A New Spatial Grammar
The world’s population is predominantly urban (UNPF 2007). The cities holding these billions of people fit no common mold. Part of recognizing and studying these new landscapes is the need for what Colin McFarlane (2011a) calls a “new spatial grammar”. As digital, pervasive computing technologies become commonplace and spread into the everyday landscape, a new spatial grammar is emerging obliquely out of computer science terms such as ‘open source’, ‘hacking’ and ‘ubiquitous computing’. Architectural historian Kazys Varnelis calls for urbanists to hack the city (Varnelis 2008, 16), to create interventions in the landscape rather than plans, and to revision the city through the many complex assemblages of culture, nature, and technologies that make up cities today. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2011) bring the everyday, mobile and wireless personal and urban, ubiquitous computing technologies into the urban landscape. Saskia Sassen, acting as a public intellectual more than a political economist, calls for an ‘open source urbanism’ (2011a) and for ‘talking back to our intelligent city’ (2011b) as ways to counter the discourse coming from private information technology providers such as IBM and Cisco on the responsive ubiquitous networks embedded in the landscape.
Conceptualizing the geography of contemporary cities to include the overlay of pervasive computing connectivity necessitates bringing new terms into geography. Here are three key terms to my research:
Emerging out of information science, ubiquitous computing describes the the technological overlay of everyday life. As digital technologies become so small they are essentially invisible, and as these computing technologies can communicate with each other and between individuals wirelessly, the systems become invisible (Bell and Dourish 2011; Greenfield 2006). A common example today is the mobile phone (Greenfield and Shepard 2007). The invisibility and the near-universal adoption of devices such as mobile phones is the becoming everydayness of digital technologies. The systems disappear into the landscape, in a similar way to other networked systems such as water or transportation, becoming taken-for-granted. While ubiquitous computing has typically focused on the user experience and its impact in urban spaces, there is also a significant infrastructural component to providing and maintaining these systems. Ubiquitous computing systems do not spontaneously generate, just as water does not inherently flow out of the tap. There is a spatialization to how ubiquitous technologies are used in the urban landscape, and there are spatial ramifications to how these systems are embedded in the landscape (Shepard 2001).
The geographic utility of ubiquitous computing is that this everyday overlay of digital responsiveness impacts urban spaces both through the opening up or the foreclosing of action in public space—and private or semi-private space—through the locational information received on a smartphone, or the blanketing presence of security cameras limiting the ability of a group to comfortably gather in a public park (Crang and Graham 2007). This is the ‘above ground’, individualized utility, either beneficial or repressive, of ubiquitous computing technologies, but for this always-present responsiveness to exist requires a significant amount of networked information and communication technology infrastructure, communicating across systems and across platforms. Similarly to water or electrical infrastructure systems, these digital infrastructure (Zimmerman and Horan 2004) systems have a small but noticeable impact on the urban landscape as well today, but as Saskia Sassen points out, opening up these systems visually could be a means to bring the relationships between city and citizen to the surface, to highlight how these relatively invisible technologies impact our individual and collective experiences (Sassen 2011a; 2011b). Additionally, the responsiveness—the instantaneous communicative potential—of ubiquitous computing could enable this visualizing of the flows of the modern city that Sassen speaks of. Politicizing these infrastructures locates these ubiquitous systems in the public sphere and not behind the closed doors of city hall and in the programming of private, corporate technology providers such as Cisco or IBM. These ubiquitous things, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, are a networked actor in performing public life, and their role in mediating social and spatial exchanges should be noted (Latour 2005a; 2005b).
The networked city is embedded with responsive, communicative ubiquitous computing capacity. The networked city is an urban form based primarily around the service industry/information economy, but also encompassing other, more traditional urban economic activities (Castells 2000; Graham and Marvin 2001). This city may still have industrial outputs, but the core economic activity is based around creative (in the largest sense), digital production. Consequently, information and communication technologies linking inter-urban and intra-urban networks together and between other nodes both near and far in the information economy are central to the socio-economic output (Mitchell 2003). The networked city is the above-ground, visual representation of the flows of the networked infrastructures that underlie the urban fabric (Graham 2002). It is important to note that the networked city is built on and around the modern, industrial city and the post-modern suburban sprawl. The networked city prioritizes flows of information, but supported by flows of modern infrastructural networks—water, electricity, and gas, and transportation (Kaika and Swyngedeouw 2000).
Architectural scholar Kazys Varnelis considers the networked city as more than a singular urban are, instead considering the megalopolitan sprawl of, for instance, the greater Northeast or Southern California as the contemporary networked city (Varnelis 2011). The on-the-ground condition of the networked city can be considered one of splintering urbanism (Graham and Marvin 2001), of glocal disconnect and zones of premium network provision, where the modern ideal of universal infrastructure provision has failed and certain areas of a city are left to crumble into ghettos, post-industrial brownfields, and other areas of general and particular neglect, while other areas, such as central business districts, edgeland office parks, corporate entertainment or heritage zones, airports, and other globally repeatable spatial products (Easterling 2005) are hyper-connected to each other, but disconnected from the particular city as a whole. Infrastructure networks in a landscape of splintering urbanism no longer—if they ever did to begin with (Coutard 2002)—exist to provide a unified urban ideal based on collective progress, but instead today provide individualized benefit at the expense of the city as a whole.
Assemblage scholarship, as a geographic application of Actor-Network Theory, offers a means to study the spaces through which human and non-human actors, and the connecting, mediating networks, interact (Amin and Thrift 2002; Farias and Bender 2010; Latour and Hermant 2006; McFarlane 2011b). Assemblage scholarship includes the spaces through which the networks flow directly, not just as a background element to the relationships being charted. Infrastructure in the contemporary landscape is a product of the social as well as a conduit through which the social is constituted (Easterling 2011; Star 1999; Star 2002). It is possible to consider the various systems bundled together as ubiquitous computing as unique networked ecologies, and to map out how these systems interface with each other and with the city at large. Ubiquitous computing, as the spatialization and spread of everyday digital technologies into the landscape, and the networked information technology infrastructural systems that connect these communicative devices, defies place-bounded analysis. As these ubiquitous systems redefine proximity and distance for the user, they re-inscribe the landscape through instanteous connectivity. Associations between disconnected spaces are made through these pervasive communication networks. Assemblage scholarship is a means to trace these networks across space, through and between the various networked ecologies of the contemporary landscape, ecologies that may or may not be spatially proximate, but are still joined.
An example of assembling the landscape of the networked city is found in the term ‘networked ecologies’ (Varnelis 2008). Although the term has yet to gain widespread recognition in geographic scholarship, I find it a useful term to contain the natural and cultural worlds and the many infrastructural systems that network many things together. Networked ecologies are the meshwork of human and technological, built and natural environments that constitute cities today. Infrastructural networks interface between the various networked ecologies across time and space. For instance, a water supply as a natural ecology may pass from one watershed to another to provide a city with this vital element, connecting two disparate locations. Or, a telecommunications system, localized in one city links that place with every other connected place in the world, through a complex weave of fiber-optic cables, satellites and satellite base stations, data centers, co-location points, and mobile phone antenna. This connectivity is not organic, it is actively built and maintained, but at the same time, it is not spatially separate from the rest of a city. It is placed in real places, not just in the end-user’s device such as a mobile phone. No place is solely human or completely natural; this condition is amplified exponentially in urban settings. The spaces of a contemporary city are assembled through flows of natural systems such as water through infrastructures that are enmeshed with other infrastructural systems creating many layers that then interact with local iterations of human and other urban animals’ habitations, as well as with political regulations and cultural values. This call and response between the near and the far, the human and the technological, material and digital flows and the embedded groundedness of physical infrastructure, underlies the cultural activities and economic products that are typically foregrounded as the prominent, visible face of a city.
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