Mobile city conference – Stephen Graham on the politics of urban space
March 1st, 2008

Professor Stephen Graham‘s presentation on ‘Sentient cities: ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space’ at the Mobile City Conference is a reflection on politics, locative media and ubiquitous computing.

Increasing amounts of information processing capacity are embedded in the environment around us. The informational landscape is both a repository of data and also increasingly communicates and processes information. No longer confined to desk tops, computers have become both mobile and also disassembled.

Many everyday objects now embed computer processing power, while others are activated by passing sensors, transponders and processors. The distributed processing in the world around us is often claimed to be a pervasive or ubiquitous computing environment: a world of ambient intelligence, happening around us on the periphery of our awareness, where our environment is not a passive backdrop but an active agent in organizing daily lives. The spaces around us are now being continually forged and reforged in informational and communicative processes. It is a world where we not only think of cities but cities think of us, where the environment reflexively monitors our behaviour. Stephen Graham suggests that we need to unpack the embedded politics of this process. He outlines the three key emerging dynamics in terms of environments that learn and possess anticipation and memory, the efficacy of technological mythologies and the politics of visibility. To examine the assumptions and implications behind this professor Graham explores three contrasting forms of ‘sentient’ urban environments. The first addresses market-led visions of customized consumer worlds. The second explores military plans for profiling and targeting. Finally, the third looks at artistic endeavours to re-enchant and contest the urban informational landscape of urban sentience. Each, we suggest, shows a powerful dynamic of the environment tracking, predicting and recalling usage.

[Read Tjerk Timan’s extensive report about Stephen Graham’s presentation at Masters of Media of the University of Amerdam]

Three starting points are addressed by Graham:
1. We must completely abandon the notion that there is a real and a virtual world, as if the two were opposed. Instead, we must look at how new media is layering over existing spaces, thus reorganizing them. Graham is building on the notion of Bolter and Grusin; remediation. It is constituted (the virtual) on top of our real world. Remediation is taking place constantly. Remediation of painting, film and television, of cities, houses and streets. The old notion of holographic pods, parallel worlds, cyberspace, does not exist. We are far from it.
2. Cities can be seen to emerge as fluid machines. We have to look at cities as processes. intense connections, constantly mixing. distant proximity and proximate distance in all sorts of ways. All sorts of flows are present in a city (data, people, services, all is about movement). These flows of energy, water, people, information, goods etc all are linked and are constantly influencing each other. Seeing cities as processes, we have to think about how new media fits into the process.
3. We must take a look at when and how technology becomes a part of our infrastructure. Everyone is using technology without thinking about it (like electricity). The most profound technologies are those who disappear into daily life (Mark Weiser). Now politics become important, but less visible.

Socially, these technologies become ‘black-boxes’; they become ‘engineers stuff’. So, what is infrastructure precisely? It is embedded, sunk and transparent into daily life. It links times and spaces. We have to learn how to use it. It has to be based on standards. They (technologies of infrastructure) become only visible when they fail. Graham wants to tell three stories about ubiquitous computing and locative media:
1. consumeration
2. militarization/ securitisation
3. urban activism and democratization

Publications of professor Stehen Graham


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