Story space: A theoretical grounding for the new urban annotation
First Monday

Story space: A theoretical grounding for the new urban annotation by Rekha Murthy



Abstract
The development and mainstreaming of technologies used to communicate in a digital, "virtual" space raises concerns about new opportunities for social control by corporate and government interests. But the apparently limitless reach of virtual space might actually contain the means of resistance to such control as well. This paper takes a focused look at select writings by Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio to consider how the conditions prompting their technological and social anxieties might be recast as cause for optimism in our mobile digital age.

Contents

Introduction
Integrating locative technologies with portable devices
Virtual space and its practice
A selective history of space and control
Using technology to resist control
Power has occupied technoscientific spaces
Urban annotation as a filtering practice
Consumerism turned to life-affirmation
Reconnecting through networks of stories in virtual space
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Location-aware technologies, until recently residing primarily in specialised domains such as commercial distribution networks and the military, are beginning to enter the consumer mainstream. They are doing so as navigational aids in automobiles, handheld Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for outdoor activities, 911 locators for cell phones, and as value-added services for other handheld devices such as smart phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). This mainstream emergence has prompted thinking about existing needs and desires that might be served and new needs and functions that might be constructed. When the new devices are considered for their communication possibilities, the fundamental question becomes: What can happen to content and its delivery when a user's geographic location is known?

The answers, like the question, tend to focus only on one-way (provider to user) interaction possibilities for new communications technologies, rather than considering the possibilities for two-way or multi-nodal interaction. But these latter types of interaction should not be neglected as location-aware technologies go mainstream, for where such technology intersects with collaborative communication and knowledge-building, interesting things can happen. One of these is called spatial annotation. Simply put, spatial annotation is the practice of linking a communication instance - a thought, a story, a piece of information, a call to action, an exchange among users - to a specific geographical location.

Often, the practice is called "urban annotation" since much of this kind of activity occurs in areas with a higher density of population, built environment, and access to digital communication tools. Understood in a material and more literal sense, urban annotation could be a "Meter is Broken" sign taped to the delinquent meter, a shop sign announcing what is inside a particular building, a flyer announcing a wallet lost at that location, or even a standard street sign labelling the name of a street. Understood in its current usage in the context of digital technology and the emphasis on storytelling by its most active proponents, urban annotation is invisible to the naked eye, created by the user of a location-enabled communication device and received, usually asynchronously, by another such user. It is "attached" virtually to a geographical space using GPS coordinates. What is communicated by the annotation depends upon the user, and that is the open field of possibility this paper explores.

 

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Integrating locative technologies with portable devices

Locative technologies have a wide range of applications, but, as already indicated, what is most interesting for the purposes of this exercise is their integration with information and communications devices - particularly cell phones and portable, Internet-enabled computers that make the user geographically mobile. Many of the imaginings for the use potential of mobile technology are set in cities, with their high levels of cultural, commercial, and leisure activity. Technology developers, urban planners, sociologists, artists, community leaders, media producers, and others are thinking about how an assortment of new technologies might enhance everyday urban experience. In such a fertile realm of possibility, deep thinking anchored by existing social and cultural theory can lead to technological developments that support and enrich everyday urban life and culture. Conversely, technology that forms without such guidance risks simply becoming a newer conduit of older structures of social control. The Internet provides a clear example of this evolutionary tension, as its virtual territories continue to host struggles between collaborative, grassroots, and "free" developmental forces and those that are commercial, proprietary, government surveilled, and otherwise "controlled."[1]

There are, of course, many ways to apply social theory in order to influence technological development. What follows is only one such exercise, and a highly focused one at that. When we situate visions for a 21st-century city at the culmination of a history of theories about cities, space emerges as a key theoretical concept, linking up to an already-mature body of theory about social spaces. One strand is formed by juxtaposing the work of 20th-century French theorists Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio. This juxtaposition gives us a history of western cities as a progression of types of space. Henri Lefebvre's "absolute space" gets chased out by those in power, whose cultivation of "abstract space" is so successful that we are left with Jean Baudrillard's "simulations" - human-scale reality detached from its original referents. By the time of Paul Virilio, geographical, "life-size" space has completely succumbed to capitalism's ruling forces, which strike out into virtual spaces they have discovered or even created with new technologies.

It matters little whether a particular city emerged organically over centuries or was planned and built rapidly to the specifications of a small group of planners and developers. All in the West demonstrate these theories in that the qualities of their spaces trend away from symbolism and shadows, past the surveillance of a disciplinary society, toward a space of control by immersion in information. Geographical space has been infused and closed down by power wielding the newest technologies, and by the attendant collapse of time and distance. Corporate, state, and military interests channel individual human potential and creativity into a space so fully hegemonised by capital and information flows that the controllers recede into the background and much of the creativity is put to work for their interests. Lefebvre, Baudrillard, and Virilio, working at a high level of abstraction, become seduced by the monolithic pessimism that such a high-altitude analysis of the urban condition encourages. They despair at the completeness of the hegemony, and their projections for the future consequently provide little hope for resistance.

 

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Virtual space and its practice

But setting aside their predictions and extrapolating from their descriptions of the times during which they wrote can actually give reason for optimism. Based on the foundational spatial concepts laid out by the three in selected writings, I argue that some virtual spaces - particularly cyberspace - might help break open hegemonised spaces, and consequently give hope for positive change.[2] Certainly these virtual spaces do not intrinsically favour resistance to geographically based hegemony; in fact, they are at risk of being controlled as well. But a schematic look at the three theorists' conceptions of 20th-century lived space points to new possibilities for resistance in the 21st century. Possibilities arise from how we practice these new virtual spaces, how we access and use them, and how we insert our practice of virtual space into our everyday production of geographical space. More specifically, such an exploration reveals the potential of nascent urban annotation projects that encourage individuals to link personal stories in cyberspace to geographical locations, and to access the stories of others.

Virtual space can be said to be the space we practice and produce electronically. It has expanded with computers, but it did not begin with computers. Speaking on the telephone, listening to recorded music, and even watching television are interactions with virtual space in the sense that they transport our consciousness away from our immediate physical and geographical surroundings. We imagine the person on the other end of the telephone line; we hear a voice that is not near us. Watching a pre-recorded television program, we see images and hear sounds that were gathered sometime in the past, or at least someplace where we were not and might never be. We are crossing distance and time in ways our physical bodies alone could not. If we bring this to an urban context, particularly one conducive to walking rather than driving, we see people practicing virtual space with their cell phones, portable audio devices, and PDAs. Without confusing standard communications terminologies of production and reception, it is arguable that the practice of access (or reception) also produces the virtual space, in the same sense that our everyday actions produce the space around us.

As the Internet is released from its wired, geographical anchors - modems, cables, and desktop computers - the city street acquires yet another virtual layer. Rapidly expanding telephony networks further augment this layer. Equipped with the new communications technologies now available to the mainstream, urban inhabitants can access these virtual layers and in doing so, further the production of an urban virtual space. They move through human-scale, physical spaces occupied by state and corporate media and mores, but now they are equipped with new possibilities for practicing their everyday, lived spaces in creative, personalised ways. Again, the devices and the virtual networks they access are not in themselves subversive to dominant spatial practices, but some of the uses being developed - such as urban annotation - show promise in creating openings in the space of dominant culture.

 

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A selective history of space and control

Such techno-optimism stems from a close analysis of selected works by three 20th-century theorists, which form a useful analytic framework for technologies that did not even exist at the time of their writings. The social philosophies of Henri Lefebvre, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio combine, in varying proportions, elements of modernism, postmodernism, and hypermodernism and apply them to the western societies of their times. When looked at together, the resulting sketch of theories of human space is a history of the encroachment by state and corporate power into everyday, individual practices.

Lefebvre, writing The Production of Space in the years immediately following the 1968 popular unrest in France, frames this as a relationship between absolute space and abstract space. Lefebvre's description of absolute space is tinged with nostalgia; it is an "agro-pastoral" space before and beyond the entrenchment of Law and capitalism, a space of shadows and symbols where inhabitants created their own imageries and explanations for the world around them (Lefebvre 234). Abstract space comes at the union of "perceived-conceived-lived," where the state systematises and homogenises space under a rule of law conducive to the economic and strategic interests of those in power. To Lefebvre, homogenisation is the goal of the state, but it is never total: For most of history, absolute and abstract spaces have co-existed in society, the result of deliberate and unintentional efforts of individuals, corporations, governments, and other institutions to produce their own types of spaces. In the tension between the rational and the symbolic, between religious space and commercial space (Lefebvre 266), the two complete each other:

Even today urban space appears in two lights: on the one hand it is replete with places which are holy or damned, devoted to the male principle or the female, rich in fantasies or phantasmagorias; on the other hand it is rational, state-dominated and bureaucratic, its monumentality degraded and obscured by traffic of every kind, including the traffic of information.[3]

Lefebvre's modernist formulations are too binary to stretch fully over the postmodernist social theories that follow, but they still provide a useful interpretive filter. Lefebvre's abstract/absolute oscillation largely disappears in the world described by Jean Baudrillard, having given way to the dominance of abstraction in human spatial practices. Writing Simulations in the early 1980s, Baudrillard is more radical than Lefebvre in his spatial critique of society; to him, symbolism and nature have been detached so fully from their referents that people are left inadvertently practicing abstract space even when they quest for something absolute, for example when they purchase vacation packages to escape city life and return to nature (Simulations 10). These abstractions, formed out of a state-corporate collusion in support of global capitalism, overwhelm individual practices and hammer them into sameness. In Baudrillard's dystopic vision, everyone is a consumer, a point he elaborates in The System of Objects, written a decade before Simulations. The use value of objects has given way to an exchange value boosted by marketing and planned obsolescence.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. (Simulations 2)

To both Lefebvre and Baudrillard, the second half of the 20th century brings a shift in the types of control. While power is still multiform, it depends increasingly on information; Baudrillard puts this more radically: "No more violence or surveillance: only 'information'…" (Simulations 54) The separation of the public sphere - traditionally state and community institutions - from the private sphere of home, a separation cultivated by 19th-century western societies, erodes as information technologies bring news, culture, and data into the home space. One-way broadcasting technologies, radio and television, funnel abstract space into the home, and our ability to "surf" the Internet adds a patina of individual agency to a hegemonised consumption of state-regulated corporate media. In Baudrillard's time, it was television that slid from spectacle to the ambience of everyday life: "Such immixture, such a viral, endemic, chronic, alarming presence of the medium, without our being able to isolate its effects… -the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV…"(Simulations 54-55). To Virilio, the problem is made worse with the advent of even more invasive technologies, among them communications and entertainment technologies in the city of the late 20th century.

Virilio takes the baton from Baudrillard on the theme of information as social control. He is writing during the mid-1990s, a time of rapidly expanding digital networks, especially the Internet. To him, the problem is information, but especially information that has gathered electronic speed.

In days gone by, being present meant being close, being physically close to the other in face-to-face, vis-à-vis proximity. This made dialogue possible through the carrying of the voice and eye contact. But with the advent of media proximity, based on the properties of electromagnetic waves, the value of interlocutors' immediate coming together has suffered from interference, the sudden loss of distance rebounding on "being there," here and now. (The Art of the Motor 106)

Reality is produced, like culture and like space; more than just a set of simulations, an entire reality can be eventually substituted for another. This view distinguishes Virilio from Lefebvre and Baudrillard, who retain a sense of a concrete reality underneath all of the simulation and abstraction. All, however, come together in their mourning for a lost human existence. What Virilio mourns most is the loss of human-scale time and distance:

As 'citizens of the world' and inhabitants of nature, we too often forget that we also inhabit physical dimensions, the scale of space and the lengths of time of the life-size. The obvious degradation of the elements, chemical or other, that make up the substances comprising our natural surroundings has joined forces with the unperceived pollution of the distances that organise our relationships with others, and also with the world of sense experience. (Open Sky 59)

Virilio is describing a new "urban ecology" of a global city "totally dependent" on telecommunications (Open Sky 59). From television to cell phones to video conferencing and cyberspace, we are immersed in speed-space, what Virilio calls the "dromosphere". Geographical space has been obliterated by the lightning-speed communications technologies that enable users to traverse the globe without making the effort of a physical voyage. In the dromosphere, any tension between absolute and abstract space has resolved in favour of abstract space, though that term is no longer strong enough to describe what is happening: "With excess transmission speed, control becomes the environment itself" (The Art of the Motor 131). Control has shifted - though not completely - from the state and surveillance to the multinational corporation, the military (which develops technologies like the Internet and geographical positioning and sends them into the mainstream), and information(Virilio Live 30). Our everyday production of space has shifted from practice to consumption, into a functional, operational ethos. There are no more stories in a world that lacks existential depth.

 

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Using technology to resist control

In this space closed by power, capital, and information, it is hard to imagine how one might resist. And what would resistance mean? Lefebvre, Baudrillard, and Virilio might agree that resistance involves making openings and reinserting what is absolute and human into an overtechnologised world. Lefebvre and Baudrillard see an abstract order that can be extracted from "real" existence and overthrown - presumably to return to a past existence. Virilio distinguishes himself from Baudrillard, who he claims "has lost faith in the social," by saying that he believes in "the power and resilience of individual people in the streets" (Virilio Live 35). Beyond these wisps in these select works, all three focus on building diagnostic frameworks that others might stand upon while seeking remedies.

"Remedy" might be too grand a characterisation for what follows, but the aim is at least to set out in that direction. The first step towards resistance to social control is the reminder, by all three theorists, that individual agency still resides in how one practices space. If space is produced by how we practice it, then we might change the qualities of that space by practicing it differently. Virilio problematises this when he says, "…[R]eality is never given, but is the outcome of a culture" (Virilio Live 34-35). Even if he is right, that there is no reality outside of the abstractions we create, the loss of an "original reality" should not render the resistance project hopeless; rather it potentially gives anyone - not just those in power - the ability to manipulate or recreate reality.

In the next steps toward resistance, the unseen and appropriation are two important concepts. They lead us, perhaps surprisingly, to some of the newest networking technologies available. In earlier times, shadows rendered certain things unseen; it was there that Lefebvre situated human resistance to abstract space. Now, virtual space harbours the unseen; therefore, it might also harbour the possibility of resistance. Unlike physical, geographical space, the frontiers of which can no longer expand beyond the reach of power, virtual space can expand almost infinitely. Its expansion is engineered by a broader base of participants than those who govern abstract geo-space: Many people can host servers, many can write software, and many more can build their own Web sites.

To be sure, many of the resources that support this network - computer hardware producers, software makers wielding copyrights, and energy companies regulating and pricing flows - are generally controlled by a small elite with ties to the state. But the technology industry's competitive landscape still has the dynamism of a nascent field, where companies come and go in short periods of time, and members of Virilio's 'cult of technoscience' cast about for the Next Big Thing (Virilio Live 21). These forces continue to expand cyberspace - there seems to be room for governments, corporations, social institutions, and individuals. Cyberspace is still a space of fragmentation and flux, "nomadological" characteristics that Virilio and his friends Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari would consider conducive to resistance (Virilio Live 40).

 

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Power has occupied technoscientific spaces

Thus, a massive new infrastructure has emerged in a short period of time, one that creates and sustains an increasingly ambient virtual space, and one that is still flexible enough for individuals and communities to appropriate their share - or more. Most people currently access cyberspace via personal computers linked to a network. But the means of access is diversifying. The market is creating new demands and catering to existing ones that tend towards portability and ease of information access. With the latest developments in wireless technology, cyberspace can be accessed from the street, not just from the home.

For these new user contexts, new uses are being developed. While these are still developed by a small elite, the elites of the technorevolution are not necessarily the same as those of the political or corporate elites in other domains. These days, abstract space is not as monolithic, nor are its boundaries as clearly delineated as Lefebvre often (but not always) suggests. The power structures of nation-states and multinational corporations might appear intact from a distance, but a closer look shows a fair amount of fragmentation and dynamism. Even the pessimistic Virilio eagerly acknowledges this: "I came to see that the unity of space… is in the process of being broken up… Nothing remains whole, as space, from approximately the 1970s onwards. And to me, this is a great joy, since I am anti-totalitarian" (Virilio Live 24). A flexible space is one that might be appropriated by the practices of ordinary individuals and groups, especially as the opportunities to acquire technologies and the skills to develop and use them broaden.

Continuing in this optimistic vein, Virilio claims, "I am not fretting against technology per se, but against the logic behind it" (Virilio Live 25). But in fact much of his work, especially the more pessimistic parts, has a tinge of technological determinism. He blames technology for accelerating the pace of life, the collapse of geographical spaces, and the greater entrenchment of bad logics. But is technology really the problem? We might better think of it as amplifying an already-existing abstract space. That space is newly manifest in technological spaces, especially in those micro and macro spaces the discoveries of which it finances and directs. Power has occupied technoscientific spaces, but there is not necessarily more power than there was before their advent.

This is important because optimism can cast technology as a site of hope, not despair. What if technologies give individuals and communities greater chance of resistance? What if we can change the logic of invention and modern progress? What if, by developing practices that are intrinsically local (in that a particular story is attached to a particular location), we can fragment Virilio's unitary "world time" into many localised times and places? Urban annotation can encourage the art of invention, rather than invention in the service of efficiency. Its core element, storytelling, can fragment the "unity of space" that all three theorists condemn, undermining the grand narratives that can smother variegated humanity and resistance. Virtual space, when populated with personal stories, becomes messy, fragmented, and more human. Virilio needs more faith in the human ability to deflect: his vision of "man-the-target" of "too much noise" and "too much light" (i.e., too much information) neglects the possibility that people might create good techno-prostheses, such as devices that filter out unwanted information in favour of better information (The Art of the Motor 132).

 

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Urban annotation as a filtering practice

Urban annotation can be seen as a type of filtering practice, where users of mobile technology are given the option to spend more time with stories instead of information. They can tag geographical locations with personal stories and observations that can only be deposited and accessed in the virtual space. To understand this in practical terms, consider how Yellow Arrow ( http://www.yellowarrow.net) works: Cell phone User #1 visits a location that is special to her; perhaps it's where she once ran into a long-lost high school friend or where she recently learned a bit of local history. She places a sticker on a nearby surface. The sticker is a yellow arrow, and it has a code on it. On her cell phone, User #1 creates a text message beginning with that code that tells her story. She sends the message to the Yellow Arrow phone number. Her text message is stored on their server. Sometime later, User #2 walks by, sees the yellow arrow, and stops. He sends a text message query that includes the code on the sticker. He receives User #1's text message in return. User #2 now knows User #1's story. Equipped with Yellow Arrow stickers that he acquired online, he may choose to place a few of his own.

Other developers are creating ways to turn more advanced data technologies into urban annotation tools. Urban Tapestries (http://urbantapestries.net) is one such project. Users of mobile technologies can seed an urban space with their own stories, stories that might be accessed by a wide variety of users - tourists, new residents, long-term residents seeking to discover new space within their familiar locations.[4] As with Yellow Arrow, the stories are grounded in specific locations. Unlike Yellow Arrow, they are completely unseen without the aid of a technological device. The non-profit creators of Urban Tapestries are aware of the potential for such a network and the set of practices it might encourage:

The Urban Tapestries software platform allows people to author their own virtual annotations of the city, enabling a community’s collective memory to grow organically, allowing ordinary citizens to embed social knowledge in the new wireless landscape of the city. People can add new locations, location content and the ‘threads’ that link individual locations to local contexts, which are accessed via handheld devices such as PDAs and mobile phones.

Urban Tapestries seeks to understand why people would use emerging pervasive technologies, what they could do with them and how we can make this possible. It seeks to enable people as their own authors and agents, not merely as consumers of content provided to them by telecoms and media corporations. The project centres on a fundamental human desire to ‘map’ and 'mark’ territory as part of belonging and of feeling a sense of ownership of our environment. (http://urbantapestries.net)

The language is political in the way that spatial theory is political - assessing the current situation of space can reveal power structures and show us strategies for resisting them.

Yellow Arrow and Urban Tapestries are two more prominent examples of projects that merge storytelling with mobile technology. Others, at varying levels of current activity, include Murmur ( http://murmurtoronto.ca), the MIT Collaborative Mapping Project ( http://museum.mit.edu/cmp), Invisible Ideas ( http://www.invisibleideas.org/invis_i_d.html), and PDPal ( http://www.techkwondo.com/projects/pdpal_ts). Internet projects such as Open Guides ( http://openguides.org) and Your History Here ( http://www.yourhistoryhere.com) aim to create and share databases that others could bring into the mobile space.  Games like Conqwest (http://www.conqwest2005.com) use technology to insert play into the urban environment. Like the ever-changing technology field from which they emerge, many of these initiatives come and go, but collectively they mark a new way of seeing and interacting with urban space. All involve hybrid uses of a variety of mobile devices, along with the enabling virtual networks. Most importantly, the mobility of the user and the virtuality of the information break open new spaces for unproductive, personal enjoyment of specific geographical spaces, and for a reclaiming of community among "ordinary" individuals, often strangers, whose lives the theorists fear have been taken over and atomised by abstract space. Those individuals are also being empowered by the experts developing the urban annotation systems. The experts create user-friendly ways to participate that do not require advanced technological skills, in effect handing over large parts of their creations to the people, an act that Lefebvre might approve:

When the interested parties [in an urban space] - the 'users' - do not speak up, who can speak in their name or in their place? Certainly not some expert, some specialist of space or of spokesmanship… How would the discourse of such an expert differ from that of the architects, 'developers' or politicians? The fact is that to accept such a role or function is to espouse the fetishisation of communication - the replacement of use by exchange. The silence of the 'users' is indeed a problem - and it is the entire problem. (Lefebvre 364-365)

The users of PDPal are encouraged to "write your own city," and the creators of Urban Tapestries promote a "sense of ownership of our environment." These exemplify the empowerment language that urban annotation projects widely employ. In urban annotation, the expert system creators generally make a point of receding into the background, but without maintaining the constantly watchful eye of a controlling power structure. Entries are not monitored (unless they are egregiously offensive), people can read and post as much as they want, and in some cases, they can comment on and even edit others' entries.[5]

 

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Consumerism turned to life-affirmation

Thus the stage is set for a key resistance practice: insertion. In a fragmented, dynamic space, insertion is more possible: of stories and histories, of time, of distance - some of what Lefebvre, Baudrillard, and Virilio worry has been lost in the evolution of societies. It happens out in the street, where abstract space took over long ago. Slowing down in front of a sticker out of curiosity and turning to a technological device to decipher its message, stopping on a street corner to read a story that appears on one's GPS-enabled device, composing a story or history about a favourite location and stopping to tag that location - these are all acts of insertion. And not just of stories. They insert time, they insert distance (querying a server far away to understand a message right in front of you), and perhaps most importantly, they insert the absolute space of unproductive enjoyment. Baudrillard would likely say that the gadget acquisition required to engage in these practices constitutes commodified leisure, but I would argue that this is another site of appropriation: Consumerism turned to life-affirmation. Like Virilio, Baudrillard can be too extreme in his denunciation of the human condition; for example, when he proclaims all social participants to be consumers. In his sweeping view of society, he seems to forget that individuals in their everyday lives still form relationships, still have treasured objects with little exchange value, and sustain belief structures dictated by religions, communities, and selves, not necessarily by states and corporations. The challenge might better be seen as attempting to bring these qualities out of the home and private life and more into the streets, a project for which urban annotation shows promise.

Cyberspace, especially the Internet, has been lauded since its advent for its resistance possibilities, for example, the democratisation of information access and creation and the facilitation of new linkages among like-minded but geographically separate people. That is a positive development that remains largely within the virtual realm. But armed with the spatial thinking of Lefebvre, Baudrillard, and Virilio, I see the possibilities for using virtual technologies to reinsert absolute space into geographical, life-size space, the space that Virilio fears has already disappeared. As Lefebvre notes, fragmentation of space is not enough for resistance, for all space is simultaneously fragmented and homogenous. The key to resistance is creating fragments that do not immediately serve the centralising, homogenising force of power (Lefebvre 355-356).

Urban annotation does have its problems as a practice of resistance. As Lefebvre points out, unproductive activities are simply more difficult to sustain in a world of capitalist logic. Lines blur when corporations launch their own urban annotation initiatives, which often at first appear free of user obligation. But these lines come into focus again when the manager of such a network begins to include location-based advertising or charges an access fee. It is not always clear what the creators of a new annotation network hope to accomplish: One of Yellow Arrow's founders told me they might ultimately weave the database of stories, collected from approximately 1000 participants, into a performance piece; others have speculated Yellow Arrow might open itself up to marketers seeking hip, underground channels (one might call it a reappropriation of seemingly absolute space).

Like most enterprises in a society of capitalist logic, urban annotation projects feel the pressure to have a business model. When individuals, educational institutions, or non-profit groups start an initiative, these can stagnate when funding (some of it often corporate, as in the case of Urban Tapestries) dries up. And in a system of planned obsolescence a network structure built for a certain type of device becomes obsolete along with its access tool - dynamism in service of power (The System of Objects 146). Some groups adjust - PDPal, faced with the (probably temporary) decline in use of the pocket-sized computer, launched MobileScout ( http://www.mobilescout.org ) to provide alternative access to the network via cell phone. Others disappear, and take their collections of stories with them. A dynamic space does not necessarily turn in favour of the masses. But it is at least more open to possibilities of appropriation and future shaping, especially when recognised as such. In a sense, this is what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they favour 'becoming' over being - change instead of stasis.

While I noted earlier that technology developers are not necessarily part of a power elite thanks to a wider availability of tools and education, Lefebvre reminds us that their role is not uncomplicated, especially in the context of urban annotation's identity as a space of enjoyment in everyday life.

In the end, the invention of a space of enjoyment necessarily implies going through a phase of elitism. The elites of today avoid or reject quantitative models of consumption and homogenising trends. At the same time, though they cultivate the appearance of differences, these elites are in fact indistinguishable from one another. The 'masses', meanwhile, among whom genuine differences exist, and who at the deepest (unconscious) level seek difference, continue to espouse the quantitative and the homogeneous. The obvious reason for this is that the masses must survive before they can live. (Lefebvre 380)

While Virilio is certainly not wrong when he says, "If time is money… then speed is power" (Virilio Live 26), slowing down in a world of speed and capital is also an elitist endeavour, as it requires a certain amount of financial security to compensate for times of unproductive enjoyment. Right now, slowness costs time and money; the hope is that eventually, use of technology and stories can bring that kind of leisure to more people by making it a part of everyday practice.

 

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Reconnecting through networks of stories in virtual space

Of course, leisure time is only one barrier to widespread use of virtual networks. The access devices themselves are costly, and are often confusing to learn. Each urban annotation system has a learning curve as well. Additionally, there is an undeniable digital divide in western countries, which runs along several lines including class, geography (rural vs. urban), and the adoption levels that depend on users' relative comfort with new technologies. But the dynamism of the consumer electronics market indicates that prices will likely fall and more users will accustom themselves to the ever-more ubiquitous technologies. Not everyone will feel a need to participate in a collaborative story-mapping of space, although not everyone needs to for it to be an important spatial contributor. Another potential barrier is the type of geographical social space: While some urban annotation projects are used in less-populated, less-built areas, most efforts are concentrated in cities, where pedestrian practices facilitate serendipity and the slowing down or stopping needed to participate. And interest curves are very real; social networking projects in virtual space sometimes see an initial flurry of activity that later dies down.

So, the seeding of human spaces with human stories is not an uncomplicated site of potential resistance to power's abstractions. But when we use concepts articulated by Lefebvre, Baudrillard, and Virilio to look at urban annotation in a different way, it can be a site of optimism. Participants can reclaim or expand their private identities as practitioners of space, not just as Baudrillard's assimilated consumers. I disagree with Baudrillard and Virilio that there is no absolute space left. But even if they are right, its complete demise happened recently, only a few generations back. Its historical proximity makes it far less difficult to rehabilitate than reaching into the ancient past for the original referents that once grounded human societies long ago. As individuals reconnect through networks of stories in virtual space, they add a different kind of surveillance to Virilio's "vision without a gaze" by encouraging other participants to wander the spaces far and near to them without being cowed by the presence of a mechanical eye. In a sense, urban wandering calls the bluff of the surveillance society, that supposedly constrains movement, by encouraging individuals to test the perceived boundaries of acceptable social rhythms. And it might belie the myth of an atomised individual by encouraging strangers to communicate creatively with one another.

 

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Conclusion

Ours is no longer a time for nostalgia. Western society is awash in technology and information, but I have tried to show that these entities do not necessarily entrench the hegemony of the human condition. Virtual space is still new, and it is dynamic. We are on the leading edge of mobile technologies, and in a moment of new thinking about how cities in the 21st century should be. A theoretical understanding of the relationships within and beyond power can embolden those not in power to help shape our technological practices, rather than wait for dominant structures to take the lead. Influencing the structural development of virtual spaces can also push the redirection of cities' existing physical and institutional structures in ways that more affirm our human existence.[6] Urban annotation practices can open cracks in what might seem like a rigidly hegemonised space, and those cracks can enable new ways to insert human qualities into our urban (and exurban) spaces. This points less to the overthrow of an order than it does to a shift in the proportion of control. As Lefebvre writes, simply the quest for a "counter-space" can make waves (Lefebvre 383). We cannot go back, but we can make moving forward at least as appealing a proposition.End of article

 

About the author

Rekha Murthy received her Masters degree from MIT's Comparative Media Studies program in June, 2005. She has professional experience as a public radio producer and as an information designer and content developer for new media, specifically the Web and mobile digital devices. Her research interests include street media in urban spaces, urban annotation practices, and the supporting telecommunications and social networking technologies.
E-mail: rmurthy [at] alum [dot] mit [dot] edu

 

Notes

  1. For more on this, see the writings of Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig (http://www.lessig.org).
  2. Here and subsequently, "cyberspace" refers to the generally accessible virtual spaces created not only by Internet data hosting and transmission, but also by GPRS (used by some cell-phone networks), HSDPA, WIMAX, and other newer data services.
  3. Lefebvre 231. Lefebvre's "today" is the 1970s.
  4. For some Urban Tapestries use scenarios, visit http://research.urbantapestries.net/early_scenarios.html
  5. This collaborative approach is not confined to mobile technologies; it is growing online as well, most notably with Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) and other wikis, where users can post their own entries and edit others with very little intercession by the site's creators. Also see del.icio.us (http://del.icio.us), where users can share their favorite Web sites and create their own taxonomies.
  6. The current debate over access to broadband Internet in the United States is one demonstration of such a process in motion. Municipalities are questioning the ability of private monopolies to provide the high quality, affordable access needed for regional economic growth and, arguably, an informed, democratically active citizenry.

References

John Armitage, ed., 2001. "Introduction" and "From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond." Virilio Live: Selected Interviews. SAGE Publications.

Jean Baudrillard, 1983. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. Semiotext[e].

---, 1996. The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. London: Verso.

Henri Lefebvre, 1991. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Paul Virilio, 1997. "Grey Ecology." Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. WW Norton.

---, 1995. "From Superman to Hyperactive Man." The Art of the Motor. Trans. Julie Rose. University of Minnesota Press.



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Story space: A theoretical grounding for the new urban annotation by Rekha Murthy
First Monday, Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the potential of outdoor screens for urban society
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1547/1462





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