I originally wrote and published this post on the Landscape Surgery blog of the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Landscape Surgery is a fortnightly seminar series that the SCHG hosts during term-time. Sessions are typically organised around a theme for which speakers (including external invitees) talk about their research, followed by questions/general discussion on the topic; though it can also include workshops and research training sessions. I attend the sessions as part of my PhD activities, and am one of four editors of the Landscape Surgery blog.
The session discussed in this post was organised around the theme of 'The Digital Libidinal City', with a presentation by Alfie Bown on how desire is mediated in the smart city, followed by responses from myself and Megan Harvey. Thanks to Alice Reynolds for editing this post.
In responding to Alfie Bown’s observations on desire in today’s digitally-mediated cities, which comprised the first part of this Landscape Surgery session on The Digital Libidinal City, Jack Lowe used his discussion to focus on the relationships between digital technology and experience more generally within everyday urban life.
While much of the early scholarship on digital technology in the humanities and social sciences lauded the possibilities and dangers of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the information age’, Jack proposed that the ‘digital turn’ in these disciplines arrived at a ‘sweet spot’ in academic exchanges. The critical scholarship of the 80s and 90s gave us the tools to dissect the representational power of digital media, while postmodern and post-structural approaches have helped us to make sense of the agency that digital media have within wider processes of societal function and everyday life. In particular, with the move since the turn of the millennium towards thinking about materialities and the post-human, research into digital technology has helped us become more aware than ever of how our lived experiences are shaped by our relationships with material things. Ultimately, Jack argued, this enables us to understand digital technology in context – as one agent within a wider field of human and non-human agents that assemble during our everyday experiences.
Turning to Alfie’s example of Pokémon GO, Jack discussed how studying this widely-played mobile game is useful for thinking about the geographical relationship between play and everyday life. While existing studies of the game’s geographies have largely focused on how the gameplay has changed practices of navigation, sociability and embodiment in cities (e.g. Evans and Saker, 2019; Apperley and Moore, 2019), much of the research on Pokémon GO focuses on what the game was like during the craze of summer 2016, despite the game having changed significantly since then.
Most impactfully, players have since been able to participate in raids, a very popular activity in which groups of players gather in designated locations at particular times, working together to defeat powerful Pokémon and ultimately capture them. Jack contended that geographers could fruitfully employ techniques of rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 2004) to examine how the desire to get a strong Pokémon influences the timelines of those participating, and their relationships with other players, non-players and their environment. For it is this intersection between the rhythms of everyday life and the timescales of raids where the game has often had the greatest impressions on the everyday experiences of players (and non-players), provoking users previously unknown to each other to organise themselves using social platforms outside the game, change their routines, interact with the mundane events happening at the raid location, and develop intimate connections (memories of past raids and friendships formed, knowledge of signal strength, etc.) with the locations in which raids take place.
|Raid battles in Pokémon GO are time-limited events where players must group together to defeat powerful Pokémon|
In relation to Alfie’s discussion of dating and food delivery apps, Jack drew connections with geographer James Ash’s (2015) work on interfaces. Ash’s research has explored the digital media used by payday loans providers, for example, examining how the affective qualities of app design features such as sliders and buttons can purposefully alter users’ experiences of them (Ash et al., 2018). Nonetheless, Ash and other interface scholars have been keen to emphasise that the ways these digital products are designed and used do not amount to straightforward manipulation, with the qualities of the experience depending on a number of contingent factors. Indeed, many people will be familiar with having used commercial websites owned by large companies that are frustrating to navigate; and accessing any digital services can always be curtailed by technology failures, or simple lack of affordability (e.g. of smartphones).
Furthermore, Jack emphasised the need to be nuanced in thinking about the different kinds of desire that can be fostered through various types of digital products. Not all apps and games are intended to foster, or result in fostering, deliberate patterns of consumption or generation of data for commercial and/or surveillance purposes. For example, media artists such as Blast Theory have experimented with these platforms to evoke experiences that question the ethics and affordances of digital technologies, as well as the social relationships that are mediated by them. Desire itself is a concept that encompasses a wide range of affective relationships that could be harnessed, for example, towards artistic, community-building and health-improving ends using digital media, and some could even provide methods of potentially subverting capitalist forces mediated by these technologies. Jack accepted, however, that such goals are always hindered by the detachment we experience from the working conditions through which digital products are made, and the lack of clarity regarding the ethics of how they are used.
To make sense of these nuances, Jack advocated for the value of ethnographic and autoethnographic research into the everyday geographies of digital media, so that we might perceive how they affect our lives at the level of experience (Duggan, 2017). Notably, he highlighted the need for more practice-based research in this area, where academics are actively involved in creating products using digital tools. This process can enable researchers to identify how each of their design decisions, as well as the affordances of the technologies used, influence the outcomes of the product being made for individual and collective experiences. In doing so, such research could potentially reveal the level at which these design decisions and technological affordances impact on our everyday behaviours.
Jack finished his response by drawing together three key questions that geographers might consider in relation to experience in digitally-mediated cities:
- How can we as geographers critically examine the ways digital technology affects our everyday experiences and behaviours, both theoretically and methodologically?
- How is power distributed in different kinds of digitally-mediated experiences, and what roles do space and place play in these relationships of power?
- In line with aiming to adequately contextualise the production and experience of digital technology, how would we study and interpret digitally-mediated relationships in societies in the Global South, or across diverse communities of people more generally?
This post is Part 2 of a three-part series based on The Digital Libinal City session. Part 1 featured Alfie Bown’s presentation on desire and digital media in contemporary urban life. Part 3 concludes the series with Megan Harvey’s discussion of the psychoanalytic dimensions of desire and its relationship with capitalist reproduction, dreamwork and subversion in the digital sphere.
Apperley, T. and Moore, K. (2019) “Haptic ambience: Ambient play, the haptic effect and co-presence in Pokémon GO” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies25(1): 6-17.
Ash, J. (2015) The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power. New York and London: Bloomsbury.
Ash, J., Anderson, B., Gordon, R. and Langley, P. (2018) “Digital Interface Design and Power: Friction, Threshold, Transition” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(6): 1136-1153.
Duggan, M. (2017) “Questioning “digital ethnography” in an era of ubiquitous computing” Geography Compass 11(5). DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12313
Evans, L. and Saker, M. (2019) “The playeur and Pokémon Go: Examining the effects of locative play on spatiality and sociality” Mobile Media & Communication 7(2): 232-247.
Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London and New York: Continuum.