31 Mar

Metageography of the Internet

MediengeographieAn article of mine, entitled “The Metageography of the Internet: Mapping from Web 1.0 to 2.0” was just published in Mediengeographie: Theorie – Analyse – Diskussion.  It’s an amazing collection, with articles from Bruno Latour, Paul Virilio, Lev Manovich, Saskia Sassen, and many more.  Of course, for all of you who don’t speak German, only a few of the articles are actually in English.  Sadly, my ability to converse on a 3rd grade level in German doesn’t allow me to read (or understand) what appear to be fascinating articles.

05 Oct

Pick-Your-Own Internet

red barn pathIt’s fall in New England.  That means farms all over the region are opening their doors to locals and tourists alike to pick over their crops so that they might have that unique New England experience of working for their food.  For only $20, you can get a bag and walk through the orchards and the opportunity to fill the bag with apples.  Hours of fun (labor) for only about 20% more money than picking them up at the grocery store!  And as you walk through the pristine New England orchard and enjoy the crisp fall air, one can’t help but notice the vast amounts of apples that have been discarded for one reason or another that will remain unpicked.

So what is the logic of this pick-your-own phenomenon?  As local farms struggle to eek by in a global food context, turning working farms into a consumer experience has become the economic model du jour.    Hay rides, apple cider, and some good clean labor, rounds out the apple experience during a New England October.  But why are people willing to give up their labor for free?  The answer is simple: the experience of certain kinds of labor is worth paying for, even if it is wasteful.

While gleefully picking my apples at a farm just northwest of Boston, I found myself thinking less about apples and more about the Internet.  Is the reason I’m building up a sweat picking apples the same as the reason I contribute to YouTube, fan sites, or political poles?  Perhaps I’m not giving up my labor for free as much as I’m paying to consume a work experience.  Perhaps the experience of participation is the commodity.  New Media theorist and commentator Trebor Scholz makes a convincing argument that sociable web media is premised on the unequal ideological platform of consumer labor for corporate gain – that users willingly give up their labor to aid a few corporations in profit-making.  But what if it’s not about giving up free labor, but about paying for commodified experience.  The pick-your-own Internet is premised on the assumption that participation is itself worth the price of time – that the experience of contributing to a fan site or a growing database is worth paying for.

As the production economy continues to give way to the experience economy, the pick-your-own Internet will become even more normalized.  Just as a working farm in New England that doesn’t sell the experience of labor will become a thing of the past.

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.

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.

30 Apr

Anti Web 2.0 Manifesto

Just came across Keen’s manifesto against Web 2.0.  There’s something to be said for this counter argument.  Instead of delving into a critique of them, I’m just going to let them speak for themselves.

THE ANTI WEB 2.0 MANIFESTO (Adorno-for-idiots) by Andrew Keen

1. The cult of the amateur is digital utopianism’s most seductive delusion. This cult promises that the latest media technology — in the form of blogs, wikis and podcasts —  will
enable everyone to become widely read writers, journalists, movie directors and music artists. It suggests, mistakenly, that everyone has something interesting to say.

2. The digital utopian much heralded “democratization” of media will have a destructive impact upon culture, particularly upon criticism. “Good taste” is, as Adorno never tired
of telling us, undemocratic. Taste must reside with an elite (“truth makers”) of historically progressive cultural critics able to determine, on behalf of the public, the value of a
work-of-art. The digital utopia seeks to flatten this elite into an ochlocracy. The danger, therefore, is that the future will be tasteless.

3. To imagine the dystopian future, we need to reread Adorno, as well as Kafka and Borges (the Web 2.0 dystopia can be mapped to that triangular space between Frankfurt,
Prague and Buenos Aires). Unchecked technology threatens to undermine reality and turn media into a rival version of life, a 21st century version of “The Castle” or “The Library
of Babel”. This might make a fantastic movie or short piece of fiction. But real life, like art, shouldn’t be fantasy; it shouldn’t be fiction.

4. A particularly unfashionable thought: big media is not bad media. The big media engine of the Hollywood studios, the major record labels and publishing houses has
discovered and branded great 20th century popular artists of such as Alfred Hitchcock, Bono and W.G. Sebald (the “Vertigo” three). It is most unlikely that citizen media will
have the marketing skills to discover and brand creative artists of equivalent prodigy.

5. Let’s think differently about George Orwell. Apple’s iconic 1984 Super Bowl commercial is true: 1984 will not be like Nineteen Eighty-Four the message went. Yes, the “truth”
about the digital future will be the absence of the Orwellian Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth. Orwell’s dystopia is the dictatorship of the State; the Web 2.0 dystopia is the
dictatorship of the author. In the digital future, everyone will think they are Orwell (the movie might be called: Being George Orwell).

6. Digital utopian economists Chris Anderson have invented a theoretically flattened market that they have christened the “Long Tail”. It is a Hayekian cottage market of small
media producers industriously trading with one another. But Anderson’s “Long Tail” is really a long tale. The real economic future is something akin to Google — a vertiginous
media world in which content and advertising become so indistinguishable that they become one and the same (more grist to that Frankfurt-Prague-BuenosAires triangle).

7. As always, today’s pornography reveals tomorrow’s media. The future of general media content, the place culture is going, is Voyeurweb.com: the convergence of
self-authored shamelessness, narcissism and vulgarity — a self-argument in favor of censorship. As Adorno liked to remind us, we have a responsibility to protect people from
their worst impulses. If people aren’t able to censor their worst instincts, then they need to be censored by others wiser and more disciplined than themselves.

8. There is something of the philosophical assumptions of early Marx and Rousseau in the digital utopian movement, particularly in its holy trinity of online community,
individual creativity and common intellectual property ownership. Most of all, it’s in the marriage of abstract theory and absolute faith in the virtue of human nature that lends
the digital utopians their intellectual debt to intellectual Casanovas like young Marx and Rousseau.

9. How to resist digital utopianism? Orwell’s focus on language is the most effective antidote. The digital utopians needs to be fought word-for-word, phrase-by-phrase,
delusion-by-delusion.  As an opening gambit, let’s focus on the meaning of four key words in the digital utopian lexicon: a) author b) audience c) community d) elitism.

10. The cultural consequence of uncontrolled digital development will be social vertigo. Culture will be spinning and whirling and in continual flux. Everything will be in motion;
everything will be opinion. This social vertigo of ubiquitous opinion was recognized by Plato. That’s why he was of the opinion that opinionated artists should be banned from his

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.



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.

10 Apr

Data Detritus

In most instances of online navigation, we retain a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Yet it is clear that every move, every written thought, conversation, or search string, is transformed into data and stored somewhere.  In essence, every thing we do is transformed into data detritus.  We leave data traces behind.  Traces that we expect will be discarded or ignored. 

Data detritus is trash.  And people often have reasonable expectations of privacy when it comes to their trash.  If we put a bag out on the curb, we expect that no one will search through it.  The U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), however, ruled that the police may legally search through your trash.  This ruling has not sat easily with many people.  Five states, including California, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington and Vermont, have provided their citizens with higher levels of privacy as it pertains to trash. 

The question is: should people have expectations of privacy when it comes to their perpetually discarded data?  Are we essentially bundling up our information and tossing it out on the curb to be disposed of?  I would say, yes.  People suspect that their data is private?   Even if it’s voluntarily manufactured in a seemingly "public" place.  Because the concepts of "volunteer" and  "public" are not clear in  many digital contexts, the privacy of trash needs to be reconsidered.

10 Apr

Perceptions of Privacy

I’ve been thinking about how the average web user formulates their conception of privacy.  A lot of people have very personal conversations in "public" online spaces, such as chat rooms and in sites like Myspace, et. al.  Do they have expectations of privacy within these spaces?  If they do, what exactly are those expectations? 

First, I should establish what is normally meant by privacy.  According to Ronald Standler:

Privacy is the expectation that confidential personal information disclosed in a private place will not be disclosed to third parties, when that disclosure would cause either embarrassment or emotional distress to a person of reasonable sensitivities. Information is interpreted broadly to include facts, images (e.g., photographs, videotapes), and disparaging opinions.

OK. But in the context of digital networks, the definition of "private place" is up for grabs.  While most of us would say that any social software platform is not private, it is the case that these systems are designed to cultivate a sense of personalized (thus private) spaces.  I’m not suggesting that they are legally private.  I am suggesting, however, that the perception of privacy cultivated in these online spaces exposes some fundamental problems in the way the law is currently written.  I would argue that these personalized spaces are altering what private space means and therefore forcing a reconsideration of the "reasonable expectation of privacy" concept.

26 Jan

Networked Proximity – Section 3

This post on I d e a n t is worth reading.  Ulises Mejias has posted another section of his dissertation on networked proximity.  His concerns are very close to mine (I’m thrilled that he’ll be coming to Emerson to speak at one our Floating Points events) He’s investigating the relationship between the human and (what Latour calls) the non-human actors in social networks.  In this bit, he updates Engeström’s characterization of social networks as object-centered.  He prefers the term object-oriented because, as he argues, the action is central to network behavior, not the object.  Good point.  But I think this can even be further complicated, in that even actions become objects in networks.  Consider Facebook’s documentation of simple actions.  Changing a picture or updating a profile (actions, all) become objects to be circulated within networks.  Objects, including actions and their human actors, are in fact at the center of social networks.  So maybe it’s right to say object-centered, because as networks grow more complex, the reach and scope of objects grows.

Link: i d e a n t: Networked Proximity – Section 3.

05 Dec

Networked Place

This essay, written by Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg, is an introductory statement on the change role of place in network culture.  They break the work up into six sections: place (simultaneous spaces), mobile place (the rise of the tele-cocoon), real virtual worlds, the network and its sociospatial consequences, geospatial web and locative media, and RFID.  The piece is part of a collaborative book to be published by MIT that will incorporate user comments from the website.  It’s quite a good introduction, borrowing from Friedberg’s recently released Virtual Window, and applying it to the always contentious intersection of networks and lived spaces. 
    The conclusion of the piece provides a nice roadmap of where the larger work will go.  It will explore,

"global connections versus local disconnections, the growth of
environments that allow us to enact simultaneous ‘real’ presence while
engaging in networked forms of tele-presence, producing new forms of
tele-cocooning, the emergence of on-line gaming in virtual worlds that
have become, to its users, quite real, the network as a new form
socio-spatial organization, global information (GIS) and global
positioning (GPS) devices that provide mastery over the mappable globe,
RFIDs that keep track of our position, and the position of our things
in this new globally-networked map."

The key question is how people continue to make places central to their personal and community identifications.  But what this introduction doesn’t exactly address is how networks alter the nature of that identification.  In other words, what counts as a lasting connection in a network?  Certainly, a link is not permanent; how might we conceptualize a meaningful link?  Or a meaningful tag?  Or a meaningful cluster? 

Link: Networked Place.