Right to the City, or Compulsion to Connect?

In the third essay, Myria Georgiou reflects on the politicized relationships between the right to the city and emergent compulsions to communicate digitally.
[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.]

In Contract of Citizenship, Lefebvre identified information and free expression as core urban rights, alongside the right to public space and the street.1Henri Lefebvre, “From the Social Pact to the Contract of Citizenship,” in Key Writings, ed. Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas and Eleonore Kofman  (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 238-54. How are these rights shaped and transformed in the context of the “smart”, digital city? And how much has digital communication become a pathway to the right to the city?  In this brief roundtable contribution, I reflect on the relationship between the right to (digitally) communicate and the right to the 21st century city. With reference to the digital orientation of urban policy, local media and media users, I ask whether digital connectivity has become a precondition for participation and inclusion in the city.

This is a relatively new line of enquiry into an old set of problems. Scholarship on communication rights, as well as literature on the right to the city, has long mobilised the discourse of rights to target “exclusions, oppressions and injustices.”2Neil Brenner, “What Is Critical Urban Theory?” in Cities for People, not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City, ed. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 17. The right to communicate is tied to a set of communication rights that surpass individual freedom and free press; rather, this academic and activist movement strives for a system, which guarantees that all – especially those marginalised – can speak and can be heard.3Andrew Calabrese, “The Promise of Civil Society: A Global Movement for Communication Rights,” Continuum 18, no. 3 (2004): 317-329. Along similar lines, the right to the city has tackled unequal access to the city’s symbolic and material resources, representing, according to Marcuse, a demand for those who are excluded and an aspiration for those who are alienated, “the aspiration…for a broader right to what is necessary…to lead a satisfying life.”4Peter Marcuse, “Whose Right(s) to what City?” in Cities for People, Not for Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City, ed. Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse and Margit Mayer (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 31. These parallel scholarly trajectories become yet more relevant in the context of a communicative paradox: the dominant but fragile order of the postcolonial western metropolis, which is deeply connected, deeply diverse, and deeply divided.

Urban governance has partly appropriated the discourse of rights, inclusion and participation through “smart city” and “digital democracy” initiatives.5Mayor of London, “Smart London Plan” (London: GLA, 2014), accessed November 3, 2016, http://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/smart_london_plan.pdf. Investment in reliable digital networks and in educational and training programmes for the digital economy reflect a core urban policy priority: connectivity leads the way to sustainable, inclusive and wealthy cities. In dialogue with these celebratory approaches to smart urbanism, urban media initiatives feed into the imaginary of the digital city. Hyperlocal media – a merger of social media and local journalism – now link urban dwellers to happenings in their locale and enable speedy and in-depth engagement with the place where they live, probably not seen since the golden days of the local press. And they do so in a much richer and transparent way than the local press ever could. Hyperlocal media – including local/community/neighbourhood Facebook groups – have not only expanded everyday exchanges but have also enhanced local democracy, especially in supporting new formations of urban publics. For example, at the aftermath of the Brexit vote, devastated Londoners used hyperlocal media and hyperlocal Facebook groups to organise local rallies and campaigns in their locales, demanding a London approach to Europe. Local MPs responded to such digital calls with their own declarations on the digital and physical street, feeding back into the loop of digital communication. Digital democracy works. At least for some. At least in certain ways.

The gains, or at least promises, of digital communication to support urban publics give rise to an inevitable question: who loses out of the promises and deliveries of digital connectivity?

Critical scholarship on smart urbanism has discussed extensively the links between digital utopianism and neoliberal capitalism, surveillance, and techno-determinism.6Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City (London: Do Projects, 2013). 7Andrew Townsend, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013). Such scholarship has proposed alternatives to the corporate and neoliberal urban policies’ appropriations of the digital, by instead proposing “open (data) cities”; “commons-oriented smart city”; and the “right to the hybrid city.”8Christian Ulrik Andersen and Soren Bro Pold, “Occupation of the ‘Open City’,” in Proceedings of the 4th Media Architecture Biennale Conference on Participation – MAB ’12 (New York: ACM, 2012), 1–4. 9Vasilis Niaros, “Introducing a Taxonomy of the ’Smart city’: Towards a Commons-Oriented Approach,” Triple-C, 14, no. 1 (2016): 51–61, accessed November 3, 2016, http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/718. 10Panayotis Antoniadis, “ICT Ownership & the Right to the Hybrid City” (Presented at the International Conference on ‘Using ICT, Social Media and Mobile Technologies to Foster Self-Organisation in Urban and Neighbourhood Governance’, Delft, The Netherlands, May 16-17, 2013). Yet, in this critical literature, digital life is still assumed as ordinary, and not only ordinary, but also a normative frame to think of the right to the city. Directly or indirectly, this literature confirms that the right to (digitally) communicate is a pathway to the right to the city. But there is something worth exploring further in this normative assumption.

With reference to digital platforms, van Dijck discusses the “politics of connectivity” as the regulatory regime of social media to contain but also direct users to certain kinds of social connections, and certain forms of participation, often prescribed through the network and the corporations behind the network.11José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).  Importantly, I argue, the digital politics van Dijck talks about increasingly spills into the ways the city is lived and regulated. Others have written elsewhere about regulation in the form of surveillance and digital exclusions associated with skills and employment.12 Greenfield, Against the Smart City. 13Yu Cheung Wong et al., “Perpetuating Old Exclusions and Producing New Ones: Digital Exclusions in an Information Society,” Journal of Technology in Human Services, 27, no. 1 (2009): 57-78, accessed November 3, 2016, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228830802459135. Yet, there is a third element in the regulatory power of the digital that prescribes participation and connection, not only on the digital street, but also on the urban street.

The very success of digital urban commons in the form of participatory and interactive communication has become the very legitimation of exclusion. Arendt argues that publicness is a space of appearance.14Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). What is seen and heard can also be perceived. Who is seen and heard, and how, when it comes to the order of visibility and voice in the digital city? The compulsion to connect celebrates converged connections into the digital, in spaces of visibility, which are full of promise and full of exclusions.

For those at the margins of the mainstream the right to connect is often contained in limited engagement with the digital: the pay-as-you-go contracts that by definition limit digital practice and the predominance of networked individualism on social media, which alienates many.15Manuel Castells, Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).  Furthermore, a question is raised about what happens to the communicative networks of connection outside the digital. Such networks are many and diverging, yet subject to growing delegitimisation. For example, ethnic community collectivities and their representatives are often referred to by politicians as unrepresentative and are denied visibility and recognition on the basis of “segregation.”16David Cameron, “Extremism and Cohesion,” Politics Home, accessed November 3, 2016, https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/home-affairs/news/68906/david-cameron-extremism-and-cohesion-speech. Community centres and youth centres lose funding in budgetary cuts that name them unsustainable and irrelevant. Participation in the street, which is channelled through acts of dissent, disobedience and emotions, is challenged in its authority and its representability. Simply, such forms of communicative connections do not show evidence of convergence with the narrative of social cohesion or of digital citizenship.

How can we understand the right to (digitally) connect beyond a mere compulsion for passive convergence and reinforcement of hegemonic order in divided cities?

Connection is political. It touches upon the core challenges of inequality in the city. As the digital has become a space for many struggles around access and control of symbolic and material resources, but also for algorithmic regulation of everyday life, connection is also about exclusion and inequality. Thus, the right to the 21st century city is a right to connect but also to disconnect. There are three reasons why the right to disconnect matters as much as the right to connect.

First, digital connectivity has become legitimized as the democratic and participatory culture (the public sphere) against the delegitimised analogue and physical connection. This condition drives policy and public discourse and reproduces the linguistic and empirical conditions for injustice by denying the marginalised/disconnected/“wrongly connected” respect.17Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” in Transnationalizing the Public Sphere, ed. Kate Nash (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

Second, the language of digital connectivity spills beyond the digital to reinforce urban hierarchies: “digital skill” and “connective capacity” have become new vocabulary to identify certain symbolic power, while denying the “digitally unskilled” recognition.

Third, the right to disconnect opens up a wider space for connections beyond compulsive connectivity. It touches upon the reconfigurations of old struggles for recognition: as some gain, through connection, the recognition they deserve as citizens, others, become even less recognised for their biographies, histories, and for their connections that sometimes converge into the city and sometimes diverge from it.  For those who slip outside “the compulsion to connect”, moral experiences are what Honneth refers to as disrespect.18Axel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). Yet, the space beyond the compulsion of connectivity and convergence can be a space of freedom and dissent.19Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). This space becomes invisible in the idealised vision of the individual/connected-citizen and of equally idealised digital connectivity.


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