Platform Publics: STS & My Dissertation

This page is part of my STSS Portfolio.

My dissertation studies smartphone apps for getting around the city. These apps for getting real-time directions (Google Maps, One Bus Away, Transit) and for getting rides (Uber, Lyft, Lime, Jump) are sometimes collectively called “new mobility,” and the rapid expansion of these and associated technologies over the past decade has affected urban mobility for both travelers and transportation officials. I begin with the claim that new mobility represents an increasing digitization of transportation: a shift in focus towards data, information, interfaces, sensors, and algorithms in addition to the continuing interest in roadways, vehicles, and other traditional mobility infrastructure. This is an example of what Plantin et al. (2018) call the “platformization of infrastructure.”

As more of mobility becomes digitized, what ideals of the urban public are made durable in code?

Given this shift, my study asks two questions. First, how is personal autonomy experienced differently among travelers when mobility is mediated by an app? And second, what kind of collective public does new mobility favor? The first question articulates an idea of autonomy, understood most simply as reflecting and acting on one’s own values and desires, through the work of feminist philosophers. This lens rejects the Kantian notion of an autonomous liberal subject acting independently and rationally and develops instead an account of autonomy that is situated in social and material relations. The second question deals more directly with the collective politics of new mobility, asking what kinds of interpersonal relations are afforded, encouraged, assumed, or desired within the digital structures of these tools. The attention to publicness is also offered somewhat obliquely as a supplement to technology criticism’s prevailing concern with privacy.

How is human agency experienced in relation to the app’s structuring of mobility?

Ideas from STS influence can be found throughout this work, which in its essence is an investigation of one instance of the co-production of society and technology. Here I focus on two STS themes in my dissertation: the role of materiality and actor-network theory in the methodology applied to my research questions, and the use of agency as way to frame the politics of technology use.

ANT and materiality

Part of my dissertation deals with the promises of new mobility, as expressed by its industry and governmental providers. For cities, new mobility promises data-supported management of traffic and the right-of-way, among other transportation goals. For travelers, it promises convenience, efficiency, and even fun. This textual analysis is the precursor for my primary method, which is to examine the artifacts, places, and events where people realize these ideals, or not. That approach is guided by work in STS and media studies emphasizing the power of things.

Bruno Latour has famously claimed that “technology is society made durable.” His work in actor-network theory (ANT) opposes analyses that assume the existence of “society” in the abstract, claiming instead that there are only associations—specific encounters among actors, human and non-human, in which such concepts have a material reality. For associations to endure, Latour says, they have must some material presence, and the work of ANT is to trace the networks of people and things the work they do (Latour, 1990, 2005).

I characterize my dissertation as being ANT-informed, although not a true ANT account. I use Latour and others to ask what kind of society is made durable by new mobility technologies, and then answer by examining artifacts and associations. My study does this in two ways. First, I create an account of the decision-making processes that go into producing two evolving data standards for new mobility operations. By beginning with those standards as an artifact (with a digital materiality) that has agency in the ways people move around the city, I move backwards to ask how particular actors came to make them. In doing so, I identify particular ideas about what the urban traveling public is—individualized, purposeful, compliant—made durable in software code.

The second way my dissertation is inspired by ANT begins with a given app as an actor and asks how a traveler in association with that app generates a particular trip experience. Here my interview methods are also heavily influenced by phenomenology, asking subject how a mobility phenomenon—a suggested route, an arriving bus, the unlocking of a bike—comes to their conscious experience. Simply hearing a story of someone’s interactions with an Uber driver, for example, is a way to make the idea of “Uber’s place in the city’s transportation network” more concrete than planners’ maps with moving icons or tables of pick-up and drop-off zip codes. “New mobility” becomes the story of Emily using her cracked phone on a sunny Friday afternoon to check when the 44 is expected to arrive at her stop in Wallingford, then switching apps to find a nearby Jump bike she can use to meet her friend who is always late anyway. To the extent the technology does shape attitudes, knowledge, and behavior, ANT tells us that does so in specific instances like these.

Like STS more generally, ANT is sometimes criticized for inattention to politics and power; it is exhaustively descriptive but seldom normative. Langdon Winner’s (1980) seminal paper claims that artifacts have politics, and much of my dissertation is concerned with identifying those of new mobility systems. However, identifying the politics of artifacts, or the nature of the society made durable in technology, is by itself insufficient. I am also interested the human actors whose agency makes a different politics possible.

Agency and politics

I remember a session at an AAG conference in which a particularly soporific presentation on the dominating political economy of the smart city concluded with the audience in a stupor. After a moment, Gillian Rose, a scholar of feminism, technology, and geography, broke the silence. “I can’t help but notice that you didn’t cite a single woman in your paper,” she began. She went on to say that this was not simply a concern about being inclusive or promoting gender equality, but a danger of perpetuating real blind spots in our ability to understand and respond to political problems. If the smart city is positioned as a masculine force of domination, she said, then the only means of resistance is through the figure of the equally powerful male hero, appearing on the scene to rescue us from such oppressive structures.

I had this moment in mind when I later read Rose’s paper, “Posthuman Agency in the Digitally Mediated City” (Rose, 2017). In it, she argues that geographers have been preoccupied with calling attention to the agency of digital technologies in shaping the city—what one seminal paper calls the “automatic production of space” (Thrift & French, 2002)—while neglecting the human agency that persists not despite technology, but alongside it. The growing literature on “platform urbanism” has similarly emphasized the everyday messiness of human-smartphone interactions “where platform/city interfaces are actively negotiated, contested, diffracted, or remade” (Leszczynski, 2019, p. 8). Through a collection of related empirical and theoretical approaches, this work challenges structural determinism, whether technological or capitalist, by noticing where people act with, through, and against their tools.

My dissertation aims to do this kind of work. The goal is not simply to reveal determinist accounts of, say, Uber displacing public transit to be misguided or incomplete. More than that, accounting for human agency and autonomy is a way to open the door to political change. The travelers I studied have hardly any agency when it comes to Google’s terms and conditions, or Lyft’s labor practices. They do, however, decide whether they think Google’s recommended route might be too stressful, or when they will ride the bus instead of requesting a Lyft. Even in such small examples, my interviews show how travelers’ particular knowledge and desires are in constant dialogue with these ubiquitous digital structures. “What do I want?” and “what means are available for getting it?” are political questions, and each instance in which they are asked is evidence against the claim that technologies or technology companies have command and control of the city.

My advisor has always encouraged me to ask myself what matters to me about my research, why do I think it needs to be done. I am generally supportive of prevailing transportation goals like reducing carbon emissions, improving road safety, and expanding accessibility. I am broadly aligned with the critics of Big Tech who promote data privacy, algorithmic accountability, and fair labor practices. But the normative ideals motivating my project are in a sense more basic than these. I value a person’s ability to thoughtfully reflect and act on her own values, and a city’s constitution as a collective that is heterogeneous and dynamic, and I believe these are worthwhile goals in themselves. This is what I mean by autonomy and publicness, and my concern for how mobility technologies support or suppress these values is the politics of my research. Achieving the transportation or technological goals like those mentioned above without people who can exercise their agency in a relational public would be, for me, insufficient. Such politics are, to be honest, an area where I find STS less helpful than literature from political theory, feminist philosophy, urban social movements, and radical planning.


  • Latour, B. (1990). Technology is Society Made Durable. The Sociological Review, 38(1_suppl), 103–131.
  • Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press.
  • Leszczynski, A. (2019). Glitchy vignettes of platform urbanism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.
  • Plantin, J.-C., Lagoze, C., Edwards, P. N., & Sandvig, C. (2018). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media & Society, 20(1), 293–310.
  • Rose, G. (2017). Posthuman Agency in the Digitally Mediated City: Exteriorization, Individuation, Reinvention. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(4), 779–793.
  • Thrift, N., & French, S. (2002). The automatic production of space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 27(3), 309–335.
  • Winner, L. (1980). Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121–136.