Saturday, March 9, 2013

The App is Not the Territory: Representation and the Just City in Personal GIS

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Here's the text from my talk at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2013.  This has been a great, great conference - I'll be writing more about how it's renewing my faith in academic seriousness.

But for now, here's my little contribution:

Michel De Certeau has written . . . “To walk is to lack a place.  It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.  The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place . . .” (2011, 103).  This placelessness has been touted as part of cities’ democratic potential – their placelessness leads to the chance encounter that overturns social barriers and creates new possibilities.

But in cities and across the entire landscape, personal navigation systems are putting this placelessness to rout.  Goals are always at the ready – the best restaurants, the most perfect attractions for the bearer's taste, the places to find one's own kind.  The city may yet appear to be a strange melange, a mix of class and kind without parallel.  But the mobile screen now works to create a different truth – connected to global positioning systems and data networks, the screen labels and divides, inflects the cityscape with information, guides currents of bodies and interest along constructed paths of meaning.

My objects in this study are ‘locative’ applications and the portable platforms they are used through – software like Yelp!, Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Layar, Urbanspoon; the smartphones and tablets by which they are carried through and made to interact with the world; and the Global Positioning System of geosynchronous satellites that fix these networked objects in their landscape.  The most successful and prominent geolocative apps seek to connect residents and travelers with attractions and amenities that meet their desires – for instance, allowing searches for restaurants according to price, style, and location, then providing in the same technological package directions to the destination.  Much of the information in these applications is provided by users, in the form of both basic information and reviews or other commentary on locations.  

However, I must admit that my close reading of these technologies is here going to be very limited, in favor of broader analysis.  Let’s look briefly at a few screenshots to identify features I’ll be building on.  Here’s Urbanspoon, an older app that uses augmented reality technology to place information about restaurants and attractions over the user’s view of the city, as if she were seeing through buildings.  Here’s Yelp!, which emphasizes a deep bench of crowdsourced user reviews, and uses a top-down map view to arrange information – a view that makes us think again of De Certeau, in his description of looking down from a skyscraper: “One's body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law . . . It transforms the bewitching world by which one was 'possessed' into a text that lies before one' eyes.” (De Certeau, 184, pp 92).  Both applications, which use data display formats common to mobile locative applications of all sorts, engage in a rhetoric of mastery, of – to use a phrase rooted in a military context shared with GPS technology itself – total information awareness.

Phenomenologically as well as rhetorically, these applications remove sizeable intangible barriers between places – barriers of information that would in a previous era have been overcome much more haphazardly through personal networks, analog media, and chance encounter.  They strip away the layer of mystery that would have driven the flaneur’s urban exploration, and satisfy desire seamlessly.

However, the technological rhetoric of transparency and mastery advanced by locative apps overshadows a class-inflected blindness symptomatic of the neoliberal network society.  The network society, underpinned by internet and transportation technologies and new regimes of free trade, has rendered places like cities and nations increasingly subordinate to the networked flows between them, and subsumed regional and national class systems to a global logic that intensifies local stratifications and differences (Castells).  Personal GPS reproduces and reifies this stratification within the city, linking points of interest and rendering the spaces between mute and irrelevant.  What falls out of this sorting, what is not worthy of the screenholders' attention, disappears.

Critical Geography:

My interest in mobile GPS and mapping is an attempt to add something, from a media studies perspective, to a discourse that is decades old within the field of Geography – a field which, starting particularly in the 1980s, experienced a massive critical turn, in which what had long been taken for granted as a certain scientific facticity of space and landscape, and their representation, was reconceptualized as the outcome of deeply political and power-inflected social processes.  This turn grew out of and was fed by voices outside of geography proper, for instance Michel Foucault’s lament of the Western bias towards the interrogation of the progress of time over the extension of space, and extolling of the promise of a history of “spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers – from the great strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat.” (Foucault 1980, 149).

Maps are obviously key to this power-inflection of space.  Interventions have been delivered by both an interdisciplinary array of intellectuals deploying cartography as a lens for the social problems of the current era, and by a wholesale critical turn in the field of geography itself.  One standard-bearer was Edward Soja, who in 1989 summarized the necessity of the critical turn.  “We must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spaciality of social life, how human geographies are filled with politics and ideology.” (Soja 2011, p.25)

As an easy example of the role maps play in this process, see how in this medieval map, castles, churches, and the houses of important people were larger, or how in contemporary maps found in the United States, the Northern Hemisphere is always on ‘top’ and North America is always centered.  My distinguished panelmate Sangeet Kumar, in an article in Global Media and Communication, has written about how representations in Google Earth intervene in the debate surrounding the disputed territories of Kashmir, and similar global disputes around places like the Senkaku Islands have only multiplied in the era of globalization.

Writing in 1968, Henri Lefebvre inaugurated the more local demand for what he termed the “right to the city”, which argued for control over space-making as a necessary feature of any truly democratic enfranchisement (Lefebvre 1996).  David Harvey – almost certainly the world’s most famous geographer – addressed the city as a specific problem/nexus of capitalism, and read the efforts of urban planners like Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses as, in essence, acts of class warfare (Harvey 2009).  Harvey emphasized the project of democratic city-making as one that should be collective and communal (Harvey 2008).  

The need for these interventions was acute: used undemocratically, computerized, centralized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) were proven very capable of furthering and accelerating the process of disenfranchisement and disempowerment, for instance when decisions are to be made about the placement of polluting industrial facilities or the distribution of access to amenities.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s geographers pushed hard for greater community involvement in the usage of GIS, though with little consequence.  As to whether smart phones, locative apps, and their crowdsourced “Volunteered Geographic Information” represent a ‘democratization’ of what was once a strictly centralized and largely governmental GIS regime, I unfortunately only have time here to point you to Jose Van Dijck’s great piece “Users Like You,” which unpacks the rhetoric and reality of open access on Youtube.

Compared to issues like territorial dispute and environmental justice, my interest here seems less urgent: the ideology of urbanism, and the phenomenology of the urban experience.  The famous inaugurator of the urban experience was the 19th century city-walker, the flaneur, whose openness to organic, randomized encounter, whose hunger for difference and novelty, was a marker of sophistication.  Personal GIS is the final death knell of this ideal.

The City and the City

A haunting metaphor for the experience of the networked city is found in China Mieville's The City and the City, a Borgesian thought experiment distended into a novel.  Mieville, a Phd-holding Marxist best known for his hallucinatory contributions to the techno-critical subgenre known as steampunk, in this book imagines two Central Asian cities – Ul Qoma and Beszel – that share the same geographic space, but are, in accord with a centuries-old convention, completely functionally and psychically separated.  A citizen of Beszel, for instance, might walk the same street with Ul Qomans, but through the learned ability to 'unsee,' would never interact with them, even in the most subtle ways.  A citizen of Beszel could never enter a shop 'in' Ul Qoma, even if it were physically next door to their house in Beszel.  

Though taken by some as a metaphor for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, The City and the City stands much more easily as an exploration of the new kind of citydwelling produced by neoliberalism and the network society.  Beszel and Ul qoma are separate, and unequal – Beszel struggling in poverty, while Ul Qoma stands within and beside it, rich from commerce.  Just as in real contemporary cities full of homelessness and desperation, passing without seeing is a survival mechanism, a means of avoiding conflict and contradiction and getting about one’s business.

To go from the fictional to the real, we can take my current hometown of Tampa, Florida, where I moved a year and a half ago.  Tampa is a radically stratified and geographically bloated place, whose population is starkly divided between haves and have-nots – here very closely related to the drives and the drive-nots.  There are traditionally segregated neighborhoods in Tampa – places like Channelside and South Tampa where elites can be left undisturbed.  My own neighborhood, though, is more paradigmatic of 21st century distributed urban geography – Seminole Heights, and adjacent Ybor City, are neightborhoods in redevelopment.  I knew within a few weeks of arriving in Tampa where I ‘belonged,’ and a traveler of my social ilk would have known the same thing within a few hours.  This is a map representing the path between places like Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, the Independent tap room, Microgroove Records, Yesterdaze Vintage, the Mermaid Tavern, Tempus Projects art gallery, etc. etc. etc.  What would not show up on a visitor’s map is that Ella’s is right next to a pawn shop, the Mermaid is right next to a used tire store, and across the street from an hourly hotel.  Tampa is two cities, three cities, many cities existing side by side, but the map reduces it to the one you want it to be.

This sort of situation holds in any number of redeveloping neighborhoods in cities from the south to the rust belt, for example in Columbus, Ohio’s Short North, where I really tried to encourage Sangeet to buy a condo a couple of years ago.  These trends, roughly dateable to the mid-1990s, are a reversal of the urban planning realities of the 1960s through 1990s, best characterized by City of Glass, Mike Davis’ poetic study of what he termed “fortress Los Angeles,” in which opaqueness and impenetrability were politicized strategies for dealing with the frictions of urban class disparity.  For Davis, the early projects of the architect Frank Gehry, with their “walled compounds and cities . . . offer powerful metaphors for the retreat from the street and the introversion of space that characterized the design  backlash against the urban insurrections of the 1960s.”  Between those insurrections and the crack wars of the 1980s, there was a powerful, mounting sense of a nationwide confrontation between the forces of urban 'order' and dispossessed, predominantly nonwhite citizens.  This mounting tension culminated in the Los Angeles Uprisings of 1992-1993.

But since that nadir, many urban centers have experienced a change in the social fabric that is, if not total, certainly drastic, and that has significantly altered the nature of the barriers confronting visitors and outsiders.  With the exception of outliers such as Baltimore and Detroit, America's largest cities have experienced almost uncanny drops in the crime rate since 1993.  The phenomenon is still not entirely understood, but it is at least partly underpinned by new technologies and practices of relocation – particularly, GIS-driven ‘smart’ policing which has, in turn, fed a pathological expansion in the relocative prison-industrial complex, removing and neutralizing entire segments of the population seen as foolish enough to engage in open, violent class warfare.

With this oppressive support, urban geography and planning have begun to reflect a superficially gentler mode of class coexistence, primarily characterized by 'urban renewal.'  Though this can often consist of large-scale municipal projects or high-dollar developments, it also encompasses the smaller, fragmentary efforts of middle-income, mostly young, often white professionals to take advantage of inexpensive housing and retail stock in neighborhoods that are no longer perceived as zones of class warfare.  Thus the fortress mentality of high-dollar enclaves in Los Angeles may now be less typical than the appearance of coffee shops and trendy restaurants in struggling neighborhoods now seen as full of ‘potential’.  

They can be scattered geographically and cater to highly specialized social niches.  Smartphone location applications including Yelp!, Foursquare, and Layar are technological corollaries for this re-entry into the city, and of at least some degree of retreat from the late 20th century ‘fortress’ mentality – but, in a classic illustration of the tenets of neoliberalism, the appearance of systemic neutrality – ‘we’re just helping you get where you want to go – is based on, and reinforces, displaced inequality and subtler mechanisms of exclusion.  In addition to the looming shadow of the prisons, these proliferating individualized sites present their own implicit cultural barriers to strangers, visitors, and community members, while creating rich distraction from persistent despair in the urban landscape.

In moving from one of these islands of gentrification to another, with the aid of a locative app like Yelp!, the user is enacting a radical reversal of the ‘global village’ envisioned by Marshall McLuhan and other optimistic thinkers of the network era.  They are using what Mark Graham has termed “virtual portals,” connections of the same sort that connect distant points and drive macro-globalization.  But rather than crafting international connections that shorten long distances, in this case virtual portals erase local space, creating phenomenological shortcuts that craft a different, narrower city out of the variety of raw materials at hand, in a process of very selective collage by which social and economic worlds that share continuous physical space are separated into tiers of varying value and power.

So, while the automobile was perhaps the gravest blow to this democratizing ideology of the flaneur, with its expectation of randomness and joy in experience, personal GIS is its final death. The flaneur is replaced with an elite urban subject who is a strategic neoliberal maximizer.  We are able to instantly determine, in any city where we as the mobile international elite might find ourselves, the right ‘kind’ of places for our ‘kind,’ represented on screens that erase the spaces between them – the spaces of the poor, dirty, and hungry.  Thus the pursuit of pleasure renders us terrifyingly fixed within an informational-social matrix – a prison of excess knowledge.

Conclusions: Writing the City

That a technology promoted as an enhancement to seeing might actually have the effect of hampering it isn’t surprising.  All vision and representation is inherently interpretive, not a progress away from filtration or blockage or distortion, but a choice between the different varieties of modulation and meaning-making inherent in human sociability.  In this sense (not to be too much of an intellectual imperialist) critical cartography is inherently a branch of media studies.  That personal mapping technologies are overwhelmingly capitalist (rather than, like the old maps, statist) is the defining vector of their meaning.

The new city-being-written through the confluence of network technology and mobile locative media echoes in microcosm the global trends in social stratification brought about by networks.  Just as Manuel Castells diagnosed early in the process, the construction of a global ‘network society’ has produced increasing stratification within particular geographic spaces, in the place of differentials between geographic spaces.

Thus, under network regimes that both demand personal GIS systems and are reified by them, the reintegration of cities across various lines of difference may be less relevant to the task of social integration and democratization than it might have been under previous technological regimes.  Through writing networks of difference and similarity – particularly networks of class-inflected taste – into everyday experience, these technologies not only re-map, but re-segregate the new, more physically integrated city of the 21st century.  This amounts to a limitation of Lefebvre’s ‘right to the city,’ insofar as the management and construction of the city is taken out of any public process and into the commercialized meta-spaces of information crowdsourcing.

Locative mapping more generally literalizes or embodies the gap in meaning-making processes between built human space on the one hand, and the broader, delocated social discourses that shape their meaning, on the other.  As with so many media phenomena, this is not a truly new thing entering the world.  Older media regularly pointed towards and lent meaning to spaces at a distance, and often in explicitly commercialized form – through advertising, through restaurant reviews, etc.  But the immediacy of this new mapping draws down substantially greater barriers between particular spaces, circuits, and citizen-customer-users.  As all places become written-on, and particularly as the taste dimension of these places become more and more intensely and rigorously reified, the chance encounters that embody the democratic and discursive possibilities of city life will be further and further curtailed.


medieninitiative said...

Excellent paper, thanks for posting it! In case you are interested, I have posted my own SCMS talk here: I'm hoping (or hoping that someone else has already started) to pull together the SCMS talks that have been posted online, as there were so many great talks, like yours, among the many concurrent sessions. Thanks again for sharing!

David Z. Morris said...

That's a brilliant idea! If you put the list together, could you leave another comment here and I'll make a new post with