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’.

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