Urban Informatics and Social Ontology

Urban Informatics and Social Ontology

Roger J. Burrows (University of York, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-152-0.ch030
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Is it still the case that one can symptomatically read the early work of the cyberpunk author William Gibson as a form of prefigurative urban theory (Burrows, 1997a; 1997b)? And why would one want to? Having read the various essays in this eclectic, engaging and exciting volume I turned to Gibson in the hope that I might again find buried in his stylistic prose some hint of an analytic insight that might provide a way of satisfactorily articulating the diverse concerns expressed within these pages. Gibson did not let me down. His most recent novel—Spook Country (Gibson, 2007)—is, as always, about many things, but at its core it is a novel of ideas about the social and cultural consequences of a whole assemblage of urban informatics technologies—locative technologies in particular. However, although the substantive concerns of this volume and his most recent novel are homologous, it was a passing exchange between two of the main characters about the changed nature of social ontology that made me realise why the study of urban informatics is as important as it is. The exchange occurs on page 103 of the novel
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‘The pop star, as we knew her’—and here he bowed slightly, in her direction—‘was actually an artefact of preubiquitous media’


‘Of a state in which “mass” media existed, if you will, within the world.’

‘As opposed to?’

‘Comprising it.’

Now this short exchange has a deep resonance with various analytic materials I have encountered over the last year or so, all concerned with what the cultural theorist Scott Lash (2007a) has recently identified as the emergence of a New ‘New Media’ Ontology; a situation in which ‘[w]hat was a medium […] has become a thing, a product’ (Lash, 2007b: 18). For Thrift and French (2002: 309), for instance, ‘the technical substrate of Euro-American societies … has changed decisively as software has come to intervene in nearly all aspects of everyday life’. For these commentators, software now increasingly functions in order to provide a ‘new and complex form of automated spatiality… which has important consequences for what we regard as the world’s phenomenality’. In much more basic terms, the ‘stuff’ that makes up the social and urban fabric has changed—it is no longer just about emergent properties that derive from a complex of social associations and interactions. These associations and interactions are now not only mediated by software and code, they are becoming constituted by it.

The study of urban informatics then, is becoming the study of the emergence of this new social ontology. But this observation is too abstract. What I want to do in this short concluding contribution to this volume is to give some shape and form to this new social ontology through some very recent writings on urban informatics that the various contributory authors here would not have had an opportunity to read at the time they were crafting their chapters (although the chapter by Mark Shepard on ‘Extreme Informatics’ is ahead of the game here as it does touch on some of this literature). In particular I want to examine a couple of related typologies of different zones of this new social ontology as revealed by recent studies of urban (Crang and Graham, 2007) and domestic (Dodge and Kitchin, 2008) informatics systems.

Crang and Graham (2007), in a far reaching review of the different ways in which software and code mesh with various aspects of the urban environment, develop a three-fold categorisation of different regions of this new social ontology, what they term: augmented space; enacted space; and transducted space.

Augmented space is, in some ways, the most visible but the least interesting. It is based on the recognition that the built environment has long been saturated with information from signage and adverts, but that much of this information is changing from analogue to digital forms. Augmented spaces then are simply physical objects overlain with virtual objects, but virtual objects increasingly able to alter dynamically. As Crang and Graham view it, this notion of augmentation simply reflects the observation that new digital media are being added to the experiences of urban life without a qualitative alteration in the emergent properties of urban systems. This then is digital information superimposed on physical form.

Enacted space is rather different. This refers to environments in which coded devices—RFIDs might be thought of as being paradigmatic—do not just possess additive effects, but come to inhabit ‘the most ordinary of things’ (Crang and Graham, 2007: 793) and are able to produce more than just enhancements to spaces; rather they relocate agency. This then is the vision of social ontology envisaged by Bill Mitchell (2003) in his popular articulation of the spatially extended cyborg—the cyborg self in the ubiquitously networked city—or what Cuff (2003) has termed the ‘cyburg’.

Complete Chapter List

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List of Reviewers
Table of Contents
Anthony Townsend
Marcus Foth
Marcus Foth
Chapter 1
Amanda Williams, Erica Robles, Paul Dourish
This chapter critically examines the notion of “the city” within urban informatics. Arguing that there is an overarching tendency to construe the... Sample PDF
Urbane-ing the City: Examining and Refining the Assumptions Behind Urban Informatics
Chapter 2
Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi, Adam Greenfield
Once a city shaped by the boundary conditions of heavy industrialisation and cheap labour, within a few years Seoul has transformed itself to one of... Sample PDF
To Connect and Flow in Seoul: Ubiquitous Technologies, Urban Infrastructure and Everyday Life in the Contemporary Korean City
Chapter 3
Nancy Odendaal
Recent literature on African cities examines the way in which social networks function as critical livelihood arteries in the ongoing survival... Sample PDF
Creating an Analytical Lens for Understanding Digital Networks in Urban South Africa
Chapter 4
Wayne Beyea
Community planning is facing many challenges around the world, such as the rapid growth of megacities as well as urban sprawl. The State of Michigan... Sample PDF
Place Making Through Participatory Planning
Chapter 5
Mike Ananny, Carol Strohecker
In this paper, we describe the design and installation of a new kind of public opinion forum—TexTales, a public, large-scale interactive projection... Sample PDF
TexTales: Creating Interactive Forums with Urban Publics
Chapter 6
Jenny Preece
This chapter describes a small networked community in which residents of an apartment building in Washington, D.C., USA supplement their... Sample PDF
An Event-Driven Community in Washington, DC: Forces That Influence Participation
Chapter 7
Fiorella De Cindio
After more than a decade of e-participation initiatives at the urban level, what remains obscure is the alchemy—i.e., the “arcane” combination of... Sample PDF
Moments and Modes for Triggering Civic Participation at the Urban Level
Chapter 8
Michael Veith
Societies face serious challenges when trying to integrate migrant communities. One-sided solutions do not pay tribute to the complexity of this... Sample PDF
Fostering Communities in Urban Multi-Cultural Neighbourhoods: Some Methodological Reflections
Chapter 9
Victor M. Gonzalez, Kenneth L. Kraemer, Luis A. Castro
The practical use of information technology devices in domestic and residential contexts often results in radical changes from their envisioned... Sample PDF
Beyond Safety Concerns: On the Practical Applications of Urban Neighbourhood Video Cameras
Chapter 10
Colleen Morgan
This chapter explores how we may design located information and communication technologies (ICTs) to foster community sentiment. It focuses... Sample PDF
The Figmentum Project: Appropriating Information and Communication Technologies to Animate Our Urban Fabric
Chapter 11
Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, Kim Sawchuk, Andrea Zeffiro
The Mobile Media Lab (MML) is a Canadian interdisciplinary research team exploring wireless communications, mobile technologies and locative media... Sample PDF
Voices from Beyond: Ephemeral Histories, Locative Media and the Volatile Interface
Chapter 12
Helen Klaebe
This chapter defines, explores and Illustrates research at the intersection of people, place and technology in cities. First, we theorise the notion... Sample PDF
Embedding an Ecology Notion in the Social Production of Urban Space
Chapter 13
Vassilis Kostakos, Eamonn O’Neill
In this paper, we describe a platform that enables us to systematically study online social networks alongside their real-world counterparts. Our... Sample PDF
Cityware: Urban Computing to Bridge Online and Real-World Social Networks
Chapter 14
Katharine S. Willis
In our everyday lives, we are surrounded by information which weaves itself silently into the very fabric of our existence. Much of the time we act... Sample PDF
Information Places: Navigating Interfaces between Physical and Digital Space
Chapter 15
Viktor Bedö
This chapter contributes to the ongoing effort to understand the nature of locative urban information by proposing that locative urban information... Sample PDF
A Visual Approach to Locative Urban Information
Chapter 16
Tristan Thielmann
Car navigation systems, based on “augmented reality,” no longer direct the driver through traffic by simply using arrows, but represent the... Sample PDF
Navigation Becomes Travel Scouting: The Augmented Spaces of Car Navigation Systems
Chapter 17
Daisuke Tamada
A lot of street view services, which present views of urban landscapes, have recently appeared. The conventional method for making street views... Sample PDF
QyoroView: Creating a Large-Scale Street View as User-Generated Content
Chapter 18
Hideyuki Nakanishi, Toru Ishida, Satoshi Koizumi
Many research projects have studied various aspects of smart environments including smart rooms, home, and offices. Few projects, however, have... Sample PDF
Virtual Cities for Simulating Smart Urban Public Spaces
Chapter 19
Andrew Hudson-Smith
Digital cities are moving well beyond their original conceptions as entities representing the way computers and communications are hard wired into... Sample PDF
The Neogeography of Virtual Cities: Digital Mirrors into a Recursive World
Chapter 20
Laura Forlano
This chapter introduces the role of community wireless networks (CWNs) in reconfiguring people, places and information in cities. CWNs are important... Sample PDF
Codespaces: Community Wireless Networks and the Reconfiguration of Cities
Chapter 21
Katrina Jungnickel, Genevieve Bell
From WiFi (802.11b) with its fixed and mobile high-speed wireless broadband Internet connectivity to WiMAX (802.16e), the newest wireless protocol... Sample PDF
Home is Where the Hub Is? Wireless Infrastructures and the Nature of Domestic Culture in Australia
Chapter 22
Andres Sevtsuk
This chapter presents the iSPOTS project, which collects and maps data of WiFi usage on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in... Sample PDF
Mapping the MIT Campus in Real Time Using WiFi
Chapter 23
John M. Carroll
We discuss the vision, plan, and status of a research project investigating community-oriented services and applications, comprising a wireless... Sample PDF
Supporting Community with Location-Sensitive Mobile Applications
Chapter 24
Christine Satchell
Early 21st century societies are evolving into a hybrid of real and synthetic worlds where everyday activities are mediated by technology. The... Sample PDF
From Social Butterfly to Urban Citizen: The Evolution of Mobile Phone Practice
Chapter 25
Jong-Sung Hwang
u-City is South Korea’s answer to urban community challenges leveraging ubiquitous computing technology to deliver state-of-the-art urban services.... Sample PDF
u-City: The Next Paradigm of Urban Development
Chapter 26
Dan Shang, Jean-François Doulet, Michael Keane
This chapter examines the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in urban China, focusing mainly on their impact on social... Sample PDF
Urban Informatics in China: Exploring the Emergence of the Chinese City 2.0
Chapter 27
Francesco Calabrese
The real-time city is now real! The increasing deployment of sensors and handheld electronic devices in recent years allows for a new approach to... Sample PDF
WikiCity: Real-Time Location-Sensitive Tools for the City
Chapter 28
Eric Paulos, RJ Honicky, Ben Hooker
In this chapter, we present an important new shift in mobile phone usage—from communication tool to “networked mobile personal measurement... Sample PDF
Citizen Science: Enabling Participatory Urbanism
Chapter 29
Mark Shepard
What happens to urban space given a hypothetical future where all information loses its body, that is, when it is offloaded from the material... Sample PDF
Extreme Informatics: Toward the De-Saturated City
Chapter 30
Roger J. Burrows
Is it still the case that one can symptomatically read the early work of the cyberpunk author William Gibson as a form of prefigurative urban theory... Sample PDF
Urban Informatics and Social Ontology
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