Panel Preview

JoAnne McNeil (@jomc)

Hashmod: Lauren Burr (@burrlauren)

This is one post in a series of Panel Previews for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference (#TtW14) in NYC. The panel under review is titled Streetview: Space, Place, and Geography

It is difficult, if not impossible to talk about the Web without using physical metaphors to describe digital configurations. “The Web” after all isn’t really a web at all… Or is it? Offices, hydroelectric dams, bodies, and miles upon miles of interconnecting strands of copper, fiber, and electromagnetic signals makeup this amorphous thing that we call The Web. The panelists in Streetview aren’t talking about metaphors but are actually illuminating and revealing the physical contents and infrastructure of the web. Sites that seem  ephemeral and intangible to most of the world, are real flesh and mortar offices for a select few. It is this select few that gentrify entire metropolitan regions and run server farms that consume a city’s worth of fossil fuels. The Web is also deeply enmeshed in our own lives as it serves up wayfinding tools and documentation repositories.

Tim Hwang (@timhwang) An Urban Geography of the Web Industry
Because they are accessible from anywhere, connect individuals across great distances, and infrequently disclose their geographic origins, web services are often discussed as if they exist “on the Internet” alone.

What is often missed in the popular discourse is that the web industry has a very real geographic dimension. Insofar as they are corporations requiring offices, employees, and investors to thrive, the popularity of web services in the past decade can be connected to concrete changes in the built landscape of cities throughout the United States. These changes, in turn, have produced important distributive consequences along socioeconomic, gender, and racial lines.

This paper aims to connect the unique economic characteristics of the web industry with the political and economic conditions they produce in urban spaces. The project is two-fold. We aim to first develop a framework that helps to better understand the geographic effects of the internet industry. Then, based on this understanding, our objective is to suggest design principles for urban policy that broadly distributes the benefits of the industry while mitigating its harms.

Specifically, the paper will focus on three aspects of the web economy. First, it will examine how the demands of venture capital produce business ecosystems characterized by rapid, unpredictable corporate growth. We in turn connect this to the tendency of the web industry to produce large migrations of transient technology workers into urban areas, and the resulting impact on incumbent residents. The paper will distinguish these shifts from industries in which slower growth may encourage better integration of a new industry into the urban social fabric.

Second, the paper will examine how the network effects create winner-take-all outcomes in the internet industry, particularly in “social web” applications which gain in value as more users join a platform. We link this to the emergence of political environments in which local and state governments are confronted by a small set of powerful business interests with largely similar policy preferences. This paper will suggest that this shapes regional policy in a way distinct from one in which governments face a more fragmented industry.

Third, we will examine the localized effects of the web industry, arguing that unlike technologies that create broad follow-on employment across a range of different skill levels, web applications produce disproportionate, narrowly distributed gains within a population. We argue that this dynamic emphasizes existing problems of urban inequality, and raises a host of policy issues in ensuring that the economic benefits of the web industry are broadly distributed in a region.

Moving beyond a theoretical examination of these matters, this paper will rely on San Francisco as a living case study in how these market characteristics shape neighborhoods, cities, and metropolitan regions. The paper will use a blend of interviews, urban planning data, and observational studies to inform the analysis. As other urban regions attempt to imitate the successes of Silicon Valley, our belief is that the lessons from such a study will become ever more salient and generalizable over time.

Sarah Jaffray (@artphilled) Aesthetic Action: Instagram’s Technogeographies of Resistance
Heavily influenced by de Certeau’s ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ and inspired by Bataille’s notion of ‘aesthetic action’, this paper deals with Instagram as a background for a communal cartography that has the potential to create ‘geographies of resistance’ (Steve Pile). It seeks to understand our contemporary pictorial turn, which is driven by our dependence on maps and our increasing use of the photograph as a method of communication. What potential does this paring have in the formation of our world? Connected to the locative media (GPS) of the app Foursquare, Instagram the world’s most used photographic app, becomes a map through which the potentiality of new spaces can be realized.

The research for this paper incorporates human geography, new media and political resistance aligning them with certain post-structural theories of Deleuze and Guattari, Barthes (Camera Lucida) and Foucault (Heterotopias). Beginning with an explication of our current visual culture the paper then leads into an analysis of mapping and counter-mapping practices linking them to the act of smart phone photography. It examines the implications of the geo-tag as a method of sharing within social media and it attempts to prove that equipped with photo-sharing applications, the photographic documentation of the smart phone both consumes and produces a new conception of site, creating wholly new spaces, which can be called technogeographies. This term is appropriated from Simondon’s conception of a location where machine/technology create a connection between ‘two geographies’ that once had no connection. Applying the term to the role of Instagram in the recent protests of Brasília and Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the paper then explores these new ‘third spaces’ as counter-maps to the established laws of ownership by state and economic forces. The result of the research is to prove that Instagram’s photography is a method of counter-cartography that re-constructs our notions of shared space through the communal consumption of the photograph as mapped co-ordinate.

More eccentric than extreme, Instagram has the potential for subversivity, which is defined “as a disruptive attitude that tries to create openings, possibilities in the ‘closedness’ of a sysem. . .as a result, [it] more closely resembles cultural activism than political praxis” (De Cauter, ‘Notes on subversion/Theses on Activism’). My hope for this paper is to provoke a shift in the modality of Instagram (and, in future, apps like it) from photo-sharing social network to counter-cartographic device that can ‘prime’ a resistance to the traditional delineations of border and capital imposed on our social spaces.

Mathias Crawford (@mfcrawford) Procedural Communities: Post-War Los Angeles and the Rise of the Network Self
For many the rise of ICTs during the 1960s and 70s are seen as ushering in profoundly new ways of ordering both the social world and the self. From new communities forged as a result of technologies that allowed individuals with shared interests to locate and associate with one another, to the leveling of previously calcified hierarchies that relocated agency to the individual, ICTs are portrayed as representing a definitive break from our previous, (material) existences. By turning to urban planning documents outlining the creation of a recreation infrastructure in suburban Los Angeles in the immediate aftermath of World War II, this paper will challenge this view. As this paper will show, a mode of living that has previously been firmly attributed to ICTs is in fact inscribed into the infrastructure of one of America’s largest cities – Los Angeles – hidden in plain sight in the form of post-war recreation centers. By building recreation centers that were derived from virtually identical principles and standards, recreation officials and city planners were creating what will be called procedural communities: process based groupings of individuals who were connected through a material recreation infrastructure that helped inculcate shared modes of embodied interaction in the world. In spaces that were encoded with particular affordances, Americans could perform modes of sociality that demonstrated and inculcated a particular sense of what it meant to be a post-war democratic citizen: namely, someone with flexible, near-limitless choice, but with very clearly defined standards of what the range of that “limitless choice” would be, and who would be continually adjusting to a world defined by a continuous state of fluidity.

Faced with some 450 square miles of unbounded space, a booming economy, a swelling population, and an earnest desire to produce communities and individuals that reflected a new liberal model of American selfhood, no city embodied the shift to a procedural mode of community more than post-war Los Angeles. While the city’s sprawl may make it appear like an exceptional case, the paper contends that is in fact a definitional one. A city without a center, the development of Los Angeles in the post war period shows how a social order attributed to the emergence of computers and of informationalism in the 1960s and 1970s is actually part of social changes that occurred the late 1940s and 1950s

Whereas many contemporary scholars and pundits see communities in which individuals circulate in the network society as being unavoidably composed of individual, private, mediated, commercial actions, this paper’s analysis will show how in the decades immediately prior to the development of the first networked computers, a strikingly similar mode of community was linked to material, free to use, public spaces created and maintained by government. By uncovering the true origins of what we now think of the network society and networked individualism, it becomes possible to separate out what is truly new about our digital world, and what is merely a redeployment or modulation of existing forces.

Jay Springett (@thejaymo) Colonising the Clouds. Infrastructure Territory and the Geopolitics of the Stacks
This paper will explore the implications of multinational technology corporations morphing into the entities that Bruce Sterling has named ‘The Stacks’ – companies that are setting out to build vertically integrated feudalisms. Building on and synthesising the work of Benjamin Bratton (UCSD), Tobias Revell (RCA/ARUP/SuperFlux), Paul Graham Raven (University of Sheffield), and Vinay Gupta (UCL ISRS) this paper will seek to explore ideas of infrastructure, corporations and nation states, territory, and the importance of societal understanding of the interrelations of all three.

It is a strange future-present we live in: corporations are people; Dogecoin exists; Google – a corporation whose mission statement to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – recently acquired eight robotics companies and a thermostat manufacturer; and ‘The Stacks’ are emerging as digitally-dualistic geopolitical entities.

‘Institutional Memory’ is the method by which information is inherited and pass on between states, corporations and collective groups of people. Using this notion we can begin to unpack and explore the beliefs, biases, and assumptions of corporations and states towards concepts such as hierarchy, law, and – most importantly in our case – ontologies of the internet.

The concept of a separate, distinct ‘cyberspace’, the subtle shifting of corporate discourse from ‘The Cloud’ to ‘A Cloud’, and the boastful claims of the Information Security industry all point towards the web as being understood along dualist lines by the Stacks. This stands in contrast to non digital-dualist views held by government cyber commands which sees ‘cyber’ as a theater not a territory, demonstrated in their understandings of servers on sovereign territory and the legality of cyber-espionage.

The Stacks require deep strata of data to do their business, and in order to get that data the userbase must be made legible. Following James Scott’s “Seeing Like A State”, this talk will argue for the need to “see like a stack” in order for us to better understand the approaches of these entities towards data collection, knowledge creation, and territorial definition.

The conceptual shift upwards from owning and controlling spatial territory to owning and controlling ‘informational territory’ is not new. It began with closing of the US frontier in 1893 & introduction of the telegraph interoperability bill a few years after. Today however, as these infrastructural territories are created and claimed, their owners and creators are influencing our political and economic systems at every level, from the geopolitical to the micropolitical, resulting in what Bratton calls “the ‘accidental’ de-lamination of traditional Westphalian geographies of sovereignty through the realization of other topologies”

This talk will pose the questions: Where are the nexuses of political contestation in this new landscape? Has the discourse of digital dualism been overly focussed on the individual, or is it that only now are the implications of dualism at the geopolitical level being recognised? What are the implications for politics, as nation states evaporate into the clouds, and the Stacks continue to build their own private infrastructures and extend sensing/robotic platforms into the physical world?