical tags, either in the form of ads or messages need to correspond with existing manifestations of normalcy.  Just like in digital space, tags (or ads) are expected to correspond with personal search habits, so in physical space, these tags only work if they perpetuate existing perceptions.

This poses a problem for advertisers who want to interject their message in a complicated stream of messages.  But, it goes to show you that shock ads don’t work in a culture conditioned to smaller and smaller worlds within personalized marketing niches.  Disruption only works when it’s not really a disruption.  Small electronic devices on major infrastructural sites is a disruption.  Do I need to say, duh. 

30 Jan

The Social Life of Objects

This wired news post from imomus is a delightfully skeptical take on ubiqcomp (or some variety of the term).  He questions the relative value of these technologies and makes an argument that is reminiscent of Georg Simmel’s notion of the "blasé attitude."  The ubiquity of information-laden objects might, in fact, reduce a subject’s ability to "experience" the environment.  In his words:

Last year I coined the slogan "ubiquity is the abyss" to argue that the total accessibility of pop music in our current environment was killing the medium. Could the same thing apply to physical objects themselves, when — if — the time comes that they’re all ranked, uniquely named and located? Could objects have their finest and final hour at the same time, as recorded music seems to be doing right now?

The programming of objects, he suggests, might lead to the destruction of object-ness.  What we interact with is the hierarchy of data as opposed to the physicality of the object.  We order data instead of experiencing things.  In other words, what Bruce Sterling calls a spime (the data traces that accompany each object), or even what Julian Bleeker calls a blogject (the automated data creation of non-human actors), are the new "things." 

Link: Wired News: All the World’s a Tag.

08 Jan

Thoughts on MyCity

Below is a working draft of the introduction to the last chapter of my book.  It concludes an extended argument about radical empricism in urban spectatorship.

The Digital Possessive:
Social Mapping and the Personal Ordering of Urban Experience

In 2006, Time Magazine named “You” the person of the year.  As part of what they called a “revolution” in networking technology, they described how the new Web is ushering in a culture of participation where users are just as likely to consume as they are to produce.  Americans are contributing to wikis, keeping their own blogs, writing reviews for Amazon.com, keeping their photo albums on Flickr, and making movies to post on Youtube.  In what Time calls the “new digital democracy,” the consumer holds the power.  “You control the media now,” reads a headline, “and the world will never be the same” (Grossman, 2006).  This is a rather strong declaration, especially coming from a major media company.   Why would Time Warner proudly declare that they no longer control the media?

Time Warner is not alone in this.  In January 2007, CBS announced that users could clip, share, and “mash-up” television content.  Companies that once clutched to the control of content with all their might, are now saying they want users to “make it their own.”  Leslie Moonves, the chief executive at CBS announced his support for this strategy because it gives the network the ability to tap into the passion of dedicated viewers.  “If somebody spends the time to take 20 clips from CSI Miami, I think that’s wonderful,” Moonves said, “That only makes him more involved with my show and want to come to CBS on Monday night and watch my show” ("Cbs to let viewers use, post clips from shows on the web", 2007).  This is not a capitulation; on the contrary, Moonves, along with many other top exectutives at networks, are realizing that the rules of the game have changed.  Control of content is no longer just about being the gatekeeper.  It’s about hiding the gate and giving everyone the key.  In other words, it’s about giving users the perception of autonomy and blurring the boundaries between free play and consumption.

This transition has been years in the making.  After the dot-com bubble burst, the commercialization of the Web continued, but in a much more cautious and orderly fashion.  The flood of money into new ventures all but dried up as venture capitalists sat back and watched users continue to populate cyberspace.  This time, however, they weren’t coming for pre-programmed content, as everyone thought they would only a few years earlier (Gordon, 2000), they were coming to do things – chat, hang out, share “cool stuff” (Weinberger, 2002).  Digital networks were taking on a different character.  In 2002, the social networking site Friendster was an overnight success.  And with the popularity of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and Google’s IPO also in 2004, the consumer web was making a comeback. Of course, when the video sharing site, YouTube, went from start-up in February 2005 to commanding a $1.65 billion purchase price from Google in November 2006, it became quite clear that there was big money in no longer “controlling” the media. 

These content aggregators, or flexible depositories of user-generated content, came to define the new Web by giving users control of the media they produce and consume.  The technological and cultural phenomenon found a name in 2004 when Tim O’Reilly organized the first conference on what he called “Web 2.0.”  The term has since become the most recognizable designation of new trends in the new Web.  According to Bryan Alexander, it is modular, semi-automated and distributed. 

Blogs are about posts, not pages. Wikis are streams of conversation, revision, amendment, and truncation. Podcasts are shuttled between Web sites, RSS feeds, and diverse players. These content blocks can be saved, summarized, addressed, copied, quoted, and built into new projects. Browsers respond to this boom in microcontent with bookmarklets in toolbars, letting users fling something from one page into a Web service that yields up another page (Alexander, 2006, p. 35).


Instead of a network composed of connected pages, the Web, thusly conceived, is composed of connected users, all of which create, share and distribute content. Unlike the traditional homepage that served as a somewhat permanent “home” for Internet users during the early days of the Web, users now interact with networks through a series of access points: search engines, blogs, and social software platforms.  And young people are leading this trend.  According to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, fifty-five percent of American youth between the ages of twelve and seventeen use online social networking sites (Lenhart & Madden, 2007).  According to Chris DeWolfe, one of the founders of MySpace, “The Internet generation has grown up, and there are just a lot more people who are comfortable putting their lives online, conversing on the Internet and writing blogs.  This generation grew up with Napster and the iPod.  We are trying to exploit those macro trends” (Cassidy, 2006).  By all accounts, MySpace has become the industry leader in exploiting those trends.  In giving users personalized access to networks, they were able to create the impression of stability and control.  Hundreds of other Web companies are following suit by adding a possessive adjective to their access points (i.e. my page, my box, my favorites, etc.) and giving users the ability to adjust their self-presentation within the design constraints of the configurable space. 

The personalization and temporary occupancy of online spaces produces user behaviors where marketable details of personal data are exchanged for the convenience and acquisitive potential of network interaction.  It’s not that users are being deceived, but rather, that they perceive the conveniences of online acquisition, personalized product suggestions, and the pleasure of “just hanging out,” as outweighing the potential threats of data harvesting and surveillance.  Whoever or whatever is watching is inconsequential as long as the user can maintain a reasonable amount of control over their personalized network portals.  Moreover, techniques of digital vagrancy—multiple IPs, email addresses, online personae—suggest that private space is wherever we happen to be. Perceptions of control are no longer guaranteed by contractual agreements between users and institutions, but are instead manufactured by the conditions of adaptability within interfaces.  The ability for individual users to feel “at home” even within the most public of spaces depends upon the level of personalization available within a given platform.

Marketing researchers are calling this trend “simplexity” – the user desire for simple interface solutions to complex media.  While simplicity in the design of technology dates back decades, many market analysts are noticing changes.  According to Ann Clurman, a senior partner at a major marketing firm, "Simplicity is evolving into its next iteration.  The need for simplicity comes from an overarching need to be in control of your life. And that’s not going away" (Mahoney, 2006).  This is demonstrated in Microsoft’s commercial for its Internet Explorer 7 browser (released January 2006 as that company’s attempt to enter the Web 2.0 market).  A man runs through his daily routine: brushing his teeth, buttering toast, and feeding the cat.  But instead of using a toothbrush, a knife and a can opener, his bare hands take on the these tasks.  He steps outside in his bathrobe to take out the trash and sees a very attractive female mail carrier approaching on a bike.  He uses his hands to transform his bathrobe into an ironically “stylish” seersucker suit.  He then frames the woman with his hands, snaps an imaginary photograph and pulls a Polaroid from his wrists.  The commercial concludes with the caption: “Everyday tasks made easier.” Within the always-on culture of network communication, users have become dependent on the technology that enables their access to people and things.  Accordingly, Microsoft is not only selling access to the network, they are selling freedom from the anxiety that goes along with being detached from the network. 

As technology is increasingly designed for correspondence with everyday tasks, the technology itself becomes less important to consumers. Mark Weiser, the Xerox PARC scientist, called this phenomenon ubiquitous computing.  In ubicomp, as it often called, computation is an instrumental technology to assist in accomplishing other tasks.  According to Weiser:
A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, I mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool. Eyeglasses are a good tool — you look at the world, not the eyeglasses. The blind man tapping the cane feels the street, not the cane. Of course, tools are not invisible in themselves, but as part of a context of use. With enough practice we can make many apparently difficult things disappear: my fingers know editing commands that my conscious mind has long forgotten. But good tools enhance invisibility (1993).

Weiser’s characterization of ubicomp has become central to the big business of consumer networking.  Technologies are steadily inching towards invisibility, with smaller and smaller devices and simpler and simpler interfaces.  Apple’s iPhone is a significant move in this direction.  The announcement in January 2007 of the multi-function device that operates as a phone, camera, and music player, with all the functionality of the Mac OS, prompted declarations of a paradigm shift from industry leaders.  According to Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster,

Cyberspace was a wonderful thing, but the only place you could enter cyberspace from was your desktop… [The iPhone] isn’t the next computer.  This is the next home for the mind. Computers have had a nice long run, and laptops will always play at least some role. But the center of gravity is now slowly shifting from the desk to the device in your pocket [italics added] (Calore, 2007).


Indeed, as minds move into networks, the ways in which bodies inhabit space are changing.  These changes can be understood through an emerging form of spectatorship that I call the digital possessive – a way of looking that has significant implications for spatial consumption and the construction of American urbanism.  In the last chapter, I described how consumer spaces are being presented as databases from which users assemble parts to comprise meaning.   From the perspective of the digital possessive, the database is no longer external to the user.  Users don’t need to “dial-up” to access the information.  It is always on, always accessible, and available for others to see.  The database has entered the network; the complex composition of urban space, once relegated to individual interpretation, is now both collectively composed and composed from the data traces of the collective.

In this chapter, I describe how the digital possessive is transforming urban spectatorship.  As consumers are given control of content and the ability to order and assemble that content within networks, they are transforming urban spaces into platforms for social networks. This phenomenon is made literal through the near ubiquity of network maps.  Plotting information, people and events in representations of physical space has become a powerful way to simplify the complexity of networks. While the map has been around in various forms since the start of the Web, the 2004 release of Google Maps has propelled the map from a simple tool to a fundamental organizing principle of the network culture. And the functionality of the map has extended well beyond the desktop.  As mobile devices become the arbiter of network navigation, the ordering of data into personalized portals is taking place in both real and digital space (Ashbrook, 2006).

The Digital Possessive

An ordered world is not the world order.
–Martin Buber, I and Thou (1970: 100)

So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.
Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1993)

The digital possessive is more than just a user-centered approach to the world.  It implies a different kind of access to the sensations and experiences that compose the world.  The immediate assimilation of perception (what Walter Benjamin called Erlebnis) into a comprehensible experience (Erfahrung) has been programmed into computer networks. What once were the invisible traces of social life – browsing, consuming, and talking – have become the visible building blocks of digital environments.  Consider Google’s new “search history” option that allows users to view their navigation history, organize it using bookmarks and visualize it through “trends.”  The connective tissue between objects, the searches and networks that assimilate data into meaningful organizations, has itself become the object of engagement.  Therefore, the relations between things, those that justified the “radical” in radical empiricism, are no longer radical.  Relations have become empirical in the traditional sense.  They are fully visible and accessible phenomena for the spectator to assemble in the process of composing her experience of networks. 

In describing radical empiricism, the philosopher Richard Mosier suggests that,

We have transcended the immediately experienced qualities of things and passed to their relations; and this we can only do if we assume that we are not mere passive spectators separated from reality by a screen of phenomena, but are ourselves active participants in the process itself (1952, p. 413). 


Mosier, writing over fifty years ago is describing the business model for Web 2.0.  The user becomes an active participant in cultural consumption and content or “ the immediately experienced quality of things” is transformed into “relations,” or the shared, commented-on, and mashed-up.  Content within networks is never outside of its relations.  From movies on YouTube, to pictures on Flickr, to news stories that get posted and analyzed on multiple blogs, to friends in a MySpace network, relations provide the necessary scaffolding for traditional content.  Consider the life of a typical news story.  The New York Times publishes an article, it gets bookmarked, blogged, and clipped, and in no time, a context of interpretation is built around it.  In many cases, users encounter reactions before they encounter the catalyst.  While cultural discourse has long followed this pattern, as Mosier explains, “the world as directly experienced becomes a qualitatively unique and plural world of things in interaction” (1952, p. 414), digital networks increase the extent to which this plurality is observable.   

The digital possessive is the network manifestation of radical empiricism.  It can be described in two parts. It is the transformation of relation into observable and lasting objects: in digital networks, relations are material.  And it is the ordering of those objects within personal interfaces.  For example, at any given moment, a MySpace page is the externalization of the subjectivity of the user.  It is where objects, widely conceived, are organized into comprehensible experiences.  To be clear, this externalization does not replace the experiencing subject; it only extends the processes of experience into networks.   

These external processes require maintenance.  As every personal action leaves a data trace, what once was only a fleeting sensation to be immediately experienced by another subject, is now materialized into the network to be ordered by human and machine.  As a result, the ordering of the “plural world of things in interaction” has become the primary task of network navigation.  This is reminiscent of Martin Heidegger’s understanding of modern technology, where instrumental ordering converts the objects and activities of experience into what he calls “standing reserve,” a process through which, “everywhere everything is ordered to stand by to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering” (1993, p. 220). My-oriented spaces, ready-to-hand and organized to suit my needs, constitute an entry point to this  “standing reserve.”  Within these spaces, data, including my own, is “on call” and can be ordered and reordered in line with my emerging interests and needs.  Now that my search history is ready-to-hand, it is just as much a part of my orderable world as my favorite movie or favorite song.  Heidegger makes clear that this process of converting experience into data implies a double loss:  as (formerly) stable subjects, we not only become alienated from objects in the world—which are being converted into “objects-for-our-use”—we also become alienated from ourselves.  The human subject, according to Heidegger, “in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserve…he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (1993, p. 220).

Heidegger’s rather bleak formulation of technological subjectivity would seem to be manifested in every act of network consumption.  In fact, the consumer data collection industry in the United States spends millions lobbying against more restrictive data policies.  According to Bruce Schneier, an expert on computer security issues, the United States has “many more laws restricting the government collection and use of information than laws restricting corporate use of collection and information.” (Dash, 2005)  The centralization of information in the hands of government is still seen as the largest threat to individual agency.  This friendly climate in the United States toward personal data collection by corporations suggests a willingness to be monitored as long as it results in the convenience and perceived control of consumerism.  For instance, just as most major retail outlets monitor consumer habits for future marketing campaigns, consumers have come to expect the resulting convenience of that surveillance.  If you want to return something purchased at a different store, you expect the data to be networked; if you lose a receipt, you hope that the store has kept your records.  Regardless of the threats that accompany this compromised privacy, the payoffs are much more immediate.  According to Drew Hemmet, this user desire is a deliberate product of the market that extends into every aspect of culture.

The increasing centrality of surveillance systems to the commercial sector suggests a new role for surveillance, that of not controlling deviancy, crime or terrorism but of managing consumption, producing not docile subjects so much as better consumers, the imperative of efficiency applied not just within commercial enterprises themselves, but throughout the cultural domain (2004).


Not a day goes by when we aren’t ordering the world for consumption.  From reading to driving to dating, data, even if not always accessed, is always accessible.  Within this framework, it is possible to say that we are not using the technology; it is using us. 

Media theorist Friedrich Kittler underscores Hemmet’s pessimism by suggesting that human beings have always been appendages of media: “They must have evolved as its pets, victims or subjects” (Kittler, 1999).  Technologies are not simply tools to aid in human endeavor; once their function becomes naturalized, they define human endeavor.  Geoffrey Winthrop-Young describes Kittler’s position this way:

This does not mean that computers are artificial human brains, or that they digitally ape specifically human ways of thinking.  Rather, they optimize certain patterns of information processing that were also imposed on human beings but subsequently were mistaken to be innately human qualities.  Where subjects were, there programs shall be – because programs were there in the first place. (Winthrop-Young, 2000)


In accordance with this, we might conclude that self-ordering is an apperceptive phenomenon, a state of consciousness that precedes any engagement with specific machines.  This is not difficult to imagine.  When I log on to my email, I do not perceive that I am being ordered by the network with which I’m engaged; when Amazon’s bot recommends products, I do not perceive that the message is a result of my navigation patterns being abstracted and reprocessed as original communication.  But as every subject of technology is a subject of ordering, it is difficult to understand technology as a tool used to accomplish something befitting of an already established subject.

And yet, the majority of digital technology (for storage or communication) is built and marketed as just that.  The structure of narrative, even the existence of content, is premised on individual subjects acting upon the technology: games, interactive narratives, even advertising that requires a click to activate. A defining feature of digital technology is its adaptability, its customizability.  The concept of “on-demand” requires that there be a subject there to demand something.  If we are, as Kittler suggests, merely “pets” of technology, then why is technology treating us like its master?  Why does it allow us to feel in control of the network?  The answer is simple: user control is the primary product of online social networks. But according to media theorist N. Katherine Hayles,

The very illusion of control bespeaks a fundamental ignorance about the nature of emergent processes through which consciousness, the organism, and the environment are constituted.  Mastery through the exercise of autonomous will is merely the story consciousness tells itself to explain results that actually come about through chaotic dynamics and emergent structures (1999: 288).


Users want to be able to order the world to suit their needs while staving off the “chaotic dynamics and emergent structures” within which networks actually exist.
In this picture of the business of networking, individuals become mere creatures of “standing reserve” with little or no “free agency” to manage or determine their fate.  And yet, it is clear that users maintain considerable control over the ordering work through which they constitute their online presence(s) and sense of place. The private sphere of personalized spaces and encounters is experienced as a kind of dwelling or inhabitance structured by the deliberate ordering actions of the individual.   User tastes and preferences, the data traces they leave in the system(s), and the work of software algorithms, provide reflexive feedback to users concerning the environment’s understanding of who they are, what they need, who they are affiliated with, etc.  In short—borrowing from Bourdieu (1984)— through practices of navigation, choice, and assembly, users construct an online habitus:  a nexus or point of intersection between the objective conditions of business models and software design and their own desires, expectations, and commonsense understandings of the nature of network interaction. 

    The digital possessive is the spectatorship that emerges from this negotiation.  It is the commercial product of networks filtered through the agency of users.  While the digital possessive can be seen in all aspects of network culture, it is manifested most acutely (and literally) in the phenomenon of digital mapping.   As everything from driving directions to television content to social networks is plotted onto pliable maps for personal and network consumption, the act of ordering becomes central to the production of spaces – both digital and physical.  In the remainder of this chapter, I look at how mapping technologies and practices have enabled the transition of the digital possessive from the desktop to the street.