Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Mobility is political and networks fail

Howard Rheingold's latest article in TheFeature, Urban Infomatics Breakout, looks at relations between wireless technologies and the city - and despite reservations I discuss below, I think he is quite right to suggest discussion in terms of open and closed networks:

I believe the most important critical uncertainty today is whether location-based media will develop as an open system like the Internet, where everybody will be free to associate a review, a photo, a video, a map, a work of art, a political polemic, a database, with specific locations -- or whether information associated with places will be a closed system where only those who buy a certain brand of proprietary software or only those who own the local franchise will have the right to write geodata to the readers almost everybody uses. Will entire populations of city-dwellers create, use, and exchange information and media associated with geographic locations? Or will the right to write or access restaurant reviews, geospecific photographs, neighborhood crime stats be constrained? ... Will the cities of 2010 be inhabited by billions users of geolocation information systems and weavers of ad-hoc communication networks? Or will we be passive consumers of pre-packaged content fabricated by a few dozen synthetic superstars.

In an article I wrote last year, I suggested that "moving through the city, and through public spaces, has always been a performative practice where the citizen is relatively able to use the material world for her own purposes and enjoyment, and engage in critiques of everyday life. Where ubiquitous technologies might fail is if they prevent or inhibit the ability of a person to experience the city on his own terms; if they start from a premise of what the city is rather than allowing it to emerge through the movements of its people."

In the same paper, I wrote that "...ubiquitous computing is the archetypal hybrid and mobile technology at work within a society of control ... Despite the appearance of novelty, ubiquitous computing draws on a long and complex history of relations between materials and ideas, industry and business, government and law, individuals and groups, to name but a few. All of these processes have been mobilised - and will continue to be mobilised - to shape Ubicomp as we know it ... For example, the technology that allows someone on the street to record their thoughts at a particular location and share it with others ... also mobilises local and global procedures and policies surrounding the use of city architecture and public space, the manufacture, implementation and ownership of computer hardware, and socio-technical assemblages for the acquisition and administration of data."

In other words, an 'open' technological system can be rendered impotent if it is embroiled in broader (social, political, economic, ethical etc.) systems that are 'closed'. Part of the struggles experienced by open-source initiatives and P2P networks is the very reality of their interconnection with contradictory practices.

But I'm also concerned that Howard may be following Bill Mitchell's utopian optimism a bit. He writes:

When trying to envision the cities of the future today, one driving force we can be fairly certain about is the decreasing cost and increasing adoption of mobile communication devices; Moore's Law, Metcalfe's Law, and Reed's Law all work together to guarantee that a large chunk of the population will be carrying wireless supercomputers in their pocket a decade hence.

I'm afraid I don't see things working so smoothly - or equitably.

Steve Graham's work is much better prepared than Mitchell's to discuss the politics of mobility. Author, with Simon Marvin, of the excellent Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (Chapter 1 here, notes here), he most recently edited the very interesting and useful Cybercities Reader.

Graham also leads the Urban Technology Design and Development research group of the Global Urban Research Unit at the University of Newcastle. And David Wood and Steve Graham recently presented a paper (doc) at the Alternative Mobility Futures Conference at Lancaster University, in which they persuasively argue that there is "a tendency towards technological lock-in which threatens to divide contemporary societies into high-speed, high-mobility, connected and low-speed, low-mobility, disconnected, classes."

In addition to the politics of mobility, networked cities also raise issues of network failure. (Many researchers at UbiComp 2003 commented on Mitchell's keynote assumption that this technology will actually function, let alone function well all the time.) In April, the Global Urban Research Unit will be organising the Urban Vulnerability and Network Failure: Constructions and Experiences of Emergencies, Crises and Collapse conference to address these very concerns.

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