Back to the City

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “The Urban as Emergent Key Concept for Media Theory.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The rising trend of considering the urban as a new home for media studies has something important to offer to any discussion about how media scholars envision the future of their field. This is an important opportunity for media studies to rehabilitate its early interdisciplinary curiosity and to revive the formative relevance of context for how any form of communication is understood.

Currently, this opportunity has only been exploited partially. By analogy to the hype that surrounded the rise of “internet” and “new media” studies in the 1990s, when those keywords quickly (and often uncritically) became commonplace prefixes to established domains of knowledge and action (e.g. “e-democracy”), one symptomatic feature of the current engagement of media scholars with the urban has been a comparable production of neologisms (e.g. “smart cities”, “media façades”, “networked flaneurs”, etc.). This terminology carries along an admittedly pleasurable sense of excitement about recognising a certain territory that’s “in the making”: a new space to be “discovered” and claimed.

I’m suspicious though about whether emphasising media or mediation as a kind of separate element which is “added” to the understanding of the city in the service of discovering something entirely “new” will get us very far. Lest we end up in a blind alley where mediation (whether as representation or technology in use) is contrasted to any “real”/”actual” city (whatever that might be), we might better keep in mind that there hardly ever was a moment in urban history that wasn’t mediated. Monumental constructions in ancient cities symbolised gateways to deities; the organisation of medieval towns expressed internal hierarchies, with the wall and the gates acting as both physical and mental thresholds; the renaissance mobilised the ornament and stained glass as a spatialised narrative; modern architecture declared its service to allegedly universal “human needs”; while postmodern moving image surfaces dramatized the communicative dimension (intrinsic to all forms) of built space, by showing images of other places (those beyond physical reach, such as live news) as well as being (relatively) open to interpretation.

Contemporary phenomena like global cities, flexible accumulation, neo-Taylorism, and the rise of the third sector (with its accompanying production of spaces and lifestyles), have further made communication a prominent issue in thinking about how urbanity is changing. My point, however, is that in accounting for those changes, media studies should do more to resist submitting to disciplinary myopia, which resides in all fields and which requires media scholars to prioritise their subject matter even at the cost of side-lining other, potentially transformative elements of context, which are a focus of other disciplines. As Morley points out, in some areas of media studies more than in others, sociological relevance tends to be drawn primarily from technological innovation. In studies of mediated cities, this tendency has led to the assumption that media matter only when they are “new” (or, currently, digital).1David Morley, “Canons, Orthodoxies, Ghosts and Dead Statues,” in Moment to Monument: The Making and Unmaking of Cultural Significance, eds. Ladina Bezzola Lambert and Andrea Ochsner (Biedenfeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009), 209-222. In addition to this curious ahistoricism, the symbolic and technological have been given more relevance than anything else in assessing the ongoing transformation of urban living.

Discussions of “smart cities” are often set alongside glossy promotional images of happy, unhindered movement under clear skies, suggesting that technologies will provide universal connectivity, surpass messy realities, and have direct effects on people’s lives because they are functionally richer than whatever went before. This utopian leitmotif, of technology working in isolation to change urban life nearly autonomously, is problematic, yet seems to be rather difficult to resist in media studies. It forms an unspoken motivation in an array of research that seeks to understand the “role” or “impact” of technologies for certain aspects of urban living such as transport or community. The irony is that media scholars are likely to find out about limits to such assumptions from urban scholars and geographers, whose mainstream disciplinary agenda, on the other hand, tends to downplay the relevance of media!

For example, Shelton et al2Taylor Shelton, Matthew Zook and Alan Wiig, “The ‘Actually Existing Smart City’,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 8 (2015): 13–25. tell the story of a failed attempt by the city council of Louisville, Kentucky to digitally map vacant properties. People from a community college collected more sophisticated data with pens showing that poverty was much greater than the city council would have admitted. Laguerre’s3Michael Laguerre, The Digital City: The American Metropolis and Information Technology (London: Palgrave, 2005). study on urban governance in Silicon Valley illustrates the disabling lack of compatibility among different kinds of software, the multiplication of passwords and gatekeepers, and delays in making the city government’s documentation publicly accessible online. Shapiro4Aaron Shapiro, “The Urban Stack: A Topology for Urban Data Infrastructures,” in special issue of Tecnoscienza: The Italian Journal of Science and Technology Studies: “Data-Driven Cities? Digital Urbanism and its Proxies” (forthcoming). demonstrates that the distribution of public Wi-Fi stations in NYC is prefigured by the city’s analogue “urban stack” and the selective geography of underground telephone cables. Thus, while media studies, in its best intentions, may tend to exaggerate the relevance of digital technologies by focusing on their “effects” (e.g. “enabling” or “constraining” identification or interaction), the above studies caution us against suggesting that anything can be said about the relevance of technology outside the actual urban milieu. As the architecture scholar Malcolm McCullough reminds us in his discussion of actual conditions for data transmission, “the river needs banks”.5Malcolm McCullough, Ambient commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, MA and London, MIT Press, 2013), 93.

Media studies has a lot in stock to offer urban studies in the search for a better understanding of contemporary urbanity. Such cases, though, are still rare. In one such example, geographers Crang et al.6 Michael Crang, Tracey Crosbie and Stephen Graham, “Variable Geometries of Connection: Urban Digital Divides and the Uses of Information Technology,” Urban Studies Vol. 43, No. 13 (2006): 2551–2570. explore ICT use in Newcastle upon Tyne, drawing on the notion of “patterns of use” from media audience (“domestication”) studies. It helped them explain that mere degree of “accessibility” of technologies doesn’t necessarily exhaust fine differences among different neighbourhoods, which continue to exist on the ground after access to the net has been made available. Difference in modes of ICT use expressed existing differences of “communicability”, with the poorer groups being more reliant on face-to-face ties and thus engaging in “episodic” ICT practices and the more privileged using ICTs more “pervasively” as part of a more networked, faster and socially “mediated” way of life.7Ibid., 2568. What we need, following David Morley’s coinage, is a “non-media-centric”8Zlatan Krajina, Shaun Moores and David Morley (2014) “Non-Media-Centric Media Studies: A Cross-Generational Conversation,” European Journal of Cultural Studies December vol. 17 no. 6 (2014): 682-700. approach to media in the urban context, which assumes that the symbolic has relevance, but only as an articulation of certain material realities. The above studies can thus be recognised as “non-media-centric”, in that they “displaced”9David Morley, Media, Modernity and Technology (London: Routledge, 2006). media, yet still sought to understand urban social life in the context of certain media developments. And that’s exactly the kind of approach media studies might actually find to be most productive.

In my own research on how people encounter and cope with various forms of screen display in the city, mainly advertising, I took a “non-media-centric”10Zlatan Krajina, Negotiating the Mediated City (London: Routledge, 2014). approach, which led me to study unlikely media themes like urban regeneration and architectural ornamentation, as well as employing methods such as rhythmanalysis and psychogeography.11For a further development of this approach see Zlatan Krajina, “The Alternative Urbanism of Psychogeography in the Mediated City,” in Radical Space: Exploring Politics and Practice eds. D. B. Shaw and M. Humm (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 39 – 63. Exploring which modes of moving and looking resided in different sites I explored (in London, UK and Zadar, Croatia) allowed me to realise that people are not simply distracted by flashy screen surfaces. They develop sophisticated tactics of responding intimately and meaningfully to these repetitive invitations to public communication. People can “fine tune” their responses and, depending on context, switch across ignoring, glancing and gazing, and many other variations in between. They can overtly gaze at screens, not necessarily to read them, but rather to handle a street situation, perhaps avoiding the gaze of the unknown other, or feeling safer in a badly lit passage. In this project, public display screens such as digital billboards were a site-specific background to street life, rather than simply “striking messages”.

If, according to the UN, since 2007, humanity has reached “the urban age”, a familiarisation with urban studies is increasingly urgent for media scholars, just as linguistics, philosophy and sociology provided the common ground for media studies during its formative, interdisciplinary and arguably most creative period some decades ago. David Morley recently called for a recovery of the initial understanding of communications (the transport of symbols, goods and people),12David Morley, “Communications and Transport: The Mobility of Information, People and Commodities,” Media Culture Society July vol. 33 no. 5 (2011), 743-759. where the symbolic only becomes relevant in conjunction with the material. I submit that media studies can likewise profit from the interest in urban issues chiefly by initiating a wider return to where its basic concerns, such as democracy, identity and community, all began: in the city.13Zlatan Krajina, “Media, Audiences, and the City,” in Urban Media and Communication Companion, eds. Zlatan Krajina and Deborah Stevenson (London: Routledge, forthcoming). Going back to the city may allow media studies to reawaken its initial, “undisciplined” impulse.14For a fuller insight into this argument see Moores’ initial discussion of early media studies as “interdisciplinary adventure”, in Shaun Moores, Media, Place and Mobility (London, Palgrave, 2012), 110.



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