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 â€œYouâ€ the person of the year. As part of what they called a â€œrevolutionâ€ 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 â€œnew digital democracy,â€ the consumer holds the power. â€œYou control the media now,â€ reads a headline, â€œand the world will never be the sameâ€ (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 â€œmash-upâ€ television content. Companies that once clutched to the control of content with all their might, are now saying they want users to â€œmake it their own.â€ 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. â€œIf somebody spends the time to take 20 clips from CSI Miami, I think thatâ€™s wonderful,â€ Moonves said, â€œThat only makes him more involved with my show and want to come to CBS on Monday night and watch my showâ€ ("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. Itâ€™s about hiding the gate and giving everyone the key. In other words, itâ€™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 werenâ€™t coming for pre-programmed content, as everyone thought they would only a few years earlier (Gordon, 2000), they were coming to do things â€“ chat, hang out, share â€œcool stuffâ€ (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 Googleâ€™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 â€œcontrollingâ€ 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 Oâ€™Reilly organized the first conference on what he called â€œWeb 2.0.â€ 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 â€œhomeâ€ 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, â€œThe 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 trendsâ€ (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. Itâ€™s not that users are being deceived, but rather, that they perceive the conveniences of online acquisition, personalized product suggestions, and the pleasure of â€œjust hanging out,â€ 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 vagrancyâ€”multiple IPs, email addresses, online personaeâ€”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 â€œat homeâ€ even within the most public of spaces depends upon the level of personalization available within a given platform.
Marketing researchers are calling this trend â€œsimplexityâ€ â€“ 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 Microsoftâ€™s commercial for its Internet Explorer 7 browser (released January 2006 as that companyâ€™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 â€œstylishâ€ 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: â€œEveryday tasks made easier.â€ 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).
Weiserâ€™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. Appleâ€™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 desktopâ€¦ [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 â€“ 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 donâ€™t need to â€œdial-upâ€ 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, â€œThe Question Concerning Technologyâ€ (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 â€“ browsing, consuming, and talking â€“ have become the visible building blocks of digital environments. Consider Googleâ€™s new â€œsearch historyâ€ option that allows users to view their navigation history, organize it using bookmarks and visualize it through â€œtrends.â€ 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 â€œradicalâ€ 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 â€œ the immediately experienced quality of thingsâ€ is transformed into â€œrelations,â€ 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, â€œthe world as directly experienced becomes a qualitatively unique and plural world of things in interactionâ€ (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 â€œplural world of things in interactionâ€ has become the primary task of network navigation. This is reminiscent of Martin Heideggerâ€™s understanding of modern technology, where instrumental ordering converts the objects and activities of experience into what he calls â€œstanding reserve,â€ a process through which, â€œeverywhere 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 orderingâ€ (1993, p. 220). My-oriented spaces, ready-to-hand and organized to suit my needs, constitute an entry point to this â€œstanding reserve.â€ Within these spaces, data, including my own, is â€œon callâ€ 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 worldâ€”which are being converted into â€œobjects-for-our-useâ€â€”we also become alienated from ourselves. The human subject, according to Heidegger, â€œin the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing reserveâ€¦he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserveâ€ (1993, p. 220).
Heideggerâ€™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 â€œmany more laws restricting the government collection and use of information than laws restricting corporate use of collection and information.â€ (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 arenâ€™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 Hemmetâ€™s pessimism by suggesting that human beings have always been appendages of media: â€œThey must have evolved as its pets, victims or subjectsâ€ (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 Kittlerâ€™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 â€“ 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 Iâ€™m engaged; when Amazonâ€™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 â€œon-demandâ€ requires that there be a subject there to demand something. If we are, as Kittler suggests, merely â€œpetsâ€ 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 â€œchaotic dynamics and emergent structuresâ€ within which networks actually exist.
In this picture of the business of networking, individuals become mere creatures of â€œstanding reserveâ€ with little or no â€œfree agencyâ€ 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 environmentâ€™s understanding of who they are, what they need, who they are affiliated with, etc. In shortâ€”borrowing from Bourdieu (1984)â€” 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 â€“ 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.