Urbane-ing the City: Examining and Refining the Assumptions Behind Urban Informatics

Urbane-ing the City: Examining and Refining the Assumptions Behind Urban Informatics

Amanda Williams (University of California, Irvine, USA), Erica Robles (Stanford University, USA) and Paul Dourish (University of California, Irvine, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-152-0.ch001
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This chapter critically examines the notion of “the city” within urban informatics. Arguing that there is an overarching tendency to construe the city as an economically and spatially distinct social form, we review a series of system designs manifesting this assumption. Systematically characterizing the city as a dense ecology of impersonal social interactions occurring within recognizably public places, this construction can be traced to turn-of-the-century scholarship about the metropolis. The idealized dweller of these spaces, the flâneur, functions as the prototypical user for urban computing technologies. This assumption constrains the domain of application for emergent technologies by narrowing our conception of the urban experience. Drawing on contemporary urban scholarship, we advocate an alternative perspective which foregrounds the experience rather than the form of the metropolis. Users become actors embedded in global networks of mobile people, goods, and information, positioned in a fundamentally heterogeneous and splintered milieu. Grounding this approach in a preliminary study of mobility practices in Bangkok, Thailand, we illustrate how urban informatics might refine its subject, accounting for local particularities between cities as well as the broader global networks of connection between these sites.
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The City And Its Dwellers: Themes In Urban Informatics

There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. It is at first the consequence of those rapidly shifting stimulations of the nerves which are thrown together in all their contrasts and from which it seems to us the intensification of metropolitan intellectuality seems to be derived... The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things.

Georg Simmel, 1903

Key Terms in this Chapter

Situationism: The Situationists were a group of avant-garde artists, radicals, and intellectuals active in Europe particularly in the late 1950s and 1960s. Situationism argued that the conditions of contemporary capitalism had rendered people passive subjects whose relationship to their own experience was one of the consumption of daily life as spectacle. Urban life was a particular example of a domain in which they sought to revolutionize the experience of everyday life by encouraging people to become conscious, active participants in the reality that their everyday actions produced.

Civil Inattention: Sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term “civil inattention” to refer to the ways in which people maintain a comfortable social order in public spaces by explicitly disattending to one another and their actions (for instance, the minimal social interaction amongst people packed into an elevator).

Power Geometry: Feminist geographer Doreen Massey introduced the term “power geometry” to point to the ways in which spatiality and mobility are both shaped by and reproduce power differentials in society. Examples might include the control over distribution of goods and services, or the different circuits enabled by transportation systems.

Flâneur: Critical theorist Walter Benjamin draws the term “flâneur” from the writings of French poet Charles Baudelaire. To Baudelaire, the flâneur is a figure unique to the city, one who wanders through urban space in order to consume and revel in the images that it offers. Flânerie, then, is an experience of urban space. Benjamin notes the historical and economic specificities of the flâneur, arguing that the kinds of narrative afforded by flânerie depend upon forms of leisure and mobility associated with wealth and power. Critically, the flâneur may be in the crowd, but is not of the crowd.

Positionality: In cultural accounts of experience, positionality refers to both the fact of and the specific conditions of a given social situation. So, where one might talk about the “position” of an individual in a social structure, “positionality” draws attention to the conditions under which such a position arises, the factors that stabilize that position, and the particular implications of that position with reference to the forces that maintain it.In urban informatics, positionality is relevant in the ways in which information systems create and sustain particular networks of positions, spatially and socially.

Anomie: Emile Durkheim used the term “anomie” to refer to the experience of an absence of social norms. Various writers have employed it to characterise the social isolation and alienation from communitarian life and social ties associated with the scale and anonymity of urban environments.

Space of Flows: Urban sociologist Manuel Castells uses the term “space of flows” to reimagine urban space as a nexus of flows of people, capital, goods, and information. This helps us understand the city as a component in broader social and economic processes, and draws attention to the dynamics of those processes.

Splintering Urbanism: A term coined by geographers Steven Graham and Simon Marvin to refer to the ways in which infrastructures, including information and communication technologies, can fragment the experience of the city.

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