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EXCERPT | Taken from: The Digital City

Written by

Illustrations by Michelle Garcia

Illustrations by Michelle Garcia

The Digital City offers a new theoretical framework for thinking about our relationships to digital media by reconceptualizing common, mundane digital interactions as placemaking activities. This framework is expressed throughtwo main arguments. First, I argue that by reading digital media through the lens of “place,” we gain a more holistic and nuanced understanding of digital media use and non-use, processes and decisions around their implementation and adoption, and our relationships to digital artifacts and infrastructures. Second, I argue that people consciously employ digital media (such as mobile phones, wireless and fiber-optic networks, ubiquitous computing and navigation technologies, and location-based social media) to take account of their social and physical positions within urban space and to create and negotiate a new sense of place within rapidly changing media landscapes and socio-spatial relationships.

My interpretation of what place is and how place is experienced through digital media has been shaped by David Morley’s prompting in Home Territories: Media, Mobility, and Identity: “We must ask how, in a world of flux, forms of collective dwelling are sustained and reinvented.”13 Drawing on social constructionist as well as phenomenological approaches to place, I recognize that most urban places are experienced in flux. Places are perpetually coming into being as they are socially constructed and reconstructed by institutional and cultural forces. People and places are constantly moving and changing; their rhythms, circulations, and differential mobilities shape urban space, urban life, and their relationships to other places within global flows and networks of exchange. But the meaning and significance of places are not perpetually deferred. As David Harvey and many other geographers have noted, placemaking entails creating a deep, albeit temporary, sense of permanence, pause, or investment in fixity within the forces and scapes that shape spatiality.14 This book investigates the digital tools and situations embraced by urban populations for creating temporary permanence. The individual chapters of this book present representative cases of how different actors use digital media to exploit the possibilities for circulation and change while alleviating the challenges and risks of social, economic, and physical mobilities (from personal movement to globalization). These actors use digital media to negotiate creating stable places of belonging while being in flux. In all cases, the populations mentioned in this book attempt to shape emotional attachments with(in) urban environments by re-placeing the city as unique, desirable, familiar, or knowable through assorted digital media forms.

What I call “re-placeing the city” is the subjective, habitual practice of assessing and combining physical, social, and digital contexts in order to more fully understand one’s embeddedness within urban places and to reproduce a unique sense of place through the use of digital media affordances. By recognizing the intersecting conditions that shape urban development, mobilities, and the affective relationships that connect us to place, urban planners, government officials, corporations, developers, artists, and community activists—as well as urban residents and travelers—reproduce layered, seemingly abstract urban environments as rooted, humanized places once more. People with disparate positions of social power, access to resources, and digital literacies engage digital media to turn the spaces in which they find themselves into the places in which they “dwell.” The concept of re-placeing the city is not meant
to signify that the city is being replaced, as in exchanged for something else. Instead, the practices of re-placeing highlighted and analyzed in this book are akin to the lived experiences and performances of what Anthony Giddens describes as “re-embedding.”15 Similar to re-embedding, re-placeing is a set of practices that manage the seemingly fragmented or overwhelming conditions that the networked urban subject experiences and routinely acts within, then re-embeds these conditions within meaningful spatial and temporal contexts. As other scholars have described, contemporary urban environments are intricate nodes and accumulations of local and global flows as well as shifting sites of development and renewal, and they have become spaces reconfigured by software and screens, digitized data repositories, algorithmic politics, and ambient information.

The concept of re-placeing is not a disruptive break from previous understandings of how people use digital media to coordinate and express socio-spatial relations but an extension. Rather than locatability, findability, or perpetual contact, re- placeing prioritizes placemaking as an interpretive framework used to understand how and why actors negotiate and harness the discourse and affordances of digital technologies to adjust to changing principles and conditions of making and being in place. Digital practices, from installing broadband networks to taking selfies, can be understood as acts of re-placeing the city because of the ways that these activities seek to combine physical experiences and imaginative constructions of both place and digitality to create meaning, value, and attachments to socio-spatial geographies—situating oneself and others within rapidly changing urban environments through the meaning and implementation of digital technologies and practices.

Re-placeing the city emerges as a series of tactics and strategies to negotiate the pervasiveness of digital media in public space, with shifts in the situations, audiences, and conditions under which people experience and incorporate place into daily life. These activities occur at different scales and sites and are performed by diverse populations, through the use of myriad digital media technologies. However, processes and practices that can be categorized as re-placeing share common characteristics. Most commonly, re-placeing can be recognized in the intention and/or perceived experience of digital media use. All forms of re-placeing the city aim to adjust the “situational geographies” of social life to reproduce space as a familiar, stable, or knowable place. Through digital media use, place becomes an inhabited and meaningful location where a person or community could potentially belong. The specific practices, artifacts, and outcomes of re-placeing the city differ drastically based on habitus, access and literacy with digital media, and socioeconomic experiences of place. Among some populations, the byproducts of re-placeing may be photographs shared on a social network site or archived data collected through self-quantification software; in other cases, the outcomes might be a public art project or even the creation of an entire city. But the intention—harnessing digital media to create meaningful places and build emotional attachments to particular locations—remains the same.

Mobile technologies in particular have been thought to transform person-to-person and person-to-place relationships in a variety of ways.16 Throughout the 2000s, mediated activities beginning with prefixes like “geo-” or titles such as “locative” or “location-based” entered mainstream lexicons. Consumer markets offered a steady increase in prosumer GPS, cartography, sensor, and tracking technologies that privileged mediated visions of space and place. The rendering of people, goods, and services as more “locatable” became a technological reality and was discursively constructed as desirable as well. Slogans for portable GPS equipment encouraged potential customers to “Track what you love” and “Go everywhere, find everything.” Over the past ten years, consumers have been offered a plethora of digital tools to support a sense of geospatial empowerment that aided their interpretation and experience of increasingly complex and extroverted urban spaces.

For urban digital media users and non-users, these digital technologies are no longer ideologically or practically “new,” but mundane. In many urban environments some form of mobile media and/or digital infrastructure has been incorporated into the habits and rhythms of urban life. Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge’s code/space and coded spaces are routine and expected; people maintain intimate and collaborative relationships with and through these spaces—we keep coded objects close to our bodies and use them to manage our homes, to connect with loved ones, and to help us make decisions about where to go and what to do there.

Previous modes and tools for placemaking are indelibly linked to communication and media technologies that feel or appear intimate or personal as well. Printed artifacts for placemaking such as journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and postcards as well as placemaking practices like decorating a room or a yard account for personal presence and taste but also tangibly and asynchronously communicate and archive the meaning of place for one or a few other people. Lee Humphreys has astutely analyzed the ways in which documenting everyday life on social media is similar to analog forms of media accounting.17 Comparable to the use of media accounting in the formation of Humphreys’s qualified self, the places produced through digital media are representations of place that we create to be consumed. Although the forms of documentation (photographs, written accounts, videos) and motivations for making place are replicated and remediated in digital placemaking practices, the perceived affordances and uses of digital media intervene in the process and type of constituted place.

The sense of place constructed through these analog tools and modes of communication articulate individual or personal experiences, place attachments, and place identities as momentary pauses that are witnessed and subjectively described, reinforcing phenomenological theories that place is pause. In contrast, the sense of place produced through social media posts, real-time cartographies or check-ins, or routinely updated blogs reinforces a sense of place as mobile in its instantaneity, mutability, replicability, and cocreation. As Judith Butler suggests in regard to gender performativity, place also does not gain authenticity from intrinsic essential qualities alone but is a product of repeated and habitual actions, utterances, and behaviors. Nicky Gregson and Gillian Rose come to a similar conclusion, suggesting that space can be “citational, and itself iterative, unstable, and performative.”18 Expanding on this perspective, I argue that the citational, iterative, and flexible performativity of place is forefronted in practices of re-placeing as the affordances of digital media echo these qualities. The perceived affordances and discourses of digital media texts and technologies emphasize the performativity of place, as places are continually reproduced and recontextualized on distinct platforms and by multiple communities.

In her insightful study of expat communities, Erika Polson analyzes how transnational professionals engage in a combination of online and offline activities to create a flexible or “mobile sense of place” or an emotional attachment to the places in which they temporarily reside.19 In addition to a sense of place that is constituted through individual mobility, re-placeing reinforces a “mobile sense of place” in the circulation or mobility of articulations of place that are collaboratively constituted by people harnessing imaginations of networked flows and/or connecting through digital networks. The mobility in sense of place refers to the movement of people and devices across places but also to the movement of coded data and knowledge about place and the assumed speed and mobility of digital networks. Instead of pause, the places produced by all forms of re-placeing are restless and conditionally under construction. The uses and discourses that shape digital media texts and technologies as interactive and mutable, mobile and flexible, and as entities that are governed by and propel global flows encourage the perception of place as participatory and performative. In this way, the extroverted “global sense of place,” or place as a unique but open-ended constellation of social relations that Doreen B. Massey elaborated on in the 1990s (but whose existence, she noted, stretched centuries before), is the foundational condition for digital placemaking. Through practices of re-placeing the city—from creating smart cities to posting status updates— place becomes more evident as something that we do. Place becomes recognizable as a performative process.

13. David Morley, Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity (New York: Routledge, 2000), 13.

14. David Harvey, “From Space to Place and Back Again: Reflections on the Condition of Postmodernity,” in Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change, ed. Jon Bird, Barry Curtis, Tim Putnam, George Robertson, and Lisa Tickner, Futures: New Perspectives for Cultural Analysis (London: Routledge, 1993), 3–29; Yi-Fu Tuan, “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective,” in Philosophy in Geography, ed. Stephen Gale and Gunnar Olsson, Theory and Decision Library 20 (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 1979), 387–427; Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).

15. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 79–80.

16. Lee Humphreys and Tony Liao, “Foursquare and the Parochialization of Public Space,” First Monday 18, no. 11 (November 27, 2013), www. rstmonday. org; Janne Lindqvist, Justin Cranshaw, Jason Wiese, Jason Hong, and John Zimmerman, “I’m the Mayor of My House: Examining Why People Use Foursquare: A Social-Driven Location Sharing Application” (CHI ’11: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vancouver, BC, May 7–12, 2011), 2409–18; Jordan Frith, “Turning Life into a Game: Foursquare, Gamification, and Personal Mobility,” Mobile Media & Communication 1, no. 2 (2013): 248–62; Adriana de Souza e Silva and Daniel M. Sutko, eds., Digital Cityscapes: Merging Digital and Urban Playspaces (New York: Peter Lang, 2009); Henriette Cramer, Mattias Rost, and Lars Erik Holmquist, “Performing
a Check-In: Emerging Practices, Norms and ‘Conflicts’ in Location-Sharing Using Foursquare” (MobileHCI ’11: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, Stockholm, Sweden, August 30–September 2, 2011), 57–66; Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (New York: Routledge, 2012); Christian Licoppe and Yoriko Inada, “Emergent Uses of a Multiplayer Location‐ Aware Mobile Game: The Interactional Consequences of Mediated Encounters,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (March 1, 2006): 39–61; Mimi Sheller and John Urry, eds., Mobile Technologies of the City (New York: Routledge, 2006); Richard Ling and Birgitte Yttri, “Hyper-Coordination via Mobile Phones in Norway,” in Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, ed. James E. Katz and Mark Aakhus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 139–69.

17. Lee Humphreys, The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

18. Nicky Gregson and Gillian Rose, “Taking Butler Elsewhere: Performativities, Spatialities and Subjectivities,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18, no. 4 (2000): 447.

19. Erika Polson, “A Gateway to the Global City: Mobile Place-Making Practices by Expats,” New Media & Society 17, no. 4 (April 1, 2015): 629–45.