Saturday, March 1, 2008

Urban computing: looking forward and looking backward

I've finally managed to find the time to read Mike Crang and Stephen Graham's recent paper, Sentient Cities: Ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space--and it's really good!

As I've said many times, Graham's work on networked urbanism is superb, and Crang's work on space, culture and ethnography is also exemplary. Compared to American accounts that draw on cybernetics and systems-thinking in architecture and urban planning (think Bill Mitchell, Malcolm McCullough, etc.) I find the British cultural geography approach (following Nigel Thrift, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge) far better attuned to the variety and complexity of everyday lived experience, and the connections between place and identity (i.e. power) over time. Perhaps most importantly, I think this focus on spatialisation, temporalisation and embodiment leads to a critical approach that isn't undermined by the persistent techno-determinism and lack of socio-cultural nuance that tend to characterise the former.

I've argued before that ubicomp is both imaginary and concrete, and Crang and Graham also distinguish between various manifestations of ubiquitous computing:

"[There are] three key contemporary domains within which the reconfiguration of cities and their politics are being actively imagined and enacted through the imagination and deployment of ubiquitous computing (or ‘ubicomp’). This is going on, we suggest, through the production and dissemination of technological fantasies, the more practical processes of technological development, and the actual deployment of, and contestation over, operational ubicomp systems. These three vignettes address: commercial fantasies of ‘friction-free’ urban consumption; military and security industry attempts to mobilize ubiquitous computing for the ‘war on terror’; and attempts by artists to interrupt fantasies of perfect urban control through artistic use of new ubicomp technologies to try and re-enchant urban space and urban life" (791-792).

In my mind, the commercial promise (or threat) of ubicomp pales in comparison to military and government interventions in this domain. For example, in 2004 the US Defense Science Board:

"saw possibilities to exploit ubiquitous computing technologies in developing a massive, integrated system of surveillance, spanning the world, and tailored specifically to penetrating the increasing complexity of urban life. Such a system, it argued, would once again render the US military’s targets trackable, locatable – and destroyable. The purpose of the New ‘Manhattan project’, then, was seen to be to ‘locate, identify, and track, people, things and activities – in an environment of one in a million – to give the United States the same advantages in asymmetric warfare [as] it has today in conventional warfare’" (800).

This plan is connected to broader trends in post 9/11 surveillance and has been integrated into the Pentagon's "Long War" strategy, which raises critical issues about who has access to citizen's ever-increasing digital traces. But access isn't even the primary issue--it's the government's desire to correlate and "backtrack" data so that potential behaviours and situations can be anticipated and controlled. This is what Felix Stalder is describing when he says that data traces don't just follow us, they precede us: "Before we arrive somewhere, we have already been measured and classified. Thus, upon arrival, we're treated according to whatever criteria have been connected to the profile that represents us."

This kind of seeing is anticipatory, and while it may have its origins in commercial marketing practice, this kind of social sorting has far more harmful implications than RFID tracking and Minority Report-style tailored advertising. The biggest issue, as Crang and Graham put it, is that "such a technological politics, of course, risks delegating whole sets of decisions and, along with that, the ethics and politics of those decisions, to invisible and sentient systems" (811).

In an early 2007 interview with Adam Greenfield, Régine Debatty asked why there was no mention of art practice in his popular book, Everyware, and he responded:

"Not referring to art projects was an explicit decision, based in part on my desire to limit the discussion to ways in which information processing would be showing up in everyday life. And almost by definition, however trenchant or clever the point of view embedded in them may be, art objects are simply not going to be relevant to that consideration."

I strongly disagree with that assessment of artistic relevance, and Crang and Graham's final section on artistic interventions that seek to "challenge or subvert (some aspects of) the dominant commercial and military visions" (805) successfully makes the point that locative media and art projects tend to inscribe memories rather than anticipate actions, and this tendency to look backward instead of projecting forward is important.

Rather than making us passive or controlling our actions in particular places, locative media and art "allow us to claim and mark our territory" (807) in multiple ways: as publics, as individuals, as citizens. While many projects can be seen to romanticise a renewed public sphere, the collaborative nature of most projects is still distinct from the one-way, top-down models offered by commercial and military players. They also tend to make socio-spatial relations visible, rather than rendering them invisible. The primary drawback here is that "these moves risk making what was formerly protected by its opacity and transitoriness, visible and recordable" (812). But as Crang and Graham also put it, "these artistic media are trying to densify the liquid – not solidify places" (810) and "the effect of memory is not the creation of perfectly known environments. Rather, it involves a destabilization of spaces, a haunting of place with absent others" (812).

However, it's in their conclusions that I find the necessary pragmatism and the most hope:

"Urban ubicomp clearly has a fetishistic power in appearing to finally offer solutions by rendering place and space utterly transparent in some simple, deterministic way. Indeed, we would argue that there is a danger that locative media are equally seen as a technical fix for oppositional voices and alternative histories in art projects. In this sense the myths matter and have effects. But they are only mythologies of a perfect, uniform informational landscape. In reality, the seamless and ubiquitous process of pure urban transparency that many accounts suggest will always be little but a fantasy. In practice, the linking of many layers of computerized technology is generally a ‘kludge’...


Far from the pure vision of what de Certeau calls the ‘concept city’, we may find the production of myriads of little stories – a messy infinity of ‘Little Brothers’ rather than one omniscient ‘Big’ Brother. Some of these may be commercial, some personal, maybe some militarized. There is a real issue about proliferating knowledges circulating routinely and more or less autonomously of people. But it would seem to us that the political options are not those of rejection or romanticizing notions of disconnection. Rather, it is to work through the inevitable granularity and gaps within these systems, to find the new shadows and opacities that they produce" (813-14).

For anyone who wants more, here are some notes on Stephen Graham's keynote at the recent Mobile City Conference that cover some of the same material.

Photos, Naccarato & David Foster Nass

Update 01/03/08: Fabien Girardin adds some interesting links to this discussion, and reminds me how little time I have to keep up on others' work right now. I can't believe I missed Nicholas and Fabien's recent pamphlet, Sliding Friction: The Harmonious Jungle of Contemporary Cities (pdf). The infrastructure section reminded me of Jeff Maki's very cool Critical Infrastructure project.

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