Quantified Self-City-Nation

Figures from Deetz, Charles Henry, and Oscar Sherman Adams. Elements of map projection with applications to map and chart construction. No. 68. US Government Printing Office, 1921, p. 51.
Matthew W. Wilson considers the technicity of maps and ‘quantified self-city-nation’ as a general theory for the technoscientific solutions we offer to confront socio-technical problems.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Platform Urbanism.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I tend to think platform urbanism through how platforms enable what bodies might do, what bodies might think. I take this up under the conceptual banner of what I have labeled as ‘quantified self-city-nation’.1Matthew W. Wilson, “Flashing lights in the quantified self-city-nation,” Regional Studies, Regional Science 2, no. 1 (2015): 39-42. And, for me, this begins in a discussion of maps.

In my recent book, New Lines, I explore what I consider the various troubles of the map, both the specific problems that maps are called upon to address and the problems that maps directly or indirectly enable.2Matthew W. Wilson, New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Trouble is risky and rewarding. It is both pain and pleasure. Here, I attempt to follow Donna Haraway, not to resolve trouble, but to stay with it, to wallow in all the messes that trouble makes.3Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). Platform urbanism and ‘smart cities’ are such troubles, I might suggest. In some sense, their logics are already here and now, and our challenge is how to make this renewed mandate for platform urbanism more responsive and more responsible.

Indeed, these troubles are an opportunity to rethink the human as Gillian Rose has prompted. In the digitally mediated city, she suggests, what it means to be human is challenged, as new digital technologies intervene in attention and memory, the production of care and connection, and the experiential perspectives of space and time.4Gillian Rose, “Posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city: Exteriorization, individuation, reinvention,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 107, no. 4 (2017): 779-793. Thinking about cities—and all their platforms—is, for me, thinking about technicity (perhaps about temporality, as Maros Krivy has suggested in his response during our panel session at the AAG meetings). As James Ash has reviewed, “technicity can be understood in three key ways: as a persuasive logic for thinking about the world; as a mode of existence of technical objects; or as an originary condition for human life itself.”5James Ash, “Technology, technicity, and emerging practices of temporal sensitivity in videogames,” Environment and Planning A 44, no. 1 (2012): 187-203.

It is this last conceptualization of technicity, from Stiegler—as an originary condition for human life—that is most ponderous for me.6Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus, vol. 1 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). To experience space, such as the space of this room, or the space of the city in which this building is located and which locates us, is to fix time. Stiegler argues that technologies have long given humans a sense of the present, a relation to memories long past and an orientation to futures not yet arrived. Technologies grant us some capacity to act and some range of motion in which to actualize. Here, he is not limiting his philosophy to digital technologies, but to the multiple forms of apparatus that constitute our humanity.

Of course, I would propose that geographers have long been interested in this kind of technicity, as that which conditions human life, whether that is an interest in human-environmental relations, or urban and economic, social and cultural, political and physical domains of inquiry. From my partial perspective, I consider the map, mapping, and mapmaking as having such technicity.

Maps enable a kind of quandary. The lines we draw upon the map, in turn, draw us in. The neat lines on our mobile maps and the glowing blue orb that tells us, ‘you are here’, are not only informative. These markings are also suggestive—prompting us in this or that way. I often think these kinds of moments of the map as a question of habit—“of consciousness itself and the action, inaction, practice, and thought that saturate these moments”.7Wilson, New Lines, 115. Maps as objects with technicity enable habits, causing us to move, to be moved, to attend, to care.

However, there are new lines, new maps, new objects of technicity in our midst. I tend to conceptualize these platforms as ‘quantified self-city-nation’, as a general theory for the technoscientific solutions we offer to confront socio-technical problems.

As a geographer at the intersection of critical social theory and geographic information science, I am interested in the technologies of geographic representation. More than GIS, I take up the conceptual drift of the map, as one such technology of representation, and I burden the map with the weight of some important socio-technical changes. I tend to think of the map as an artifact of the times and spaces of map-use, rather than a clarified vision of reality. Thought in this way, the map is already an externalization of human culture, memory, and action. The point is to thicken our understanding of these objects, to think of them as more than a tool, more than a static object. I would suggest, then that this shift in thinking, this thickening of objects with technicity, can be applied to a variety of technoscientific solutions to socio-technical problems.

Following Stiegler, these digital technologies, these platforms, are our pharmaka, both our poison and our most urgent cure: “These pharmaka reflect not only the reality we hope to understand and change, but also the techniques for thinking about life itself. As such, these are retentional techniques — technical objects constituting both to what we pay attention … and how we pay attention…”.8Wilson, New Lines, 33, emphasis original. Digital technologies have the ability to draw our eye, to condition about what we care, how we might be convicted, how we might act. Attention is care. And there is much to care about, and much that continues to distract us!

Therefore, I use the concept of ‘quantified self-city-nation’ in order to examine specific technologies of representation, to consider their technocultural conditions and ramifications. What follows is a lengthy excerpt from New Lines, where I introduce this concept:

New devices and techniques have emerged to better quantify an individual’s movement, stasis, and even sleep. A discourse about the ‘smart city’ [and its implied platforms] applies these principles of measurement and quantification to the analysis, representation, and management of the city. The rapid pace of everyday life alongside increased individual access to digital geographic technologies in advanced capitalist societies has meant, for some, a broadened capacity to acknowledge, represent, and measure the movements and the habits of society. Perhaps a new quantitative revolution is upon us, as Elvin Wyly notes,9Elvin Wyly, “The new quantitative revolution,” Dialogues in Human Geography 4, no. 1 (2014): 26-38. See also, Agnieszka Leszczynski, “Situating the geoweb in political economy,” Progress in human geography 36, no. 1 (2012): 72-89. and along with it an evolved political economy that puts a premium on the digital dossiers of the masses, in service of an advertising and marketing agenda. … Cities are frequently invoked in these calculations, rethought as organisms while human bodies are quantified as systems. As such, the interactive opportunities and limitations for engagement, representation, and resistance are evermore significant. … [I frequently think the parallels between a] rising consumer-electronic sector around personal activity monitors [fit bits, smart watches, etc.] and the rapid visioning and speculation around smart urbanism. … A totalizing rejection of the force of quantification is too hasty. In her discussion of radio-frequency identification (RFID), Louise Amoore highlights this pharmalogical moment of the location-aware society: “The capacity of RFID to make us locatable is actually acutely ambivalent: we feel its potential to watch and to incarcerate just as we simultaneously feel it fulfil some of our desires and pleasures.”10Louise Amoore, “Algorithmic war: Everyday geographies of the war on terror,” Antipode 41, no. 1 (2009): 64. Bernard Stiegler perhaps suggests that this ambivalence, between incarcerating surveillance and voyeuristic pleasure, is productive. Only when the extremes of the dualities become toxic is another relation urgently necessary.11Wilson, New Lines, 116-7.

Here, I lean on Shannon Mattern in her essay “A City is Not a Computer”: “We don’t know how these urban experiments will fare. Since they are in a constant state of development, always ‘versioning’ toward an optimized model ever on the horizon, they are not easily evaluated or critiqued. If you believe the marketing hype, though, we’re on the cusp of an urban future in which embedded sensors, ubiquitous cameras and beacons, networked smartphones, and the operating systems that link them all together, will produce unprecedented efficiency, connectivity, and social harmony. We’re transforming the idealized topology of the open web and Internet of Things into urban form. … Our current paradigm, the city as computer, appeals because it frames the messiness of urban life as programmable and subject to rational order.”12Shannon Mattern, “A City is Not a Computer,” Places Journal (February 2017): https://doi.org/10.22269/170207.

I propose ‘quantified self-city-nation’ as a peculiar trouble that we must stay with. To invoke this as a concept “is to conceptualize how these solutions are always in search of particular problems, and how this myopia—an inability to think outside quantification, or that quantification even has an outside—introduces some curious technocultures.”13Wilson, New Lines, 118. (And here, I think of Lizzie Richardson and David Bissell’s recent Geoforum piece on digital skills.)14Lizzie Richardson and David Bissell, “Geographies of digital skill,” Geoforum (2017): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.09.014.

I continue, “Quantified self-city-nation signals a multiscalar system of attentional control, where the organization of an individual body, its movement and stasis, becomes the mimetic resource for the organization of bodies, both human and more-than-human. In other words, quantification is not just about counting and calculation and systems of empiricism, but about leveraging a discourse of predeterminacy, preemption, and a tilting toward the future. Digital devices that map the movements of a self become metaphors and figures to upscale these techniques for neighborhoods, cities, regions, and nations.”


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