Introduction: Beyond the centrality of media and the centrality of space
First Monday

Introduction: Beyond the centrality of media and the centrality of space by Matteo Tarantino and Simone Tosoni

Starting from the middle of the twentieth century human geography has allowed social sciences to escape the prison of Euclidean, abstract space. In that prison, social actors performed within an empty, static container known as “space,” which was more or less a background to their actions. This liberation had many fathers. We could quote Henri Lefebvre’s writings on spatial production (Lefebvre, 1991), Michel de Certeau’s notion of “space as practiced place” (de Certeau, 1984), and Yi–Fu Tuan’s (1976) treatment of “humanistic geography” among the most known “co–conspirators” of this escape. Breaking free of the notion of abstract space, meant to develop the powerful theoretical tool of socio–spatial production. Space emerged as a product of human interaction and at the same time as a context structuring those practices. By the mid–1980s, Massey expressed the circular relationship between space and the social in no ambiguous terms. “Space is a social construct ... [but] the spatial is not only an outcome: it is also part of the explanation [of social processes]” (Massey, 1984). Producing the space we inhabit meant that the more people were in a space, the more rapidly and often unpredictably it changed. And the more diverse the people, the more diverse the way they thought, and what they did in space. Therefore, the more rapid and unpredictable were the changes.

While we were slowly gaining awareness of our role in producing space, urbanism was gaining further momentum, with increasing masses of people convening in cities. If cities always defined the archetypal places for diversity, after the nineteenth century this diversification accelerated to an extent that left many scholars, including Benjamin and Simmel, astounded. But urbanization was accompanied by a parallel process of increasing “mediatisation” of everyday life (Lash, 2005). Our age is characterized by urbanization and mediatisation: most of us live in cities, and most of us have access to media. What’s more, media flooded urban space, escaping the household and assessing their presence outside of any “deputed” place. We carry, use, and encounter media everywhere. The process by which many media “converged” on digital platforms (Pool, 1983; Jenkins, 2006), further complicated the picture (Coyne, 2010; Satyanarayanan, 2001). Following McQuire, we can say that “social life in the twenty–first century is increasingly life in media cities” (McQuire, 2008). And if media are more and more imbricated in everyday life, and social space is produced by our everyday practice, we can but conclude that media are more and more central in the production of our space.

When we designed this special issue, we had a precise interest in mind: we wanted to see how media impacted on space in concrete terms — in the materiality of a specific space and/or in the spatial practices enacted in it: in the way space looks and in what we can or cannot do in it. We wanted to see how “bits” and “waves” became “bricks” — and vice versa. Many excellent studies already exist on such topics as the presence of media in urban space, how media represent places, and how urban space hosts spatial practices. However, the implications of these processes for urban space are not always followed through in those analyses. We called upon scholars to reflect on how these three media–related dynamics actually brought about changes in space.

It was a challenge that required us to draw upon both urban studies and media studies: but we found a dialogue that was far from satisfactory. Urban studies had long been interested in how people produced the spaces they lived in, but had been less concerned about the role of media. Media studies, on the other hand, appeared less prone to “following through” to the level of spatial production (although there are examples of fruitful exchange: see, for example, Foth and Sanders, 2008; Graham, 2001; Graham, 2004). As primarily media scholars, we can elaborate a little on this second aspect.

For a long time, media studies had mostly given attention to the household and, to a lesser extent, the cinema, the workplace, and the school. Many precious insights have been produced by studies on these places. And indeed, this focus had more or less held the discipline together for decades. Yet, the diffusion of personal media brought outdoor media use into the daily routines of growing masses of people. The Walkman revolution brought urban space to the attention of media scholars (Du Gay 1997; Morley, 2007; see also Williams’ “mobile privatization”, 1974), and made evident the limitations of a household–focused perspective. The re–organization of user experiences of ICTs around “nomadic paths” traced by media users across the contexts of urban space (Radway, 1988), called the research agendas of communication scholars to a deep renewal effort. And indeed, those agendas now increasingly feature, along with the household, public spaces, hubs of urban mobility, mass transit vehicles, places for leisure and shopping, avenues, and squares: in sum, the spaces of urban daily life.

In a parallel and complementary way, specialized sub–sectors of the discipline have been rediscovering an interest for the diffused mediality that had always characterized the city (McQuire, 2008), investigating its new forms. Consider, as examples, the attention that urban communication research had reserved in recent years to the topic of urban screens (McQuire, 2006; McQuire, et al., 2009; see also the First Monday special issue at, and the growing interest of such scholars as Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin towards urban media infrastructure (Graham, 2000a; Graham, 2000b; Graham, 2010; Graham and Marvin, 1996).

On the other hand, the discipline appears to some extent to be lacking in theoretical and methodological instruments adequate to the challenge posed by urban space as a context of media usage. What we, as media scholars, have largely been doing in response to this challenge has simply been multiplying our objects of analysis, and studying media located within urban contexts each on its own terms. Perhaps what is necessary is a new systematic reflection on the adequacy of the conceptual framework, methodological premises, and research methods we have inherited from the long and noble tradition of media studies. Theoretical and methodological reflection in this sense appeared to proceed with less enthusiasm than we reserved to the mapping of new objects of inquiry. Also, this mapping appears to be proceeding along two directions which do not stray too far from the tradition of media studies.

The first puts at the center of the analysis the medium itself — new mobile, portable, and geo–locative media — investigating users’ usage patterns and/or symbolic investments. It is the same well–tested approach that has been used for decades on stationary household media — although the emphasis was now on the public character of use (mostly investigated with a Goffmanian approach), or on the effects on space of the use of the medium (typically on spatial representations/perceptions). From this perspective, urban space emerges either as a stage for the visibility of the device and of the related practices, or as the object of mediated representation.

The second line of reflection brings to the foreground specific urban spaces, investigating ethnographically the forms of media presence. The attempt here has been to understand the contribution of media to the practices and activities enacted in these spaces, and the adaptations of media practices to that space. A growing interest in the physical presence of media in space is driving researchers towards a dialogue with urban architecture and planning. It has to be noted that the spatial organization of domestic space around media presence was also in the agenda of studies on household consumption and media domestication (which also employed ethnographic methods). The ethnographic field once limited to the household is now substituted by a variety of spaces, assumed isolable within urban fabric. Researchers approached public, private, and “third” places, along with outdoor and indoor locations, places of permanence or transit, and places with high or low functional specialization. All of those places were profoundly different: therefore, literature can only return an image of urban space as irredeemable patchwork.

If in media-centered approaches, urban space tended to fade in the background, place-centered approaches risked to make it deflagrate in a kaleidoscope of minute details in which any ordering attempt was futile. Both approaches made the dialogue with “urban” specialized disciplines very problematic, as proven by the lukewarm interest paid by urban studies to the attempts of media studies to approach urban space.

For these reasons, a contribution to this dialogue appeared all the more urgent. With Bal (2002), we think that interdisciplinary dialogue should start from shared “bridging concepts,” rather than from case studies. Hence, “Waves, Bits & Bricks” called media scholars to draw upon a relational (Jones, 2009) notion of urban space and interrogate the role of media in its shaping. The 14 peer–reviewed papers which constitute this special issue thread a thick fabric of shared references, themes, and sensitivities.

In the opening paper, Leopoldina Fortunati and Sakari Taipale provide important elements to understand the relationship between media and urban space. According to the authors, a correlation persists between the size of the place of residence of a subject and her technological endowments. However, the strength of this correlation is lessening in relation to mobile and ludic media. The paper stresses how ICTs’ diffusion challenged the urban/countryside dichotomy, driving towards a phase of new ”urbal identities” and of new meanings of ”the urban“.

The following two papers, by Cesare Silla and by Giorgia Aiello, focus on the relationship capitalist societies established among media, urban planning, and urban imaginaries. Silla’s paper approaches the topic from a genealogical perspective. The author identified in the 1891 Chicago World’s Fair a key stage in the elaboration of a specific configuration of this relationship. This configuration was centered upon the notion of the city as spectacle and, at the same time, as a stage for daily life. In the Chicago World’s Fair, media and temporary architectures built for the occasion cooperated to originate a “pseudo–event” centered upon the simulation (i.e., the provision of a spectacularized reality) of a city functional to the new needs of capitalist modernity. That ideal city, the author argues, has marked the urban imaginaries of architects, designers, and planners for many decades.

In continuity with these intuitions, the paper authored by Giorgia Aiello brings us back to the present. The author found this constitutive relationship still at work in Leeds’ Holbeck Urban Village, irrespective of the radical diversity of communication technologies and of the communicative forms at play. Applying Lefebvrian concepts, the author remarks how the planning of the Village and its promotions through intensive marketing strategies cannot be considered as two distinct, separate phases of the urban regeneration project. Rather, those two phases co–shaped each other, and cooperated in an operation of urban shaping that went as far as attempting to engineer the same forms of life that were expected to animate the neighborhood. Similarly to the “simulative” temporary architectures of the Chicago World’s Fair, the strategy entailed a prefiguration of an “envisioned lived space.” The systematic use of promotional media and the “textures” characterizing the materiality of the Village both played a role.

The following two papers — one from Simone Tosi and Pietro Palvarin and one from Greta Byrum and Joshua Breitbart — focused precisely on the material dimension of space, and on its relationship with media. The construction of the new Juventus Stadium in Turin is presented as the driver of a broader strategy of urban regeneration. Tosi and Palvarin stress how media were instrumental in the creation of a favorable climate for the project and in the intensification of the relationship between fans and stadium. Indeed, the needs related to the presence of media in the stadium and the requirements of television broadcasting played an integral role in the construction process. The very codes of televised football (such as particular camera angles or post–game locker room interviews) contributed to shape the materiality of its space.

Byrum and Breitbart’s paper deal with the other direction of the same relationship between media and the material aspects of space, focusing on the role played by spatial materiality in the distribution of media infrastructures. Drawing from four recent interventions in Detroit’s urban core, the authors analyzed potential benefits and drawbacks of using neighborhood churches to deploy infrastructures for wireless Internet connection — considered a vital and scarce resource in low–income urban communities. Byrum and Breitbart remark how churches represented valuable opportunities for these strategies both for their symbolic value and for their particular forms and materiality (e.g., being often the tallest structures in the area).

The following paper, from Tom Apperley and Dale Leorke, deals with the potential of urban gaming and play in fostering new opportunities for “owning” urban space and issues against dominant neo–liberist urbanistic rhetoric. The paper applied an ethnographic approach to critically examine what geo–localized urban gaming can contribute to Lefebvrian’s “rights to the City.” The two authors compared opportunities of play in shared physical spaces (e.g., arcades) and urban multiplayer experiences through mobile locative games. How grounding in the materiality of space still granted better opportunities for empowerment and community building was stressed. “Locative games” appeared to provide weaker opportunities in this sense.

The following three papers deal with “layering,” or the superimposition of information to space through the mediation of ICTs. Sophia Drakopoulou adopted a neo–Lefebvrian perspective in examining several examples of “spatial layering” technologies, focusing in particular on augmented reality hardware and software. Against naïve discourse about empowerment granted by such technologies, the author warned against the opportunities for the commodification of urban space that were also granted by the same technologies.

In developing their argument on the co–constitutive relationship between software and space, both Laura Forlano and Federica Timeto mobilized “layering” not as a technology but as a metaphor to analyze the relationship among media, space, and information, stressing its theoretical limitations.

Laura Forlano departed from “abstract” approaches to the relationship between media and the city, as epitomized by the concept of layering and to some extent also by the mataphor of “smart city”, to investigate the embodied experience of ICTs in processes of sociospatial production. Drawing on empirical examples from art and design, social science, and computer and information science, Forlano discussed visualization, lived experience and imagination as three ways in which socio–technical apparatuses are entailed in these production processes.

Similarly, rather than conceiving the relationship between software and space as a superimposition of information, Timeto stressed the co–constituted character of this relationship through the concept of transduced space (elaborated by Kitchin and Dodgnins). The awareness of this co–constitution was for Timeto a key political resource towards new forms of alternative urbanism, which were illustrated through two Italian art experiences mobilizing both analogue and digital technologies.

For Timeto, analyzing the mere “software” layer was insufficient. The translation process between software and space emerged (and was politically relevant) only as embodied in the concrete practices of social actors: this notion also echoes in Frederic Crooks’ paper. Crooks analyzed Grindr, a mobile dating application targeted towards homosexual users. The scholar found that practices typical of “gay villages” were remediated into Grindr. This ended up remediating those spaces not by translating spatial “representations” (Grindr does not represent its space as a “digital gay village”) but mostly through spatial practices. Crooks is critical of some parts of this re–mediation as de–powering the political relevance of some conquest of the homosexual movement which relied upon acquired spatial visibility of homosexual practices, and are negated by the invisibility and “convenience” of Grindr.

Political concerns are also the lynchpin of the following two papers. The topic here is that of shared ownership of urban issues and spaces. Michel De Lange and Martijn de Waal’s work critically approached the “smart city” paradigm by exploring promising modes of shared or collective “ownership” of urban issues and spaces mediated by ICTs. Also resonating to some extent with Timeto’s paper, the two scholars examined how patterns derived from software production can be translated into urban deliberative practices. They also discuss the possible uses of the mass of data generated by ICT–mediated urban practices within urban design processes.

On the same topic, Shenja Van Der Graaf and Wim Vannoberghen adopted a design–centric approach to explore the involvement of users in the design of a mobile application oriented towards professionals relocating in Brussels. This involvement was particularly relevant as the two scholars stressed the changes in the urban experience of the users by the application. The authors conclude that involving users in the design process of an urban informatics product democratized the boundary among the software, the users, and urban space itself.

Didem Ozkul’s paper also deals with how location–aware technologies shape spatial representations by recreating a sense of imagined presence. Ozkul examined how complex and symbolically dense representations of space were conveyed through relatively simple spatial practices such as “check–ins.”

Also the paper from Lee Humphrey and Tony Liao examines the role of ICTs in shaping spatial representations of (and therefore symbolic investments into) spaces. Specifically, the authors focused on the role of Foursquare in the “parochialization” of urban space, intended as a particular representation of a space as “in–between” between public and private. By checking–in, rating, and commenting, the authors argue, users potentially transformed spaces that would be otherwise objects of low investment (including Marc Augé’s “non–places” such as airports). These are places within which users can entertain meaningful, and sometimes not transitory, relationships (what the users referred to as “attachment” to a place). Humphrey and Liao’s case study can be seen as implying a third kind of “layering”: only the (social) layer of “Foursquare users” was affected by the thickening of relationships and the attachment they foster.

Finally, the authors of this introduction, Simone Tosoni and Matteo Tarantino, put forward a model for the analysis of sociospatial processes. Their paper attempt to locate media and communication not at the beginning of the analysis but within broader translation chains between representations of space, spatial materiality, and spatial practices. The theory is illustrated through the case study of a conflict that was opposing for over a decade Chinese migrants and Italian residents in a Milanese neighborhood. Their research highlights complex media–related practices which, however, cannot be interpreted correctly if not within the sociospatial construction processes they are embedded into. While media scholars, Tosoni and Tarantino try to start not from media, but from space and from the processes of its production: in their own words, losing media at the beginning to recover them in the end.

In doing so, they echo the other papers’ frequent call for cross–disciplinary approaches as the only way to deal with the heterogeneous nature of urban space, made all the more urgent by the rapidly changing technological context. End of article


About the authors

Matteo Tarantino is Senior Researcher at the Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change (ARC) and Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Performance Studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan.
E–mail: Matteo [dot] tarantino [at] unicatt [dot] it

Simone Tosoni, Centre for the Anthropology of Religion and Cultural Change (ARC) and Department of Sociology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan.
E–mail: Simone [dot] tosoni [at] unicatt [dot] it



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Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 25 October 2013.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Introduction: Beyond the centrality of media and the centrality of space
by Matteo Tarantino and Simone Tosoni.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4953.

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