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Geog 522, Prof. Sarah Elwood, Autumn 2016
Prof. Elwood’s class allowed me to explore in greater depth a discipline-specific engagement with technology. Although I am not a geographer, the field is closely allied with urban planning, and has been a source of many of the theoretical framings for my work. When I took this class, I had only recently discovered the literature in the emerging field of digital geographies. An article noting the occurrence of a “digital turn” in contemporary geography was in press (Ash et al., 2018), and the Digital Geographies Specialty Group would soon form within the American Association of Geographers. Although there has been an explosion of recent work on the ways digital technologies are produced with and through space, this literature builds on a several strands of earlier geographic work. In particular, the sub-field of critical GIS had since the ‘90s shown how maps and mapping tools are not the neutral objects we often presume them to be, but are power-laden social products. Geographical work like this, along with developed work in STS and more recent ideas from media studies, converged to produce the literature on technology and space that I was excited to encounter in this class.
In another geography class, I recall Prof. Victoria Lawson noting her pride that the discipline of geography does not have a canon. Although I cannot verify or dispute that claim, I will affirm my own joy in Prof. Elwood’s class at finding a reading list that was heavily skewed towards recent literature. In much of the first two years of my PhD, I had been disappointed in much of the literature I was finding connecting cities and technologies. Some was dated, dealing with overstated speculation about whether the Internet (or fax machine, or telephone) would make location irrelevant. Others were somewhat narrow and theoretically underdeveloped, as with studies dealing with my interest in the intersection between social media and public space. Although I had in some cases simply been looking in the wrong places, I was also pleased to discover how much was current and under development. Even beyond the urban or geographical perspective, this class offered a further introduction to critical studies of software, data, and algorithms.
I found a few big ideas from software studies and geography especially influential:
- One deals with the epistemological concerns of digitization and datafication, processes in which continuous phenomena are made discrete in order to be represented as comparable categories in data structures (Crawford, 2016; Franklin, 2015). This work is not new to digital technologies (Bowker & Star, 1999, the classic account of the work of categories, deals with a long history of classification), but is accelerated by it. I was struck by the idea of categorization as a kind of exclusion, in which all of the context surrounding the datum is lost, and so what can be known from the data is inherently shaped by the decisions that went into producing it.
- Closely related to this is the study of the human labor and politics of data production, maintenance, and analysis. Amoore & Piotukh’s (2015) memorable description of “little analytics” that attends big data helps to show how even in the age of big data, making sense of phenomena in the world is still a human activity. Irani’s (2015) examination of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers is helpful for showing how hiding these decisions and labor behind a screen of automatic algorithmic operations is often in the interest of technology producers hoping to promote themselves as efficient and neutral. Lupton (2016) helpfully blurs boundaries between data consumption and data production.
- Lastly, the idea that space is produced or mediated by software is a main tenet of my own work and a major theme within the subfield of digital geography. While critical studies of GIS had examined how software represents space with particular biases, a separate body of literature asks how software actually produces that space (Leszczynski, 2015; Thrift & French, 2002). After taking this class, I was encouraged to read Gillian Rose’s critique of this literature, which suggests that all of geography’s new attention to the agency of software has overlooked the agency of humans. She uses the idea of posthumanism to complicate our understanding of individual agency within spatial and digital structures (Rose, 2017).
In addition to weekly reading reflections, I wrote a final paper for the class entitled “The digital home: Zillow’s representation and production of the city.” In a close read of Zillow, I examined how the real estate listing site “represents and produces the home and, in turn, the city.” It made two main contributions. First, it examined the function of Zillow’s data, algorithms, interfaces, and related computational logics in the service of a particular financialized view of real estate capitalism. This connected Zillow’s ever-expanding datafication of homes and properties to a capitalist paradigm of exchange value and the reduction of financial uncertainty. Second, it highlighted the types of subjects and practices that are transformed through the platform, including real estate agents and homeowners and their choices about property sales and investments. The paper was especially interested in the affective role of Zillow in producing an imagined future based on the anticipated value of a home. The overall concern of the paper was to continue my project of understanding the ways that digital tools shape urban space according to the values embedded within them.
Ash, J., Kitchin, R., Leszczynski, A. In Press. Digital turn, digital geographies? Progress in Human Geography.
Leszczynski, A. 2015. Spatial media/tion. Progress in Human Geography, 39 (6), 729-751.
Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M. 2005. Code and the transduction of space. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95(1): 162-180.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3), 575–599.
Hayles, N. 2006. Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere. Theory, Culture & Society 23(7–8): 159–166.
Franklin, S. 2015. Control. Chapter 1 in Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic. MIT Press.
Lupton, D. (2016). Digital companion species and eating data: Implications for theorising digital data-human assemblages. Big Data & Society, 3(1).
Amoore, L. & Piotukh, V. 2015, Life beyond big data: Governing with little analytics. Economy and Society 44(3): 341-366.
Gerlach J, 2015, “Editing worlds: participatory mapping and a minor geopolitics”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40(2): 273-86.
Galloway, A. 2012. Does the whatever speak? In Nakamura & Chow-White (Eds). Race After the Internet, pp. 111-127. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D. 1991. A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology and socialist-feminism in the late 20th century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Remediation of Nature. London: Routledge.
Wilson, M. 2011. Data matter(s): Legitimacy, coding and quality of life. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 11(5): 857-872.
Leszczynski, A. 2016. Speculative futures: Cities, data, and governance beyond smart urbanism. Environment & Planning A.
Crawford, K. 2016. Can an Algorithm be Agonistic? Ten Scenes from Life in Calculated Publics. Science, Technology & Human Values 41(1): 77-92.
Irani, L. 2015. The cultural work of microwork. New Media & Society 17(5): 720-739.
Wilson, Matthew W. 2015. Paying attention, digital media, and community-based critical GIS. cultural geographies. 22:1. p. 177-191.