Mobile city conference – Stephen Graham on the politics of urban space

On: February 29, 2008
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About Tjerk Timan
During the last couple of years, I have been involved in Industrial Design at the Technical University of Eindhoven, both on the theoretical as well as the physical/practical side, always working on the boarder between the digital and physical. After an internship at Mediamatic, I wanted to get more involved in the digital side of new media. Currently, I am investigating the complex realm of new media [at] the master course New Media, UvA. With a thesis focus now on ‘objects that blog’ within the context of an internet of things, the challenge is to investigate the agency and influence of things. Especially when these things, being digital or physical, are capable of sharing, posting, editing, deleting content. And on who’s account? Within that same line of thought, the digital is often taking itself for granted maybe too much, where often the step towards WHO and HOW data is manipulated is left out of the loop. Taking these things back into the (design) loop is one of my missions, with the statement in mind that the way content is created and consumed has at least as much importance as the technology driving it. Furthermore, I am currently active within the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. Also, I do some occasional freelance work, where disciplines differ from web-design to workshops to product design.


Introduction by Ole Bouman:
At the NAI, values of architecture are defended that we are fond of to defend. Most architects and policy makers do belief that architecture is about shelter and enclosure, occupation and representation. Archiving architecture used to be at the core of the NAi, but it has to look at what is happening with architecture now and look beyond the traditional field. New questions arise about how new technologies affect architecture and what this says about the individual? It is not solely about designing and archiving our world anymore, but also about looking at new possibilities. Discussions with other disciplines here are very valuable.
What happens in the merging of physical and digital space? Is locative media a successor of It is about creating experience in real locations with digital layers. Nowadays GPS phones and ad hoc networks create a new experience of place. This experience of place is no longer only the domain of architecture. Interaction designers, gaming, media makers and artists are now moving into that space. Through architecture, we can define ourselves as human beings. At least, we used to. New technologies are defying these standards, this paradigm. There is fluidity in how we create representation. New, locative technologies empower a nomadic life; new ways to organize our spaces. Is it also affecting the way we look at ourselves? We have to think about our position vis a vis our technologies and societies. Roughly, two kinds of audiences can be distinguished (within the conference); one of curiosity and openness versus one that is procrastinating- hesitating towards technology. This dichotomy is a typical western position. Where modernity may no longer be on our side and technology is at the core of our daily life, we need people to help us conceptualize and define new concepts of urbanity and social interaction.

The book ‘Sentient cities: ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space’ by Stephen Graham is a reflection on politics, locative media and ubiquitous computing. Where technology fuses itself into the background of daily life, all sorts of scenes (art-commercial- governmental etc) are utilizing new technologies and seeking combinations, weaving them into certain directions simultaneously. We are moving towards a society of enacted environments. Phenomena like an internet of things, sensor-databases, biometric sensing, ubiquitous computing, machines linked to senses and databases etc are already dawning. All these infrastructures are constantly at work (or will be working) in the background in cities, arranging all kinds of privileges, possibilities and accesses. We don’t know where these servers are located, how it is stored and who keeps watch of them. All this data decides what we can and cannot do in a city, where we have access, where we can move. All is profoundly political. All levels of this infrastructure are politicized.
Computing is becoming everywhere, urban spaces are brought into being that have a computable layer. A critical question posed is: What is exactly new about this? We need to be aware of our history and the continuities and changes in societies and technologies in order to see the real and important developments.

Three starting points are addressed by Graham:
1. We must completely abandon the notion that there is a real and a virtual world, as if the two were opposed. Instead, we must look at how new media is layering over existing spaces, thus reorganizing them. Graham is building on the notion of Bolter and Grusin; remediation. It is constituted (the virtual) on top of our real world. Remediation is taking place constantly. Remediation of painting, film and television, of cities, houses and streets. The old notion of holographic pods, parallel worlds, cyberspace, does not exist. We are far from it.
2. Cities can be seen to emerge as fluid machines. We have to look at cities as processes. intense connections, constantly mixing. distant proximity and proximate distance in all sorts of ways. All sorts of flows are present in a city (data, people, services, all is about movement). These flows of energy, water, people, information, goods etc all are linked and are constantly influencing each other. Seeing cities as processes, we have to think about how new media fits into the process.
3. We must take a look at when and how technology becomes a part of our infrastructure. Everyone is using technology without thinking about it (like electricity). The most profound technologies are those who disappear into daily life (Mark Weiser). Now politics become important, but less visible.

Socially, these technologies become ‘black-boxes’; they become ‘engineers stuff’. So, what is infrastructure precisely? It is embedded, sunk and transparent into daily life. It links times and spaces. We have to learn how to use it. It has to be based on standards. They (technologies of infrastructure) become only visible when they fail. Graham wants to tell three stories about ubiquitous computing and locative media:
1. consumeration
2. militarization/ securitisation
3. urban activism and democratization

1. consumeration
Is there an ideal friction-free capitalism? Within the control revolution, the commercial world wants to take the internet and fix it down to local geography in order to achieve a data-driven mass costumisation. Exploiting of this possibility will occur very soon, based on a database model (like the Amazon recommendation model). Imagine a real time monitoring of consumers, where all your favorites and bookmarks in physical life are tracing and actively drawing your attention constantly. Layering new media onto the city creates a lot of commercial opportunities. Market places are emerging from mobility, where everyone is having a perfectly tailored capitalism.
An example is a RFID and logistics. If this is to work, users have to adopt – windows for instance has an AURA applications- barcode readers on their phone- an augmented consumption. Try to impose markets where these markets were not possible before. More as a commodity than as a public good. One can, for instance, start to commercialize roads (as an example of capitalizing mobility). This is done by controlling access. Building premium options to bypass nasty things (like congestion). Even adds alter along the way dynamically. Summarizing, some basics of the life of the city will be exploited via locative media.
Another example mentioned is the city center of London and the access to it. Lots of infrastructure is needed to make sure access is denied and offending are fined; mass customization in reverse. It demonstrates the difference in possibilities and politics; they are not defined by the technology, but rather by the politics of dealing with that technology. Even internet-traffic use is prioritized rather than everyone (and all data) being equal. An example of this is an imposed new ‘smart’ internet seen by Cisco, where only prioritized data will be able to travel from computer to computer. Some networks and/or routes will be unavailable for the masses. Another example is call-centers – companies realize that congestion is the problem – when you are deemed profitable, you are granted faster access. This is a new politics of technology.
What happens when architecture, new media and rfid are meeting? Lots of politics and privatized spaces. Location-based services arte the first in showing these politics. Consumer- databases are being used to create ins and outs, have and have-nots. Geography of cities are now managed by geo-demographics. Info about social networks, crime-rated, local governments, recommended neighborhoods and so on are already in use.We will see mayor social databases to influence your choice (when you are literate in this info-world). This underpins politics of data.

2 militarisation/ securitisation
Much in this point is around the war on terror. where the city is deemed the problem, with supposed enemies. How can we use our technology! Panicky in addressing risks in western cities within security world. This is a world of targeting, about locating and targeting enemies. Huge recognition and data mining technologies and biometrics. CCTV and face recognition etc even identifying walking styles. It is always about creating an average, in order to pick our the abnormalities. We move towards code-space and software-sorted mobilities. We are already moving into biometric systems. All of this with the argument to limit terror. Lots of commercial gain here.
About cctv, lots of cameras are privately installed. Security companies and military are investigating how they can be linked together, how they can be computerized? The politics of this are enormous. Think about your anonymity on the streets that would be lost.
Also, the oyster-card for example is mentioned and the misuse of this, typifying the link between commercial and surveillance use. Once the system is in place, it can be used for other purposes than intended. How can you make regulation robust enough to prevent misuse?

As an example, Graham mentions the American army admitting they need a new “Manhatten project” in order to allow tracking and locating targets in asymmetric urban warfare. This is the point where everything becomes war-space. The American army uses non-arguments for make the city a warfare-territory and they need locative media. Lots of these developments are moving into civilian space. One example is the DARPA ‘ combat zones that see’ project, where concepts of smart cams etc. are introduced. It is a techno-utopian fantasy, but one that is becoming more real every day.
Jordan Crandall talks about tracking and tracing technologies that are trying to capture and colonize the future. A war on statistical persons is emerging. Locative media is constantly looking for the now thus is constantly ahead of itself. Militarization views collapse identification and turns it into databases.

3. urban activism and democratization
This point is about reanimating and re-politicizing the city. Deeming with the problem of alienation, can we actually bring urban politics back to rigid social and political questions and interaction? Re-appropriating technology is the key. Sources often start military, then commercially exploited. After that, its real or alternative use must be sought. New social performances strive for re-enchantment, more interactive model of participatory democracy. Graham now quotes from Shivanee: “locative media and the viscosity of space”.
Examples mentioned are tagging the city, like click- able environments, graffiti and physical hyperlinks. Lots of digital collective memory and narratives are emerging in physical space. Also, revealing bodily mobilities e.g. urban tapestries example. Also, examples where the yellow-arrow project is mentioned – guerrilla mapping, re-visioning the streets. The main point is that it is all about visualizing politics of planning in new ways. It is a form of relational architecture where digital interaction can mix with local events. Urban screens are mentioned as a link between internet and real-life city urbanism and space. All these projects attempt to render all the network activity visible. This shows a politics of data and geographies of data. We need to reverse engineer data to understand what is happening and to adjust politics of this data.

Multiple visions of all sorts are struggling with these new technologies of locative media. There maybe some different dynamics, but all are efforts of remediation. Graham argues there is a relationship between these multiple pass- ways, overlaps are to be found. Is there a healthy co-existence of, for instance, the artist and the commercial view? And how will this be shaped? It is about an emerging urban and tech politics. The world of temporality is very important in the process of delegating agency top software? What political and social assumptions go into our software. Making these thing possible is very important.

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