For the last seminar of my Master’s program, I wrote this short review discussing Paolo Gerbaudo’s analysis of social media use in the great activist movements of 2011. Spoiler alert: it’s a good book and you should read it!
Last semester I had to write a seminar paper on global land acquisitions (‘land grabbing’). As with previous assignments, I tried to give the topic a digital spin, focusing my attention on the role of geographic information systems in efforts intended to counteract negative effects of land acquisitions in Southeast Asia. You can access the PDF here.
I also generated this tag cloud from the paper’s content:
Last week, I was a first-time attendee at INURA 2012 in Tallinn. The inspiring conference on “active urbanism” was completely unrelated to digital topics—or so I thought.
During one of the opening panels, the #INURA hashtag was introduced, and a few people proceeded to live-tweet talks and panels. At BarCamp Bangkok, a torrent of updates had the #barcampbkk hashtag trending worldwide and half the conversations between attendees (all in the same building) seemed to be happening online. Of course, Inurians were too few in number and not nearly technophile enough to produce a similar effect, but as social media are going mainstream I’ll be very interested to see their impact on academic conferences. With mailing lists, registrations etc. happening online, one could already conceive of conferences as transient physical manifestations of digital networks and flows of information (analogous to a current research project of mine on co-working spaces).
In his talk, Mark Saunders of Spectacle Media made a brief comment on how the use of social media should be considered part of the urban experience. I thought this was a very interesting idea, and I will keep it in mind going forward with my research.
Thanks to the screening of an excellent documentary, the local activists involved in the New World Society became something like the stars of the conference. In a late-night conversation with one of the members, I learned that they are now developing an open source platform for community organizations. I can’t speak to the quality of the (Drupal based) tool, but it definitely seems like an interesting project. There is a lot of hyperbole about online activism and ‘Facebook revolutions’ (and it should be obvious that protest and activism are utterly useless unless they somehow materialize in the physical world), but for me it is increasingly difficult to imagine forms of activism that are completely offline and don’t somehow involve a virtual dimension.
And here is an essay about the role of ideology in abstractions inherent in video games (PDF).
Again, this word cloud should give you a pretty good idea of the contents:
I wrote a paper about virtual place for a seminar.
Instead of writing an abstract, I generated this cloud from my text:
We decided to change the name of our blog to “Virtual Geography.” We found that the old name (“Digital Geography”) was a bit misleading because it is commonly associated with digital tools for and methods of geographical research, such as GIS. Additionally, we stumbled upon this definition of virtual geography in Michael Batty’s paper of the same name that aptly describes the direction of our project:
Virtual geography is not merely cyberspace per se for it comprises many types of place and space in which the digital world finds expression. We define cspace—the space within computers, cyberspace—the use of computers to communicate, and cyberplace—the infrastructure of the digital world, as key components of what Castells refers to as ‘real virtuality’. Virtual geography is all this as well as the study of these worlds from traditional geographic perspectives. Like all classifications, the interesting questions lie at the boundaries between classes—between cspace and cyberspace, cyberspace and cyberplace, and between all of these.
I have previously blogged about convergence of the physical world and digital information. The phenomenon’s relevance to the discipline of geography should be obvious, since it is changing not only the way people interact with the world, but also physical space itself.
Some geographies only exist in digital form—i.e. they have no real-world counterpart—yet people interact through and with these virtual environments. While instances of this virtual space are created for various purposes (e.g. conferencing software or combat training), in this post I will mainly draw upon video/computer game environments as examples.
Should geographers concern themselves with these virtual worlds? In case you haven’t guessed, my answer is: absolutely. In the following, I would like to outline three reasons why I hold this position.
My first argument is simply that an increasing number of players of computer games (especially massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft) are deeply immersed in the virtual world of the game. They spend a lot of time and money within the game, which appears to them as a stable alternate environment with a distinct geography where they engage in long-term social relationships with other players. Who, then, is to decide that the space in which these very real investments and social relations take place is any less valid or worthy of examination than the physical world?
But of course, virtual space necessarily differs from “meatspace” in many aspects, which brings me to my second point. In the process of developing a video game—or a game engine—programmers and designers typically try to create a virtual environment that closely simulates the real world, or more precisely those aspects of the real world that are relevant to gameplay; flight simulators will focus on different details than fighting games, for example. Technical limitations and gameplay considerations dictate that most aspects of the physical world will not be simulated in detail, but rather subjected to abstraction and gross simplification.
In the SimCity series, crime is reduced by building more police stations in locations with a high crime rate. In Civilization IV, a computer controlled civilization is more likely to take hostile action towards your empire if you do not share their state religion. These are not results of processes within societies of simulated individuals of course, but simplifications that are hard-coded into the mechanics of the games. Examples for this type of abstraction exist in abundance. It is my hypothesis that in many cases these simplifications—along with the aim and indeed the concept of the game itself [the linked article is highly recommended]—are not conscious choices made by the developers but rather assumptions based on predominant views on society and concepts of space. Furthermore, in playing the game the player is inadvertently and subliminally taught “how the real world works”, i.e. those hegemonic views and concepts are reproduced through the medium of computer games.
My third and final argument is concerned with the interface between digital environments and human agents. Video games necessarily offer modes of interaction with the virtual space to the player; in well-designed games the user interface (UI) will be especially intuitive and adhere to certain conventions (e.g. left-clicking to select or activate an object, or dragging the terrain to move the “camera” in the opposite direction). These conventions have been built over generations of video games, and while they may seem intuitive to an experienced gamer, first-time players will not find them so obvious and require step-by-step instructions. Interestingly, the same conventions apply when navigating a digital representation of the physical world, like Google Earth.
In the 1983 film War Games, Matthew Broderick thinks he is playing a risk-type computer game on a digital world map; he does not know that the computer he has hacked into has the capability to fire actual nuclear missiles at Soviet Russia and start World War III. These days, the US military uses video games not only to recruit and train soldiers, but it carries out air strikes through game-like interfaces thousands of miles away.
My point is that in times of physical-digital convergence, we are increasingly able to interact with the real world in the same way that we do with virtual environments; behind the UI, virtual space and physical space become interchangeable. In my opinion, this is yet another reason why geographers should concern themselves with virtual space, how and for what purposes it is produced, the ways in which human agents navigate and manipulate it, as well as the social relations within it.
It is not difficult to imagine a future where the physical world and the sphere of the digital are converging. Signs of this tendency can be observed everywhere: processes that used to be firmly rooted in the material world (e.g. traffic or production) are increasingly controlled by a ubiquitous network of software code. Social networks constantly inform us of the physical whereabouts of casual acquaintances. It seems our cars are starting to surf the web. To date, so-called augmented reality apps are probably the most distinctly perceptible point of contact between the digital and physical.
Physical-digital convergence is not a novel concept; it has long inspired science fiction authors, film makers, and futurism enthusiasts. A variety of academic disciplines—among them economics, sociology, anthropology, and ethnography—have tackled questions closely aligned with the phenomenon.
But what are the driving forces behind this convergence? It seems all too easy to rely solely on technological advances as an explanation. Taken by themselves, ever more powerful devices, more complex software, and faster communication hardly explain the entangling of the digital and the physical in the way that we are currently witnessing. I would like to outline a possible geographical perspective.
If a piece of data is to become relevant for a certain location in the physical world, it needs to be placed, i.e. associated with some sort of additional spatial indicator (e.g. geographic coordinates).
Most obviously this happens when a picture taken with an iPhone is automatically geotagged, or when a facebook user checks into her current location. But the same thing occurs when smart traffic lights communicate to optimize traffic flow: the central computing system that is presumably running the optimizing algorithms needs to associate both the data that is collected and that which is sent back with real-world locations.
With the advent of mobile devices and cloud storage of personal information, we have the opportunity to instantly access not only public information but also our private data from anywhere; for everyday purposes, it is increasingly less important where data is physically stored. This effect can be thought of as the un-placing of data.
Clearly, reviews of nearby hotels are most useful to me if the data itself exists not only on the reviewer’s computer but is un-placed via the internet and thus available to me on my mobile phone. Within the network of smart traffic lights, the traffic data used for optimization first needs to be made available to the central computing system (whose physical location hardly matters), and the optimized commands need to be sent back to the traffic lights: although not publicly available, data is also un-placed to a degree.
Putting It Together
It is important to note that placing and un-placing data work on different conceptual levels. Digital content can be simultaneously placed (i.e. associated with a physical location) and un-placed (in that the physical location where it is stored is of no practical importance). A tweet is placed insofar as everyone can see from what physical location it was posted, and un-placed in the sense that it can be read instantly from anywhere in the world.
If we accept these concepts, then the convergence of the digital sphere with the physical world occurs based on precisely this dynamic. For augmented reality to work, the data to be displayed needs to be simultaneously placed and un-placed in the senses outlined above.
-  It should be noted that on a technical level, digital data has been routinely “placed” since the invention of computer networks: when a request is sent from one computer to another, it needs to find its way there (and back). An IP address can be thought of as an abstract kind of geographic coordinate, in the sense that they help IP packages to arrive at their destination in the physical world. Without placing data, the internet would not work. ↩
-  Again: technically, the concept of un-placed data lies at the heart of the internet. The physical location of the server is of little importance as long as anybody can access the information remotely. In this sense, the internet can be thought of as a system that places data packets in order to un-place information. ↩