Blog Post

Digital Cities and Digital Literacies

The November 2009 issue of Wired UK Magazine features a series of stories grouped under the title "Digital Cities." Adam Greenfield's contribution, "Digital Cities: Words on the Street," comments on our embrace of the "digital mediation of everyday life," and notes that we have cheerfully – or in many cases blithely – adopted a host of technologies that we use in our cars, clothing and phones that connect with global networks in real time, transmitting data back and forth. He goes on to highlight some of the benefits of the real-time, data-enabled city but then turns to the glitch: "The technologies that the networked city relies upon remain opaque, even to those exposed to them daily." The solution? According to Greenfield, "understanding networked urbanism on its own terms requires an investment of time and effort beyond the reach of most." He goes on to claim a need for translators, or people able to understand and explain this complex intersection of technology and culture, calling these agents "Urbanists" with the mandate to help the rest of us understand the city as process, as networked landscape, and as a queryable surface.

Are these technologies really so invisible, though? Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish write in "Yesterday's Tomorrows: Notes on Ubiquitous Computing's Dominant Vision" about the fact that ubiquitous computing tends to be about a continually out-of-reach "proximate future" because the present state of computing doesn’t really match up to the clean, perfect world promised in prior visions of that future.

In other words, maybe we don’t see pervasive computing because it actually is so present. Example? The odd amalgam of nature and culture embodied by the cell phone antenna tree. UCSB professor Lisa Parks writes in a recent issue of Flow about the practice of making cell phone towers resemble trees, noting that the concealment is not only aesthetic but political. While hiding various infrastructures of the city, such as plumbing and electricity, has been common, "one of its effects is to keep citizen/users naive about the systems that surround them and that they subsidize and use."

Parks echoes Greenfield in noting that while we think of ourselves as belonging to a networked society, "most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support such a designation." She encourages us to adopt an "infrastructure literacy," which suggests a sharing of practices and knowledge broadly rather than the creation of professionals who will explain things to us. While I understand Greenfield's desire to highlight the complexity of an emerging field and scholarly discipline, it's also imperative, especially when things begin to become invisible, to pay attention to the distribution of power and privilege that accompanies access to knowledge.

These thoughts definitely pertain to our ongoing work on Mobile Voices, when discussions about infrastructures - in terms of the city, in the technologies we've opted to use, and in the often messy and contested structure of our collaboration - are constantly brought to the surface and examined. It's hard work, but consistently it's clear that productive interogation happens through exchange and practices of working together rather than from the expertise of an authority.

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