Monday, October 06, 2008

Castells, First half of "Cities in the Telecommunications Age"

First Half, Cities in the Telecommunications Age

I began by outlining Castells’ chapter in the book, as it seemed the most interesting and useful for our class.

Castells, Manuel. Grassrooting the Space of Flows.

Castells begins the chapter by outlining his conception of The Space of Flows, the spatial organization of the Information Age. Broadly, this is a space “that allows for simultaneity of social practice without territorial contiguity” (19). It involves:

1. The existence of “territorial sprawl and locational concentration” (19), hinging on the infrastructural and physical existence of telecommunication systems alongside the universalism of the internet. This points to the concrete existence of places within the broader universal space, by virtue of the physicality of infrastructure and the needs of businesses and individuals to move towards agglomeration. He briefly mentions the importance of concentrated innovation in the new global economy.

2. “the space of flows is made up of nodes and hubs” (19): Wall Street, Ginza, MIT, etc. These are central parts of particular networks and are sites of interaction between physical places and universal networks.

3. It is characterized by the existence of the spaces that exist within these nodes – residential and commercial spaces that exist alongside telecom infrastructure and financial concentration.

4. It encompasses electronic spaces.

Castells argues that within this space, personal places still maintain. These are where meaning is created, generated, and concentrated, but Castells introduces two complications:

1. The Space of Flows is not placeless: it encompasses both physical and electronic spaces.
2. Electronic spaces are increasingly becoming sites of meaning-generation and contestation: Grassrooting the Space of Flows.

Castells articulates five ways in which this is occurring:

1. Personal communication and interaction by way of telecommunications and the internet.
2. Horizontal Communication and web-based alternative media.
3. Networks of cooperation organized on the internet: Seniornet is his example.
4. Social movements, political organizing on the web.
5. Virtual Cities and the interaction with actual, place-based citizenship and local democracy.

There are still issues of access and poverty though, and Castells suggests the idea of the world being made up of the interactive and the interacted, suggesting that broader access to education and critical thinking is important before the internet can be truly universal and liberating. With this qualification, internet users are still diverse and create a contestable space through the internet – “a plural and diversified space” (26).

For our purposes, there are a series of themes in Cities in the Telecommunications Age that seemed most relevant to us. After outlining Castells’ argument, it seemed like a waste of time to summarize eight articles. Instead, I focused on two themes that seemed most prominent and most interesting:

The intensification between agglomeration/centralization and dispersal/sprawl.

In many of these pieces, cities function as geographically emancipated by way of networks and telecommunications, yet dependent on infrastructural advantage and face-to-face interactions for growth and economic success. This is in direct contradiction to the literature, briefly summarized by Moss & Townsend, in which telecommunications hasten the decline of the city and physical place in general. Wheeler et al. demonstrate this more nuanced approach to telecommunications when they note, “Telecommunications thus facilitate the simultaneous concentration and deconcentration of economic activities” (8). Moss & Townsend investigate this interaction of flows and physicality in public spaces, the home, and travel. They articulate the ways in which telecommunication networks both strengthen and undermine physical places.

Barney Warf investigates the relationship between cyberspace and the body, the most intimately physical place available to us. Warf argues for a rejection of the Cartesian binary between the body and the mind, instead envisioning a relationship between the two in light of cyberspace and the web. Warf rejects the idea of purely cognitive communities on the net in favor of a conception of the internet that is both influenced by the body and influences the body. He mentions the inability of telecommunications to make up for the nuanced reality of human contact, obesity as a result of watching television, pornography, and virtual reality as ways in which the body and cyberspace interact. In a large sense, Warf is rejecting the annihilation of geography in some discourses by stressing the ways in which physicality and networks define and influence each other.

Graham and Marvin reject technological determinism in favor of an understanding that urban planning can influence and create desirable outcomes by interacting with telecommunications. In a sense, they are rejecting the ideas of centralization and dispersal, in favor of an understanding of our cities as works in progress. They look at the ways in which telecommunications can both increase and decrease the importance of the city, and argue that the changes may not be in the existence of cities, but instead in what our cities are. They discuss various ways in which telecommunications and city planning can interact in the service of sustainability and economic development.

Dodge and Shiode attempt to map the real estate of the internet, and find that most English owners of internet real estate are located in major cities in the country. It would be interesting to see how this has changed in the past ten years.

These tensions, dealt with by the above authors, relate very directly to our class topic, and the broad intersection between human geography and mass communication. A simple binary could be made by connecting dispersal with communications and concentration with geography. How do we reconcile this as students of communications and geography?

Unevenness of access.

This recurring theme is dealt with most directly by Sanyal in From Dirt Road to Information Superhighway. Sanyal mentions the possibilities of universal access, but ultimately is more concerned with the lack of social infrastructure in disadvantaged communities. He notes, “Without such social infrastructure [good schools, educated and technologically-receptive individuals] in place, no amount of electronic infrastructure and affordable hardware and software can ensure that the benefits of universal access will trickle down to the poor” (147). In other words, as difficult as it is to provide universal access, it is even more difficult to ensure that disadvantaged communities will be able to use telecommunications technology to their advantage.

Castells and Wheeler et al. discuss the unevenness of access as well, and Castells mirrors Sanyal’s claim that universal access is dependent on improvements in education in order to be productive. His idea of the interacted and the interactive speaks very directly to Sanyal’s argument. Graham and Marvin look into the creation of urban telecommunication projects in light of their capacity to create an “archipelago of enclaves” (93) in which elite, wired urbanites “live in cocooned (often sometimes walled) enclosures while still accessing personal and corporate transport and telematics networks” (93).

After these two themes, other broad themes that came to mind included:

The economics of innovation (Nokia) and the relationship to physical places.

The interactions between agency and technological determinism – How do we shape our own places and societies?

Not often there, but nonetheless relevant: the degree to which this book is outdated, pointing to the rapidity of change within our networked society.

Costs and benefits of teleworking and telecommunications. Broadly, the intersections between sustainability, economic development, and telecommunications.

The tensions between federal and state regulation of telecommunications. The issue of regulation of telecommunications is in itself a theme.


Davita Veselenak said...

It isn’t so difficult for me to understand what Castells’ space of flows is, as it is understand what it is not. Is it a description of a spatial logic of the Information Age? A force? A structure? All of these things?

Castells tries to bridge different levels of analysis, particularly with the qualifications he introduces in this piece. I am curious about his idea of “dominant activities,” which includes financial flows, management of major corporations, science, technology, etc. I imagine that formulations such as “the constitution of the space of flows was in itself a form of domination. . .” (p. 21), led to criticisms that there was not room for agency in his formulation, and hence, the later qualifications making room for social actors and agency?

So he is addressing both macro-level forces (dominant activities) as well as experience and social interaction. Reminds me of Gidden’s attempts to marry structure and agency in structuration theory.

Nate mentioned a binary connecting dispersal with communications and concentration with geography. A very interesting idea. I wonder (though doubt) if it is the development of technology itself that has made simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies in spatial dynamics come to the fore.

Dale said...

I was incredibly entertained by Warf's "Compromising Positions". One of the themes Nate mentions is the dated-ness of this book and this article in particular, while making some excellent points, could use some updates. Here are a few things I thought:

Is it still true that 80% of internet users are male?

While Virtual Reality didn't take off as predicted (despite Dery's hopes on page 64 of cybersex for all) bodies are central to much entertainment technology. Video games put enormous emphasis on bodies. I have been strongly discouraged from referring to video game character creation "Barbies for boys" but the extent to which avatars can be dressed up and altered to resemble real bodies is astounding. Also, the Wii phenomenom is entirely the incorporation of bodies into video games.

Finally, community standards: while I can't attest to internet porn legalities, I do know of a body piercing website that moved to Canada to avoid indecency laws. Warf's comments to the effect that bodies are the most controversial thing in cyberspace seems still very true.

Jim said...

RE: Warf VR

Warf focuses his analysis on the sense of realism or sense of “being there” that is common in the VR literature, but does not go very deep into the socio-cultural context of the users’ experience. For example, what is the person doing in the virtual environment and why? What brings them there? How are their actions culturally and socially situated and how does this impact their behaviors and experience? More current research in virtual reality (especially related to gaming, but also related to virtual worlds such as Second Life) relies heavily on socio-cultural frameworks to unpack these questions. For example, in his work on Discourse analysis, Jim Gee talks about multiple identities as they are situated within particular socio-cultural contexts. He extends this analysis to video games (virtual worlds) and suggests that people take up multiple identities when playing video games. Here is an example - if I am playing TombRaider, I am simultaneously playing as myself, as Laura Croft (the lead character in the game/film), and as a hybrid (me playing Laura Croft). I might even be playing as me thinking about me playing Laura Croft and/or as me playing Laura Croft as other people watch me play. How does this relate to an “embodied experience”?

I wonder how these chapters relate to some of the earlier readers that dealt with sense of place (and all of its theoretical variations)? Can one develop a sense of place within a virtual space? Within a game world? Through a novel? Through a webspace (e.g, forum, blog, fan fiction site)? How does embodiment relate to sense of place?

Henry Jenkins (who I especially like for his cultural work on Star Trek culture) has written some interesting things on games and space. For example, see his article “Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces”

This essay came from a book called From Barbie to Mortal Combat (Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins (Eds.), Cambridge MA: MIT UP (1998). If you are interested in gender and virtual space (primarily games) this is a good starting point.

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