Podcast Transcript: 285 – The Digital City
Below is a full transcript of my discussion with Germaine Halegoua about her book The Digital City. Hope folks enjoy this one, a must read/listen if you’re going to do any digital outreach or organizing.
JW: Germaine Halegoua, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
GH (1m 24s): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JW (1m 26s): Awesome. So before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
GH (1m 29s): Sure. Well, I’m an associate professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas, and I have a PhD in Communication Arts from the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And my main area of research right now is that I study cultural geographies of digital media primarily in cities, but also in rural environments, and how places and identities are produced through media access and use. So things like how people create a sense of place through a media, particularly digital media, how media use differs based on location and place-based cultural practices. And a lot of my work is meant to inform our understandings of the media and the meaning of media and everyday life, but also the development of more equitable technology and urban design practices. So that’s really kind of where my work intersects with some of the themes that you’re interested in on this podcast as well.
JW (2m 19s): Cool. And what got you interested in that, you know, like was there a class or was there something that you saw when you were younger that said, “Oh, I want to go into media studies and relate it to place?”
GH (2m 29s): Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I mean, I think there’s a lot of different things that I could probably point to, but I think it’s, you know, kinda from a personal perspective without getting maybe too personal. I come from a family of immigrants and they landed in New York City in the late 1950s, and I kind of came to know cities or become curious about cities through the stories that they would tell. Like my parents and grandparents would constantly reminisce about being immigrants to the South Bronx and Queens and the 1960s and 70s. And I didn’t grow up in a city, I grew up in a very small town on eastern Long Island, but I was surrounded by these stories constantly and I kind of became obsessed with any opportunity to hear more about cities and not just New York City but any city really. And because of my family, I think, and how often they talked about how language and socioeconomic class and their ethnicity influenced their experience of urban space and, like, their feelings of belonging or exclusion within cities, I’ve always kind of considered cities this like really interesting, stimulating, vibrant patchwork of power inequity and also like a platform for control over the meaning of everyday life or access to resources or access to mobility. And all of these, like, poetic and traumatic stories that I’d been told over and over again, how they play out so differently for so many different people in such close proximity to one another.
So I think I’ve always just been fascinated by the idea that so many people could live together in such close, dense proximity and all experience the city differently, like all have their own unique stories to tell, but that we’ve learned how to design for and, like, manage this density in social as well as kind of governance or planning perspectives and city management perspectives. And that’s where a lot of my research lies now actually is looking at what happens when people interface with digital technologies of urban coordination planning and city management, and how they experienced these technologies differently based on who they are and where they’ve been or where they go.
But I think also professionally, one of the things that I did right after graduating college, and I went to college in Manhattan in New York City, was working with a media activist organization called DCTV, Downtown Community Television Center. And they’re still around and they do excellent work, they operate in lower Manhattan. But one of the things that I helped with there was we worked with amateur and professional media makers to tell untold personal or political stories about New York City for outlets like PBS, HBO, public-access television. But one of the things that I thought was super interesting was at the time that I was working for this Downtown Community Television Center that mainly taught people how to use video technologies like camcorders and things like that, we saw in the early 2000s this kind of embracing of cell phones and web-based projects to curate stories about place. That there was, what the pop press and industry press was calling like a locative media explosion, where we saw everything that we could imagine kind of being equipped with GPS or the ability to geocode images and that seemed to be everywhere.
And I started thinking about these questions like, well, what happened to the way that we experience place or experience cities differently? Do we experience cities differently and tell stories about cities differently through digital technologies? And then also thinking about, well, how do urban planners and municipal officials consider digital media in their decision making processes about the design of the city, and what can we learn about the meaning of place or mobility or presence through digital practices. But also I wanted to investigate, and I started thinking about this also around that same time in the early 2000s, I wanted to think more about how people experience place or create a sense of belonging or familiarity while living in what felt at the time to be this ever expanding world of flux. Like we were thinking a lot about globalization, about mobility, about the speed and volume of digital connectivity and how that would change the way that we do everything from business to socialization and socializing. And I just got really kind of invested in investigating, well, how does digital media use change the way that we interface with place writ large, but particularly urban place in urban environments.
JW (6m 47s): And that’s really interesting because you mentioned the 2000s, and in the book you mentioned the kind of the difference between the 2000s and now, a number of different times it feels like. You have the difference in how people see the definition of a smart city. You have, you know, the way that people are using navigational apps. What’s the difference between now and say the 2000s as it pertains to how people use digital media and how they relate them to cities?
GH (7m 14s): Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So I think, I mean a number of things are different. One major aspect is that we become a lot more accustomed to these technologies, that we’ve integrated a lot of these technologies and practices and platforms that were new and the early 2000s, let’s think about things like Instagram, Facebook, and all of these sort of manifestations of geocoding text and video and status updates and location announcement. All of these things that are not so new anymore. They’re really habitual. We do them sometimes almost without thinking. And I think that the way that we’ve integrated, we’ve had more time to integrate some of these activities into our daily routines and the fabric of our everyday lives that we kind of begin to view the city in a lot more of, we take for granted maybe the city as this amalgam of digital technologies with physical space, that it feels a lot more natural and because it feels a lot more natural, we’re sort of not as apt to question it, I think, in the way that we maybe should. So we’re creating these spaces and places that are an amalgam of digital and physical environments, but we’re maybe ironically not as attuned to the places that we’re creating as we perhaps should be because they feel so naturalized.
I mean, one of the things that I found in the book, and I don’t know if you’re referring to this, but when I was talking to people about their navigation, digital navigation use, like a lot of the technologies that they used in the earlier 2000s, like 2010, and what they were using in 2015 when I talked to a different group of people about the use of GPS, were the same technologies with mostly the same functionality, but they viewed their relationship to these technologies very differently because they were even using different terms to describe the way that they used something like GPS on their cell phones. Like at one point during interviews with people and questionnaires with people in 2010, they would talk about using GPS on their cellphones to navigate a strange urban environment or a place that they hadn’t been before in terms of a crutch, and they felt a little bit guilty about it. Like even the people around them made them feel a little bit guilty for not using maybe a paper map or not using, or relying too heavily on Google Maps on their cell phone. But in 2015, that sort of feeling of guilt totally dissipated, and they really embraced their over-reliance, we can say, on the use of Google Maps on their cell phone to get anywhere in the city. And they started to change their perspective on why that was meaningful to them.
So one of the things that came out when I talked to people in 2015 about how they used something like Google Maps on their cell phone or any sort of GPS technology, was that they were saying, “Well this is my kind of comrade-in-arms,” like that, “My Google Maps is the way that I can experience the places that I live or the places that I travel to more robustly.” And they didn’t feel guilty at all about having to do that and not really being able to navigate where they were going without it. They were sort of like, “No, we’re working together. This is my coworker in getting through the city and experiencing the city in the way that I’d like to.” So I think because these technologies have become so habitual and so normalized and naturalized, that not only are we not asking sort of important critical questions about them, but we’re embracing them in ways that actually do augment our sense of place and do augment the sort of experiences we’re able to have in urban environments or between urban environments as we travel. Or as we used to travel, I guess.
JW (10m 49s): What do you think happened between 2010 and 2015 that just made people feel more comfortable not seeing it as a crutch? I know that for me I still try to, personally, I mean I used to do a lot of map making and cartography, so I feel like for me it was something that I used to look up my final destination and then, you know, getting between here and there was on me (Laughs) to a certain extent. But I’m curious what changed between 2010 to 2015 to make people feel like it was okay to integrate it into their use?
GH (11m 21s): Yeah, I’m not 100% sure about that, and I didn’t talk to people about this. I mean a lot of my work is ethnographic and interview-based. So I like to ask people about how they feel or what they think about something before I draw any sort of conclusion about, you know, theoretically this could be why things have changed. And I didn’t really ask people about what has changed for them. But if I had to think about it, I think that one of the things is the way that we began to understand what place and placemaking were shifted dramatically. So I think that we became a lot more comfortable, whether we realized it or not, thinking about the way that you make place as being linked to our use of digital media, digital technologies like GPS, but also social media services like Instagram, or announcing locations on a service that doesn’t really exist in the same way anymore like Foursquare. That we saw this as being something active that we were doing and something meaningful that we were doing, and not that it was a distraction and not that it was something that was affecting our mobility negatively, but that we, through sort of these years of using something like GPS for example, that we kind of began to see the benefits of it and that we weren’t maybe so influenced by this colloquial sort of negativity around GPS as being completely distracting and completely disembedding. But that if we kind of reflected, I don’t know that everybody did, but I think the people that I talked to when they were asked to reflect on their use of something as banal as GPS technology on their cell phones, they kind of took account of the fact that they had a lot of very positive experiences because of their reliance on digital technology.
So one example was one of the people that are talked to said, “You know, I never could have traveled to Florida by myself and driven all by myself, not really knowing where I was going, and I had all of these adventures on my way, and I wouldn’t have felt secure in doing that if it wasn’t for my GPS technologies.” So we started to sort of, I think maybe see consciously or subconsciously that our reliance actually was beneficial in some ways.
JW: It sounds like a good commercial for a navigation company. “Adventures are on your way.” (Laughs)
GH: (Laughs) I guess so. And I do want to say that I do push back on that sort of marketing hype. I think that that was one thing that we saw a lot of in the early 2000s as well, was a lot of marketing hype around GPS as something that would allow you to track the ones you love, which, I mean even when you say that out loud there’s a double edge sword to that, right?
JW: (Laughs) Absolutely.
GH: I don’t think we all want to track the ones we love. We might want to feel close to the ones we love or feel connected to the ones that we love but maybe not, you know, monitor them constantly in a surveillance tracking, screened sort of way. But I think that the sense of adventure that people feel with their use of GPS is not necessarily the type of adjectives we associate with being adventurous. So any of that risk-taking, any of that getting lost, which I still think is the best way to get to know a city, or any of that, you know, feeling kind of slightly out of place and discovery and exploration. You don’t get that in the type of adventure that the participants were describing in both 2010 and 2015, that you got a very secure sort of moving through space or moving through the city and your sense of discovery wasn’t coming from feeling out of place, but from what you got to see while feeling really secure with this safety net of surveillance technology all around you. I think for all of these things there’s definitely like two sides to the same technology and they mean different things to different people based on the frameworks of knowledge and experiences and sort of social hierarchies you bring to these technologies. So things based on like gender, race, class, sexual identity, like all of these things will kind of interface with your use of technology and have them mean different things to different people at different times. And I talk about that in the book as well.
JW (15m 27s): The other thing that kind of came to mind as you were just talking now is in the example of the smart cities. There’s a, not a quote, but just kind of a line that got me that I underlined: “Citizens as sensors.” And so that discussion about cell phones and tracking and that type of thing kind of gets transformed when you start talking about “the smart city.” And I’m curious what brought you to write that specific chapter in the book about smart cities because it was really fascinating, thinking about you know, how people tried to market them, how they tried to build them and how people haven’t really flocked to them.
GH (15m 58s): Yeah, so back when I was writing my dissertation, I read, I think it was in a New York Times piece or maybe it was The Atlantic, there was a report of these cities that were being built in South Korea from scratch. And it was part of a government initiative, it was a public-private partnership. And it just, from reading these descriptions of these spaces, on one hand I was like, “Wow, that’s really exciting. That’s really interesting.” There are going to be these high tech kind of fortresses that are built from the ground up out of the sea and there are going to be these hubs for digital activities but also new media industries, and they feel very sci-fi. And then on the other hand I was like, “Well, why would anybody want that?” What would it feel like to live in these spaces? And how are they gonna sell these cities as cities, really, because they are lacking in all of the chaos and all of the interesting sort of theater and drama that people gravitate to when they live in urban environments. So how are they gonna make these spaces vibrant? How are they gonna make these spaces exciting? And how are they going to convince people that they actually want to live there?
So I got a grant and I flew out to South Korea, and I looked at one city in particular, new Songdo in depth. And that’s one of the cities that I talk about in that chapter. But I became sort of captivated and interested and somewhat kind of, not horrified, but just curious about what the development process and what the design process as well as the marketing processes for these cities were. So I started digging into that a little bit, and then as I was studying the South Korean cities, I noticed that this model of smart city was being exported to other places and all of these other, what I call smart-from-the-start cities were popping up. And I really kind of wanted to look at that a little bit more. But one of the things that also really fascinated me about smart cities, and this comes out in the book as well, is that the dreams and aspirations of the smart city are really restricted by pre-existing inequities and relationships to place. So that comes out in the chapter I think that you’re referring to, but also in the chapter on Kansas City as being a smart city in its own right, in a sort of different flavor of that. But also that terms like community participation, engagement are often used in smart city development to signal inclusivity, but are actually ambiguous enough that they might mask real exclusion.
But I think that example that you brought up, the “citizens as sensors,” is that weird kind of paradoxical relationship that’s very uneasy between people and technology that comes out in smart city development. And I think if we look at, I mean we can’t sort of not discuss the coronavirus pandemic right now when we’re thinking about citizens as sensors, but one of the things that I’ve been reading about and have been interested to see where this ends up is government entities wanting to expand the capabilities and functionality of certain like data analytic platforms and mobile phones in particular to intervene in the health crisis. So wanting to activate cell phones of individuals as sensors for tracking ill or sick individuals or tracking the spread of this contagion and this outbreak. And also some people thinking about, well how might some of the sensors and using citizens as sensors and cell phones as sensors and upping the data analytics around our individual bodies, how might this be on one side emphasizing those strategic logics of smart city development that I talk about in a book, as being kind of about efficiency, about city management, about control, but how all of those also intersect with feelings of invasion on the part of individuals, that there are privacy maybe violations to be had and there are privacy issues that might have to be considered before we activate something like a huge big data analytics scheme that utilizes individual cell phones to surveil the population and mass. So I don’t know if that really answers your question, I kinda went on a tangent there.
JW: (Laughs) No, that’s good.
GH: But I mean that is something that I think is very, very current. I mean it’s really kind of an opportune time to be thinking about this book, The Digital City, because with the proliferation of stay at home orders, so much of our everyday relies on replacing the city or using digital media to create a sense of place for ourselves and others. And most of that is coming out now in a different way because we can’t physically move about in urban environments. But I think a lot of the logics that I talk about in the book, the sort of logic set the municipal officials and urban planners might have, and then the logics that people might have or the relationships that people on the ground might have to digital technologies. They really brush up against each other in odd ways that are pretty adversarial sometimes.
JW (21m 16s): Yeah, I think it’s Hong Kong or another, not South Korea, but basically when you cross in the border, there’s a country and they’re giving people ankle bracelets if you come in and basically to set them, you have to walk around the perimeter of your house. And so if you leave that geo-fence when you’re quarantined, you will get in big trouble. So that stuff is already happening, it’s just not in the United States. (Laughs) Yet.
JW: Yet. Right, exactly. And it sounds like you’re talking about replacing your own home. I’ve noticed on Facebook and other social media that people are posting pictures of happier times and places where they vacationed or favorite places in the neighborhood or something along those lines. So I think it’s already happening to a certain extent where your discussion of replacing places with digital technology is happening but just inside of people’s homes so they can kind of get a view into a larger world that they can’t be a part of right now.
GH (22m 4s): Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I mean you could sort of take that logic in this book and write a whole other book with maybe five or six different case studies of what’s happening right now because it is, I mean it is really kind of interesting to see how, you mentioned what has changed since 2010 or 2015 until now, or what’s changed between 2010 to 2015, and we can also think about what’s changed from a couple of weeks ago in terms of replacing. That we’re doing all of these activities that we might’ve been doing two weeks ago, but maybe in volumes that are a little bit more excessive than before or just for different reasons than we were doing them before, right? So we always kind of used digital technologies, particularly mobile phones or apps or services like Grubhub and things like that to order food and other goods and services. But we’re, you know, kind of relying on that in totally different ways now than we did previously.
And just the way that we are using and, sort of relying on a robust infrastructure of digital connectivity to do things like socializing, community building, education, learning, but also as you kind of alluded to like virtual travel. I’ve read a number of articles and blog posts and tweets and Instagram screenshots of people who are using Google street view to kind of just relive places that they’ve been before or you know show their friends where they want to travel with them once this quarantine is lifted. And I think, you know, this is a great example of how not only are we replacing the cities in which we live or want to travel to, but also forging different relationships to the digital technologies that feel really mundane otherwise in order to create a sense of place.
JW (23m 50s): I want to go back to something you said earlier about, well just a general theme, the scariness of these smart city applications. And I also noticed a theme that, I’m wondering if you noticed as well, there’s a kind of a theme that perhaps maybe you intended in the book but I’m curious if you meant it, of extraction. People in Kansas City felt like Google was just trying to extract money from them. The smart cities are exploiting people for data, placemaking efforts are for other people. Was that something that came to your mind when you were writing, this kind of general theme of extraction from people to companies, to corporations, to the people that aren’t necessarily in your corner?
GH (24m 24s): Yeah, I mean I think, yes, short answer, is that I wasn’t maybe thinking about extraction in that particular terminology or in that particular way, but I was definitely thinking about exchange and exchange as exploitative. So the idea that you’re giving something and you might not be compensated for it in a way that’s beneficial to you. So that idea of citizen as sensor would be extraction as you’re saying, but also an exchange that’s unequal, that you might be giving sort of your biosigns or your mobility patterns or your purchasing record to a new entity, not of your choosing. And they’re gaining a lot more value and benefit or a different sort of value and benefit than what they’re giving back to you. So I was thinking a lot about feedback loops and sort of inequity within these feedback loops. And we can think about it as extraction, but there’s always something productive about extraction, which ends up kind of going back to the individual or not, in a you know kind of equitable way or not.
And so I was thinking, I guess instead of extraction, the way I was thinking about it was equity and inequity, but I think we’re thinking about the same thing here, right? We could call it exploitation. You can call it extraction. You can also call it neoliberalism, which some of the reviewers of the book were kind of saying, “Well, aren’t you just talking about market economies? Aren’t you just talking about the logic of advanced capitalism?” And I think that in some ways, yes, depending on who you are and where you are positioned in sort of urban hierarchies, there’s lots of different terms, but I think that relationship that you’re identifying is definitely one way to put it. Definitely a theme throughout the entire book.
JW (26m 7s): Yeah. I think it was most prevalent in Kansas City and the discussion about the people who felt left out of the Google Fiber application as it were. I’m curious if you could tell the listeners a little bit more about that and kind of what you learned from that experience about people that don’t feel included, or you know how digital literacy does or doesn’t happen over time.
GH (26m 26s): Yeah, so the Kansas City Google Fiber, I guess we can call it an experiment or a project or initiative, it coincided with my move to the Kansas area. So I don’t live in Kansas City, I live maybe 50 minutes, 45 minutes away, but when I first moved here in 2011 it was one year after Google had announced that they were going to build this experimental gigabit fiber network in some city in the US, and there was a big contest, I don’t know if you remember that at all in 2010, where a different cities were competing for Google’s favor essentially, the sort of privilege of being a gigabit fiber network city. And in 2011 when I moved to this area, Kansas City, Kansas, and then a little bit later Kansas City, Missouri as well were selected as the winning cities. So they were going to be the cities to host this experimental fiber network.
And then in 2012 something really interesting happened. I thought it was really interesting. That the way that different neighborhoods were going to acquire Google Fiber service was through a participatory model for infrastructure deployment. So they had to gather their neighbors together and they had to pay a registration fee to sign up to hit a critical mass to get this fiber optic network in their neighborhood. And then after they were kind of considered a fiber-hood, after they reached that critical mass, then that neighborhood then could sign up and pay whatever fees that were, you know, kind of required to subscribe in order to subscribe to the service. So one of the things that happened around 2012 after the first round of those subscriptions, or the first round of the participatory model came back, Google was putting on their website maps of which neighborhoods qualified for service and which did not. And one of the striking things about these maps even to me who had only lived in this area for a short amount of time, was that the maps coincided with not only digital haves and have-nots, if we want to put it in those digital divide terms, but also poverty levels, education levels.
So what we saw was to the east of this avenue called Troost Avenue, which was colloquially kind of referred to as the Troost Wall or divide line. It’s like a racial economic dividing line that has been historically inscribed for decades, where to the east you see the slightly lower income neighborhoods, majority African American neighborhoods, neighborhoods who have always had a difficult time with institutionalized racism against home ownership, a lot of renters. And then on the west side you see a lot of the opposite, sort of homeowners, people who live privileged. And what you saw on these maps was that on the east side you had people that didn’t meet the qualifications and on the west side you did. So what you saw was these sort of patterns of inequity being reinscribed through digital connection, that the privileged or the networked people, people who are already privileged, already valued, already networked with an urban environment, were becoming more so. And those who were not, did not enjoy those sort of preexisting privileges, were not necessarily falling by the wayside, but not signing up for what was deemed at least by the company and municipal officials to be this really beneficial service to acquire.
So I started digging into, well why didn’t people who are living on the east side of Troost Avenue sign up for what seemed to be a pretty affordable internet connection, higher speeds then they were getting before, if they were getting any sort of internet connection, internet connection at home before. And I was curious about what factors other than cost or digital literacy went into making those decisions. And also one of the things that I kept seeing repeated in Pew internet research surveys and also surveys that Google and Kansas City were conducting about relevance. So this idea that, well, infrastructure, high-speed digital connection wasn’t seen as relevant to people who were lower income, who were lacking in digital literacy. And I kind of questioned that a lot. I didn’t, I didn’t think that that was necessarily true. And I found that people who didn’t sign up did see that this Google Fiber connection or having high speed internet connection was really beneficial. They just saw that the way that this infrastructure was being deployed, how it was being sold and how it was being designed and implemented was not for them.
So I talked to people, I went to a lot of digital inclusion meetings, I went to cabinet meetings, I met with representatives from Google Fiber, then the Kansas City area. And I really kind of wanted to know more about how people in underserved communities chose to subscribe to a gigabit fiber network or not. And how their decision to subscribe at all might’ve been shaped by how they navigated or negotiated the geographies and experiences within the city. So I think that that Kansas City chapter is a really good example of not only kind of what I think I mentioned earlier in terms of how things like community or neighborhood or participation can signal inclusivity, but are kind of ambiguous and can be used to mask exclusion. But I think also it’s a really good example of how something that seems neutral and almost invisible like digital media infrastructure, the wires and the cables is actually laden with a lot of questions or concerns about equitable design and equitable deployment.
JW (32m 25s): It was really interesting to me just because I had Susan Crawford on, she wrote a book called Fiber and she was on the podcast last year, and you know she was talking about expanding fiber networks from a municipal standpoint. And I think in the early 2000s, you mentioned in the book, was a lot of movement for a municipal fiber networks. But this seemed a little bit different. This one seemed like it was almost kind of replicated in the Amazon HQ expansion where it seemed like a digital billboard rather than something that the company was doing to, you know, better its employees or, or move something around. And it was like a sales pitch almost, instead of something that was for the community. I’m curious what happened to those movements early on for municipal networks and how it moved to this kind of more neoliberal or a corporate model pushing, you know, an infrastructure onto a city.
GH (33m 11s): Yeah, so in the early 2000s we did see a lot of movement towards municipal networks. There was a lot of excitement around cities being their own ISPs potentially or partnering with companies like EarthLink or Sprint or AT&T or other network purveyors or ISPs and saying, “Hey, maybe we could share this burden of providing municipal wifi and blanketing our cities, almost maybe blanketing our cities, or at least our downtowns in digital connection, and this will be good mostly for economic development.” So a lot of these movements in the early 2000s was not necessarily framed in terms of digital inclusion. That was often kind of a byproduct of something that was framed in terms of connectivity for economic development and maybe for education as well. But what we saw after those waves of municipal broadband initiatives was that they didn’t work. In a lot of cases, Philadelphia is a really good example, you saw the partner, the private partner, the network provider, very unceremoniously pull out and discontinue the collaboration and the city was left with sort of these plans for a network that never manifested.
And I think Philadelphia has done a lot of other interesting things post the collapse of Wireless Philadelphia. But what we saw in this example now, in 2010 through 2015 and sort of still ongoing, is like you kind of mentioned already, the privatization of municipal broadband. And we also see, I think concurrently that things like the national broadband plan not living up to the potential that cities hoped that it would be and even rural environments hope that it would be. So we have kind of, again, it’s a very neoliberal sort of experience where the market comes in or a private investor or private entity comes in to fill the role of what maybe should have been or could have been a public sorta. And we do see this sort of tension, I think still with infrastructure, internet infrastructure being viewed as a commodity rather than a utility. So I think that as long as we keep viewing sort of networked infrastructure as a commodity or maybe even a luxury item in some cases there’s more space for vendors, commercial vendors, private vendors to come in and sell that back to us rather than a municipality sort of taking it over. Although there’s lots of costs with municipal broadband and there were a lot of costs to the city of Kansas City for engaging with Google Fiber in this way as well.
JW (35m 50s): Yeah, I guess I’d argue there’s also costs to electricity networks and water networks and… (Laughs).
GH (35m 56s): Absolutely. It’s a messy situation. (Laughs) So I think one of the things I’m also fascinated by and kind of talk a little bit about in this book as well, is that imagination of what digital connection and digital infrastructure could do for an urban space. And then when you actually kind of put that into practice, how that pans out, not always going to match it up, right? And that seems maybe like an obvious statement that what we hope for and what promises are invested in a particular infrastructure aren’t always the way that future manifests.
JW (36m 29s): Going back to you know the Kansas City and the implementation part too, I mean I was also interested in, in the definition that people came up with of home and of community and how the digital infrastructure was sold as something that, you know, one per household kind of thing. Almost like a rationing. Whereas there’s a lot of folks in the community that felt like, well, that’s not how we see home, or that’s not how we see community. And so there was a disconnect, which was really interesting to me.
GH (36m 52s): Yeah. And I don’t know that people would of maybe articulated that or that that relationship would have been so observable if they weren’t reacting to the presence of a digital media opportunity or a technology, right? So I think that one of the arguments in the book is that if we take understandings and experiences at a place as central to understanding our relationship with digital media, we’ll learn a lot more about both digital media and our relationships to place. And I think what you mentioned is a really good example of that, that because the policy around this infrastructure and implementation was that you could only have one connection to a single household, and it wasn’t a wireless connection, it was a fiber to the home connection. And so it was a very static, very stable connection, but it was per one household and that household was not envisioned as an apartment building. It was envisioned as a single family home that was a standalone entity. And if we look at who owns these single family homes as a standalone entity, it’s not everybody in the city, it’s a particular population. So there’s some inequity built into that as well. But I think just envisioning home, envisioning community, envisioning neighborhood was something, they’re all place-based relationships and it was something that the implementation of a fiber network really brought to the fore, that not everybody sees home, mobility, community, neighborhood in the same way.
JW (38m 21s): The main theme of the book was replacing the city. I’m curious what that means in your mind, what replacing means. Re-placing, I should say, spell it out.
GH (38m 30s): Yeah, so re-placing in a very basic definition is, I call it re-placing and I call it digital placemaking. Digital placemaking has been thought about as, I don’t know if this term means anything to you or what comes to mind when you hear it, but usually it tends to mean people using social media in order to participate in a participatory planning model or a forum or something like that. And one of the things that I was doing and coming up with the idea of re-placing the city is taking back that definition of digital placemaking and saying it’s not just about using social media and the service of participatory planning, but it is about using digital media to create a sense of place for one’s self or others. So when we think about what counts as re-placing the city, it can be a very wide range of activities. Anything from posting a selfie on Instagram to, as we were talking about earlier, using GPS technology on one cell phone or or building a smart city from scratch.
But in all of these cases, people in various positions of power are using digital media to create some sort of sense of place that’s beyond just carving out a geographic region. It’s about creating sentiment. It’s about creating some sort of emotional or psychological attachment to a given location. And that’s double-sided. That can be done in the service of what I call strategic placemaking, where you’re using sort of the logics of advanced capitalism, of efficiency, of optimization to or marketing to create a sense of place for somebody through digital media. And that would be the case of maybe smart cities being built from scratch, but also it could be something really poetic and really romantic, like walking through a city and photographing a place that you grew up on Instagram, and then kind of telling a unique story about that and sending that out over the network.
JW (40m 38s): Chuck Wolfe, who is an urbanist writer and has written a number of books, talks about kind of the memory of place as well. And thinking about how, you know, when you maybe you walk out onto the sidewalk where, actually, I just did it earlier in this episode, I looked out my window and I see this building with, you know, a fire escape basically. And it kind of flashes me back to, you know, certain conversations that I’ve had, because I’m always sitting in this desk, and I’m always looking out my window, and I’m chatting with folks. And so there’s something to that place interaction that you have and the memories that you can make with a digital media. And maybe it’s just like a forever memory that you create, I don’t know, it’s just something that came to my mind when I was listening to the chat about re-placing and digital media. Do you have a place or a movement that you do that brings back a memory or like, you know, it pulls something back for you? Like you maybe walk down a street and there’s a certain tile or a certain concrete block or something that makes you remember a meeting that you had there or a conversation that you had?
GH (41m 29s): Oh absolutely. I mean I think I have that all the time. One comes to mind is just driving through, you know, there’s tunnels under water that connect New York City to other places. So driving underwater through an underwater tunnel and seeing one of the tiles missing. And my grandfather always used to say, “Oh look, the tile’s missing, that means all the water’s gonna rush in.” I mean it’s really a macabre sort of idea (Laughs) but he would say, “All this water’s going to rush in.” Like, “Isn’t that horrible?” Or like, “What are we going to do?” But I think that what you bring up is really salient to all of us. And I think it’s one of the first things that we think about when we think about place, is that it’s kind of, it cues us to remember other things. So if we’re really kind of paying attention to where we are, there’s something about the air or the color of the grass or the sky or a corner of a street or the architecture of a building that will take us back to something else or that will remind us of who we once were or where we’re going or our own histories or collective histories. And I think that we’re constantly, as people, looking to elicit that sort of memory.
And if you look at really early media projects, I mentioned a couple of these briefly in the book like Yellow Arrow or Urban Tapestries that were global projects, the most prominent thing that people did with them was to use place to elicit or harness some sort of personal memory or collective memory. So it was really beautiful to look at projects like that which were web-based and cell phone-based and to see the different stories that are merged and were elicited by being in a place and all the different types of knowledges or information that you can gather from other people’s memories. And I think that’s one thing that a lot of these digital media platforms can do really well is sort of shift our sense of time, overlay different histories, invite different people to talk about their own untold stories or stories that we might just only share between you and me on a more public platform that can then influence the way that other people experience a given location. Every time I drive through a tunnel, I look for the missing tiles to see if the water is going to flow in. And then think about, well how much longer am I going to be in this tunnel and what am I going to do? But for some reason, for me that’s a very poetic experience rather than horrifying experience, which might say something about me as a child. I don’t know, but… (Laughs)
JW (43m 58s): Well, it’s what your parents tell you, and you remember, right. So, I mean, I have a not as macabre or not as a morbid story, but it’s, you know, something my dad used to tease me so much. He’d say that there are no box cars in Bakersfield and we used to live in Bakersfield, California. And so there was an overpass that goes over to the train yard near the high school and downtown. And so every time I’ve ever been over that overpass, I’m always looking for the box cars because I know they exist. And you know, we know boxcars exist in Bakersfield. It’s such a silly thing, but he really got me with that one, you know, like I would get so upset cause he would deny it, and it was all to get a rise out of me basically. But you know, it’s similar, you know, our parents tell us things and we remember them forever it feels like.
GH (44m 40s): Yeah. And I think that’s a really good example because I mean just what we’re talking about here, and it is interesting as a side note that we both brought up something about transportation and something about the infrastructure associated with mobility, maybe that says something. But I think in both of our examples, people were using a sense of place or eliciting place to connect with somebody else. So like you said, your father was trying to get a rise out of you in some way. And mine was trying to sort of make conversation maybe while we were stuck in traffic in a boring tunnel, but they were both not just to pass the time but to make some sort of social connection around our joint experience of a given location. And I think that’s definitely something that we’re doing when we re-place the city. But we’re just using digital media to do it.
JW (45m 27s): Is there anything that surprised you writing this book? Anything that jumped out that you weren’t really ready for it or didn’t know that you would experience?
GH (45m 35s): Mm. That’s a really good question. There’s probably a lot, a lot of things. I mean one thing I wanted to believe when I started writing this book, and it was sort of the impetus for writing this book, was that I was hearing a lot about, and this is coming from industry press, it’s coming from popular press, it’s coming from television shows like “The Office” where I’m somebody is using GPS technology and they drive into a lake because they’re totally distracted by the world beyond the screen and they’re not paying attention to their physical environment. And you hear this still constantly. People talk about, well, the reason that we’re not connecting to one another is because we’re using digital media too much. We’re playing video games or on the internet, but also in terms of we’re not hanging out in public enough with each other because we’re alone together in these lonely crowds that circulate while looking at small screens on our cell phones. And I kept hearing about how social media, how digital media, how mobile media was creating almost these placeless zombies, that we were out in this physical environment but we weren’t paying attention to it at all. And we were relying on these devices to make us feel at home because we couldn’t negotiate our physical space without them.
And I was really kind of depressed but by this idea, and I was thinking a lot about, well, is this necessarily true if we dig a little bit deeper into how people actually use and integrate digital media in meaningful ways into their everyday lives. So I think I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that that kind of universal vision of distracted zombies who are disembedded and staring at phones is not universally true. That we do have very rich, interesting, complex relationships with digital media that aren’t always positive, but they’re very much about place still, that place and being in place and feelings of belonging very much still matter. But also that we can use digital media to feel more at home or to feel more present within given locations, which seems paradoxical, but was actually something I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from a lot of the participants that I talked to.
Another thing that was actually kind of surprising, and it’s surprising just in the way that it feels, is the emptiness of some of the smart cities, the emptiness of some of these smart-from-the-start cities, and how empty they feel and how much they were built on this need for complexity and density in order to function. So, I mean, one of the things that I was surprised about was just that feeling when you go to a space like new Songdo or other people that have been to Masdar City, will talk about this as well, where the streets just feel so empty. That there are certain spaces where, like parks, there’s a big central park in the middle of Songdo City and it’s full, usually, on the weekends or on a sunny day, there’s people milling about, there’s people you know, looking at the canals, hanging out on bridges and the park. But when you go to the residential areas or you go to the commercial areas, it feels like you’re on a soundstage. And that still, and I’ve been there a couple of times, that still is very surprising to me because I didn’t imagine it when I was talking about how, you know, the burden is on these developers to create a sense of place for people to want to move there, and to want to live there, but also create this sort of sense of cultural vibrancy. Because this is a space that is planned from the ground up and it runs the risk of feeling very artificial, very constructed, very not organic. But I was surprised to the extent that that became true.
JW: Is it possible for a new city to not be like that? To not be so stale, to not feel like the portrayal of the Truman Show?
GH: (Laughs) Right. I mean I think that’s the million dollar question in a lot of ways. I mean if we look at some of the other planned cities built from scratch, I mean we’ve seen struggles and difficulties in making these places feel human or for urban inhabitants to really feel at home. That has always been a struggle for these cities built from scratch. I think Brasília is often brought up as a case, Levittown or any of these sort of new town movements. But I’d want to think that it is potentially possible, but I think that it is very, very difficult to recreate some of those organic interactions that happen on street corners, when there is a long history of people living in spaces and, you know, using these cities as palimpsests of human experience. And I don’t know how you create that, and I don’t know how you would go about creating that through digital technology specifically. But it is important and I think interesting to think about because I think people are going to continue to build cities, and we do see a lot of cities being built from scratch. Not just smart cities, but others as well.
JW (50m 52s): Yeah. You have Saudi Arabia is trying to build a new capital, you have NEOM, then you have Egypt which is trying to build a new capital as well, which are kind of right next to each other. Do you think part of it is, you know, you mentioned this in the book that a lot of those new city builders and technologists think of, you know, “cities as broken entities” and so they’re trying to fix something, but what they’re trying to fix is actually that Robert Venturi, messy vitality that really brings cities to life.
GH (51m 15s): Yeah. I mean I think that’s it, right? One of the things that I talk about in the book too is that I think some of the smart city planners, the way that they’re thinking about place, the way that they’re thinking about the city as place or what a sense of place means within a city is very unique in that it’s very different than maybe the way that we actually experience places. So when you think about, well how do I construct the vivacity or vibrancy, a lot of people will turn to the arts or cultural events or maybe even amusement type recreation districts. But a lot of those feel, I think in a lot of ways artificial because they are on their face, amusement and vibrancy and culture, but they’re very top down. They’re very sort of constructed with that objective in mind. And I think people feel that when it’s coming from a need to create something, a priori rather than something that comes from our grassroots interactions with one or another.
JW (52m 21s): It’s not a question, but in my notes I wrote “cities as a platform, cities as a franchise, cities as a McDonald’s.” (Laughs)
GH (52m 28s): (Laughs) Yeah. The McDonaldization of cities, the McDonaldization of place. Yeah. I mean I think all of those examples were using the city as a platform to get us somewhere else, right. And maybe we should just kind of revel in this idea that a city is where we want to be, or not all of us, but I guess the city is a place to be rather than a platform to get us to some other objective or a vehicle to get us to some other objective.
GH: But yeah, I mean that list is pretty provocative. (Laughs)
JW (53m 2s): (Laughs) It’s just something that came to my head as I was reading, I was like, “Huh.” Cause there is a lot of discussion of platformization of everything, right? Like media platforms…
GH (53m 8s): Platform urbanism…
JW (53m 11s): Platform urbanism, all that stuff. And the city as a platform is specifically prescient for this smart cities discussion, which whoever knows what a smart city actually is. That definition drives me nuts, and I think that that was one of the things that, you know, was interesting about what you were about is that, you know, even people that talk about smart cities don’t know, they’ve been changing their definitions since the idea of a smart city. So, you know, it’s an interesting thing that we come upon when we try to basically create these places that hopefully will organize everything in a neat and tidy fashion, but we really don’t want it to be neat and tidy.
GH (53m 42s): Yeah, absolutely. There’s a couple of authors, Eric Gordon and Gabriel Mugar, who talk about meaningful inefficiencies. And I really like that idea of the city being full of these meaningful inefficiencies that make it feel all of those adjectives that we just talked about. Vibrant and artistic and fashionable and a laboratory for things other than economic development. I mean, I think when we’re talking about platforms and that provocative list that you just mentioned before of all the different things that a city could be or all the different things, how we talk about urbanism now and platform urbanism, the city as a platform, that maybe if we think a little bit more about, well, what is the goal there? Or what do we want the city to be, what do we want our experience in cities to be? And I think at one point I write in the book, you know, maybe we should be thinking less about the optimization of urban space and more about just building connection to and within urban space.
So one of the things that often falls out of discussions about smart cities or it gets sort of pushed to the side is, well, how do people fit into this, right? What role do people play? And as you mentioned earlier, it’s often, well, the citizen as sensor, or the citizen as kind of like a worker bee creating data that then gets analyzed and then given back to people who then analyze that data and then give it back to the city. So I think that if we think a little bit less about people as in terms of extraction, as you mentioned before, and people maybe in terms of collaboration or in terms of connection, we might think about where we want to get to with those cities as platforms in a different way, if that makes sense.
JW (55m 25s): Totally, totally. Alright, last question. There’s a funny story about a photographer taking pictures in the book for promotional purposes and asking you specifically to put down your phone. (Laughs)
GH: Mhm, yeah. (Laughs)
JW: And you mentioned that you had a stack of papers sitting next to you, so I’m wondering is sitting with a stack of papers more relaxing or sitting with a phone?
GH (55m 46s): (Laughs) Exactly! I mean I was thinking the same thing, right? I mean the stack of papers that I was sitting with I think were, not proofs but sort of my drafts and notes of this book, so it was like I was actually kind of taking a break, if I remember correctly, from doing work to kind of look at my phone and do something on my phone. But it’s an excellent question and something I probably, if I was feeling a little bit more bold, should’ve posed to the photographer like, “Hey, which you associate more with work?” But I think that that’s also an issue and it’s an issue that comes up in the last chapter of this book, not the conclusion but the one where I investigate creative placemaking, which is a NEA initiative where you kind of create a sense of place through the influx of artists or artisanal practice or creative work done between artists on the community to create a sense of vibrancy like we’ve been talking about.
But I think that one of the connotations we still have about digital technologies and public spaces is not just that they’re distracting or that we’re using them as distraction, but that they are associated with work or they’re associated with PR or they’re associated with even marketing ourselves to our social network, like that these things are associated with production, but it’s not necessarily creative production and it’s not necessarily leisure or productive sort of ways of relaxing or being in place. And I think that one of the things that I want to do with this book is have us rethink that relationship that we can do things that are productive with digital media, but not necessarily productive in an economic or extractive sort of way, but productive in an emotional attachment sort of way.
JW (57m 35s): Awesome. Well, the book is The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Place. Where can folks find it if they want to pick up a copy?
GH (57m 41s): Well, you could find it at NYU Press, they’re selling it on their website. It’s published by NYU Press. You can find it on Amazon, you could find it on any other online outlets where you buy your books. Or just to give a plug to our local independent bookstore, you can go to buy it at The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas. They’re carrying it as well.
JW (58m 2s): Awesome. And I would suggest that folks, if they want to go to their local bookstore of choice and ask for it, ‘cause I think a lot of local bookstores do that too. So if you’re not in Lawrence, Kansas, I think you should go to your local bookstore and pick it up. So, I definitely recommend it, I think we only covered about 10% of what’s in this book. There’s a lot of amazing stuff. I highly recommend it for folks that are going to be working on some sort of a public participation plan and thinking about using digital media. There’s a lot of stuff that I hadn’t thought about before, and I think it’s very amazing what you were able to put into 220 some odd pages. So I appreciate it, and thank you for coming on the show. We really appreciate it, Germaine.
GH (58m 39s): Yeah, thanks so much. This has been a pleasure.
JW: And thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of the Overhead Wire, on the web at theoverheadwire.com. Sign up for a free trial of the Overhead Wire Daily, our fourteen-year-old daily cities newslist by clicking the link at the top right of theoverheadwire.com, and please please please support the pod by going to patreon.com/theoverheadwire. Many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitchr, Soundcloud, Overcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcast. And you can always find its original home at USA.streetsblog.org. See you next time at Talking Headways.