Framing the inter-relationships between ICTs and urban environments

One of the best book I've read recently is certainly "The Cybercities Reader (Routledge Urban Reader Series)", a collection of articles selected and commented by Stephen Graham. The whole thing is about the ICT's influence on forms, processes, experiences and ideas of urban life. To some extent, it's one of the most important resource to frame "urban computing". The introductory chapter (and the introduction to Section 2 ) is of great relevance to describe the debate about the relationships between ICTs and urban realities. Graham presents the 3 dominating types of conceptual and theoretical discourse that analyses the inter-relationships between cities and ICTs: - substitution and transcendence: human territoriality and space/place-based dynamics can and will be replaced by using new ICT technologies. Authors in that vein: thinkers like Toffler, Virilio and technologists like Negroponte, Kelly. - co-evolution: both digital spaces and territorial spaces must be produced together as part an on-going process (which is capitalism). Authors in that vein: Castells. - recombination: there is a fully relational view of the links between technology, time, space and social life. Authors in that vein: inspired by Latour and Haraway, Thrift, Bingham, Graham, etc.

The "substitution" model is the one that received the most attention, implying that space will disappear, distance will disappear, cities will vanish and that cyberspace would replace it. And also it was the model that seems to be recurring over the years (was what happened last year about Second Life). Graham describes the 4 characteristics of this discourse: - he speaks of a "Post-Urban fantasy", Bolter and Grusin use the term "Theology of Cyberspace" for the "stream of excited, romantic and often utopian accounts of the ICT-based demise of cities". - it's generally about having a "friction-free" capitalism, with "perfect transactional fluency". - ICTs are expected to meld communities and mediate democratic processes. - a strong libertarian component.

What is implied by this substitution model is the technological determinism assumption, an "hyperbole of unlimited power" of ICTs and cyberspace. The most striking example here is the use of the "impact" metaphor: something (internet/mobile phone) that comes out from the blue, like an asteroid would arrive "out there" and influence everything in a very straight-forward or linear cause-and-effect chain. This view is wrong and it's funnily not the first time that I hear a critique of the word "impact" (the other person who mentioned it to me was the anthropologist Daniela Cerqui). What is important here is to keep in mind that innovation do not comes from disembodied asteroids and that it's definitely part of a socio-political process. Of course, it's not the first time in history that substitution model are called upon, TV, magazines, radio, telephones, publishing, photography, etc were also mistaken.

This is why Graham, after Bolter and Grusin, prefer to talk about "remediation":

"not as a revolution but as a complex amalgam of new technologies and media fused on to and 'remediating' old ones. (...) we are experiencing a complex and infinitely diverse rang of transformations where new and old practices and media technologies become mutually linked and fused in an ongoing blizzard of change."

Graham identifies 6 majors flaws in the "substitution" discourse that predict the end of the city/distance/space: - being wrong empirically: data shows that urbanisation and ICTs goes hand in hand: mobility is not reduced. - ignorance of the material realities that make the cyberspace supposedly "virtual" possible: infrastructures are needed and often noticed when broken. - over-generalization and not locally-described: the vision imply that all experiences are the same anywhere and that ICTs relate to all cities in the same way. - tendency to overestimate the capabilities of ICTs to mediate human relationships and underestimate the richness and power of co-presence of human bodies. - promotion of simplistic, biased and glossy ideology of the "information age" (as a camouflage for neo-liberalism) - show depoliticised depictions of cities being "impacted" by waves of "autonomous" technologies arriving out from the blue as if there were not place for policy innovation in cities or higher-level institutions (regions, states, supranational).

That said, the book itself does not dismiss current transformations but rather describe the complexity of the inter-relationships between ICTs and urban environments.

Why do I blog this? that sort of discussion is an important framing for current research about urban computing, also at a high-level, it's an interesting overview of the different models promoted about how technologies and human activities are inter-related in a more nuanced way than what we read here and there. Will probably re-use this material in course and talks.