Mediapolis Q&A: Germaine R. Halegoua’s The Digital City

This is the second entry in a two-part conversation between authors Germaine R. Halegoua and Rahul Mukherjee on their recent books on media, culture, and urban geographies. In this installment, Dr. Mukherjee leads a discussion with Dr. Halegoua, on her book  The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Place (NYU Press, 2020).  The first part of the conversation, on Mukherjee’s Radiant Infrastructures: Media, Environment, and Cultures of Uncertainty Duke University Press, 2020), appeared in this issue on October 9, 2020.

Rahul Mukherjee: In your lucidly written and thoroughly researched book, The Digital City, a key conceptual anchor and defining practice that holds the chapters together is “Re-placeing” and the related term “placemaking.” You suggest across the chapters that re-placeing is being done by smart city blueprints and Google’s broadband fiber projects, and it is also happening when cell phone users are navigating the city with maps on their phones and taking selfies. Could you elaborate on replaceing the city and explain how digital media is contributing toward placemaking in urban areas?

Germaine Halegoua: Re-placeing is meant to describe the ways that people imagine and utilize digital media affordances to produce a sense of place–an emotional or other meaningful attachment to a location — for themselves and others. It’s the concept that weaves all of my case studies together, as you mentioned, but it’s also my response to critiques that digital media deplete our sense of place or our ability to meaningfully experience places. For example, there’s a common assumption that relying on Google Maps or Waze to navigate unfamiliar spaces will distract us from our physical environments and the unique characteristics of the  places we pass through. Instead of paying attention to how streets connect or constructing a mental map or image of the cities we visit, we’ll be preoccupied with the spoon-fed representation of space displayed on our screens. I wanted to write this book because I became frustrated with arguments equating routine digital media use, such as using digital navigation software or posting a selfie, with “thinned out” or superficial experiences of place. I continually observed instances where people used digital media to demonstrate an investment in place, and examples that supported the fact that creating and controlling a sense of place is still the primary way that we connect with our environments, interact with others, and express our identities. This book is my attempt to encourage digital media users and scholars to conceive of and critique activities like geotagging Instagram posts, designing smart cities, or installing fiber optic networks as placemaking activities; as situations where actors intervene in the meaning of urban space and urban life (for better or worse.)

With re-placeing, I’m arguing that Henri Lefebvre’s perspective that place is something that we “do” is enacted through mundane digital media use. People have developed digitally mediated practices for “making” urban places that both alter and reinscribe experiences of difference and struggles for cultural, social, and/or economic power. Re-placeing suggests that the places we create through digital media are mobile, mutable, and participatory in ways that are similar to the affordances of the digital devices and infrastructures we use to compose them. So, the “re” in re-placeing emphasizes that producing places to be lived in in meaningful ways is an ongoing process with ongoing labor that is performative and contested. These ongoing processes of placemaking construct an image of the city as a palimpsest that digital media users can repeatedly intervene in, and asserts that fostering a sense of place remains how people attempt to emotionally and psychologically belong within urban environments. I hope the concept of re-placeing urges people to re-imagine their everyday digital experiences as placemaking, but also to pause to take account of the types of places we’re creating.

I think that the examples of re-placeing highlighted in the book show how digital placemaking is a social, performative process that relies on imaginations of digital media and urban futures as much as the materiality of digital infrastructures and our experiences with these infrastructures, texts, and devices. This might be one similarity that connects our research: there are always conflicts that emerge within urban digital placemaking practices. The act of making place through digital media exposes contextual, historical tensions and pre-existing inequities of urban life that become more palpable through the presence of screens, cables, or wires (in your case, cell towers and nuclear reactors). In distinct but related ways, our studies of technological innovation and “progress” reveal polysemic and opposing interpretations, imaginations, and experiences of the city and public space.

RM: I like how imaginations of digital media and urban futures work together with materiality of media infrastructures in contributing toward digital placemaking. In my various research projects, like you, I am also drawn to the entanglements of imaginaries and infrastructures. From your answer, it seems that re-placeing the city can simultaneously be both a top-down and bottom-up process. My next question relates to something you note in your book, and which you also echo in your previous answer. The Digital City  responds to and critiques the somewhat preconceived notion that digital media decompose a sense of place. I’m trying to contextualize the different strands and histories of such arguments. There have been wide-ranging debates in media and cultural geography about how digital media inflects the space-place relations in cities. Some suggest that digital media has helped in the appropriation of place into space and that place has been flattened into an event (e.g. touristy selfie-taking). Other scholars tend to differ and note that digital media offer opportunities to re-sense and re-experience places. Furthermore, some researchers suggest that mobile media technologies have made humans more distracted in their movements through the city while others contend that location-based mobile phone apps have actually provided opportunities for users to be more self-aware of their movements through the city. Your book is a major intervention in these sets of arguments and counterarguments. How do you see digital media re-shaping the relationship between place and space? 

GH: I’m really glad that you posed this question in this way. There have been many insightful studies over the past 10 years (at least) that argue that mobile media in particular reinvigorate or augment our sense of place and make us more aware of our own urban mobilities and exchanges. I remember reading Lee Humphreys’ case study of Dodgeball (2007, 2010) as a mobile social network that influenced participants’ experiences of public space, Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva’s book on net locality (2011), Jason Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory (2012), and edited collections like Mobile Technology and Place (Rowan Wilken and Gerard Goggin, 2013) and MediaSpace (Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry, 2004) among other research and appreciating how these authors pushed back on the notion that digital media produced “no sense of place” or an attenuated sense of place. This scholarship investigated some of the ways digital media users’ understandings of public spaces and urban geographies were modified by experiences of mobility and engagement with mobile technologies. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of my introductions (and perhaps, introductions within media studies more generally) to more humanistic approaches to investigations of digital media and placemaking. I think the influence of these studies coupled with the prominence of mobilities research (or a “mobilities turn”) can be felt in the trajectory of how scholars approach investigations of digital media and place–that there is a focus on mobility, mobile phones, migration, a mobile sense of place, etc.

Photo credit: East 9th Street Placekeepers

The theories of place and placemaking presented in The Digital City are in conversation with these studies. I analyze mobilities and placemaking in my book (through mobile phones, mobile mapping, physical movement) and even approach placemaking in terms of creating and maintaining forms of “temporary permanence” within rapidly changing urban environments. However, I argue that the use of digital media to create a sense of place or belonging makes socio-technical processes of placemaking more apparent. Because we understand that GPS navigation, selfie taking, creating smart cities, and installing fiber optic cable are mediated activities and mediate urban space, it becomes more evident that place is also mediated and constructed through media, which makes places feel more malleable, socially constructed, and not as static. I think this idea holds great potential for exercising our (digital) right to the city within a spectrum of beneficial or harmful results. If we begin to see placemaking as re-placeing and not as pause but participatory and mutable, then we also begin to see place and placemaking as something we can intervene in. We don’t need digital media to foster this relationship, but I think these technologies and practices are powerful quotidian entry points. In other words, the digital mediation of placemaking emphasizes the fact that people actively construct place: that it’s performative, it’s mediated, that it can be done and undone, and has the potential to mean, look, and feel completely different than it is. The presence and use of digital media in place (sensors and data tracking, fiber optic cables, mobile phones and apps, GPS and WiFi, locative media, etc.) disrupt, make visible, and reinvest certain place attachments or place identities and certain interests and power relations. Moments of digital media installation, use, failure, opting-out, or disconnection enable us to recognize placemaking efforts.

Re-placeing is simultaneously bottom-up and top-down. I focus on how re-placeing is not always positive, poetic, or tactical and how digital placemaking can be exclusionary, self-interested, and strategic. Re-placeing the city is never insulated from preceding experiences and historical inequities of urban space and urban life, neoliberal promises of urban renewal, or unequal access to digital technologies and literacies. All of my case studies illustrate how it’s important to study digital placemaking in relation to specific socio-cultural and economic contexts and that place is not exclusively produced through mobile media. For example, in Chapter 2, the marketing and installation of high-speed fiber optic networks in Kansas City is a re-placeing effort that is inseparable from histories of racial segregation, redlining and discriminatory home-ownership policies, distrust of telecommunication companies, and lower-income experiences of home, internet service provision, and societal expectations of personal computing.

RM: Your insightful answer, Germaine, does gesture toward some questions I have been thinking of. What makes place a place: territorial boundaries or people and social relations? I realize it cannot be an either/or question/answer. In the more malleable and socially constructed notion of place that you argue for, there is an appreciation of the “reach,” “interactivity,” and “mobility” of digital media. That said, some creative placemaking projects you discuss in your book often do not appreciate these affordances of mobile digital media and think of them as serving a commercial purpose. Why do you think such a perception exists?

I also want to tag one more question about the Google Fiber project you discuss in chapter 2. You attended various meetings where different stakeholders, urban planners, designers, and community members gathered together to discuss how this project was going to be implemented. How inclusive did you find the process? With the Google Fiber project in Kansas City as an example, how much do you think it is important to think of placemaking as outcome/goal-oriented vis-à-vis focused on the process?  

GH: You’re right, they’re not mutually exclusive in my mind. Territorial boundaries and marks or names on a map are always important referents for place and have immense ideological roles in shaping a sense of place. Constructing territorial boundaries, place names, and lines on a map are inherently social as well. So, I do veer toward the latter perspective–that people, social relations, and communication make a place.

Your question relates to an underlying critique throughout the book, that digital media technologies are often understood as technological fixes or solutions to urban problems, and that this perspective is unproductive and potentially harmful. Commercial technology vendors and network or digital analytics service providers often use “technological solutionism” rhetoric and economic outcomes to articulate the promises of digital media adoption in cities, but I’ve also heard and read these perspectives echoed in statements by public officials and in grant proposals by non-profit arts organizations engaged in creative placemaking endeavors. Dominant discursive constructions of social media, digital kiosks as well as smart cities (among other technologies) render them as aiding in commercial, place-branding, or economic goals. The reiterated goals of digital media adoption as time and cost-saving tools of “efficiency” and “optimization” are one example of this perspective.

Google Fiber Showroom

Often this construction is strategic on the part of platform operators or companies selling these technologies, subscriptions, or premium services to municipalities or local businesses, but I’ve heard people utilize this rhetoric tactically as well. I don’t think that I mentioned this in the book, but when I first started observing digital inclusion activism in Kansas City I heard activists and community organizers talking about the value of framing digital inclusion initiatives in terms of economic development–that economic development and “urban renewal” were seen as legitimate outcomes of interest to funding organizations and municipal officials. That presenting digital inclusion in terms of economic gains for the city would build coalitions and get their projects funded. Although stable and affordable internet access was discussed as essential for social connection, entertainment, art and music production, these activities were often downplayed when interfacing with potential partners like funding organizations and federal or state governments. Other essential activities like education, transportation, or healthcare were often contextualized in terms of potential economic prosperity and job opportunities for individuals as well as cities and local private enterprises.

I think that we should be more attuned to processes of placemaking as outcomes and goals. I realize that this suggestion is complicated, especially when stakeholders and funding agencies need to have clear, measurable outcomes to proceed with projects. Yet, I think every chapter in this book makes the case that attention to and investment in processes of re-placeing and how the active production of place enriches understandings of differential knowledges, urban experiences, imaginations and ethics of urban place and digital media. If creative or “vibrant” as well as equitable and ethically managed or governed urban places is a goal, we should be investing in more inclusive placemaking processes that move beyond economic or commercial outcomes. Developing and supporting informed processes of re-placeing the city could become a primary goal or outcome of urban planning and urban development.

RM: Thanks for sharing how digital inclusion was thought of and even mobilized in terms of economic gains for Kansas City. I want us to now discuss some of the experiential aspects associated with place and digital media. You explain in your book that both self-quantification apps and smart city objects lead to gathering and analysis of data which creates new “social imaginaries of place.” At one end, there are neoliberal critiques of these self-quantification apps which is that all this data encourages a certain kind of individualistic “care of the self.” At another end, there is scholarship on self-quantification apps like Map My Run or FitBit, which suggests these apps make users more aware of their everyday routines/habits and/or more mindful of their heartbeat, speed of running, and their walking path etc. This language of mindfulness and awareness seems to go against the idea of the distracted digital/mobile phone user, even though, one might say that this mindfulness actually refocuses attention. How do you as a researcher of locative media projects navigate this debate in your book, and in what ways do you think self-quantification apps are crucial to placemaking? I will be particularly interested in how you think of the phenomenological encounters involved in using these self-quantification apps. 

GH: What bearing does a consciousness or mindfulness about the “quantified self” have on one’s consciousness of place? It’s a question that emerges directly or indirectly in a lot of the studies on mobility and locative or mobile media that you and I referenced previously and there’s never really a universal answer, nor should there be. It depends on what’s being quantified, a person’s relationship with what’s being quantified, how and why a person interfaces with that data, and how that data and experience of quantification is contextualized and made meaningful. In the chapter you’re referring to I tried to highlight potential, sometimes contrasting, encounters with personal technologies of self-quantification and location-announcement. I explored phenomenological differences between early locative media projects that employed some form of self-quantification (mainly location announcement and mapping presence in place) and more recent self-quantification apps that sense and document personal mobility, biosigns, and automated and commercially viable data about location. I think more ethnographic and interview-based research needs to be done regarding the latter self-quantification apps as well as experiences of smart cities and what it feels like to be quantified or to become data in the service of placemaking. I didn’t have a chance to do this sort of in-depth ethnographic research on self-quantification apps for this book, but would be interested in revisiting this topic in the future. In Chapter 4: The Social City, I’m more interested in thinking about the potential for experiencing place through Humphrey’s “qualified self” within self-quantification apps. My focus on selfies as digital placemaking or re-placeing practices emphasizes this focus on “qualification” or using mediation rather than datafication to create and express place-based subjectivities. And admittedly, I spend less time analyzing self-quantification apps like the one’s you’re referring to than selfies or annotative locative media projects.

Self-quantification apps like FitBit and MapMyRun, for example, value “whereness” as the text or endpoint that conveys insight into relationships with place in similar ways that smart city sensors and location-based data acquisition do. Mainly that tracking and visualizing where something or someone is located can provide insight into past patterns of physical presence and inform future decisions about mobility and emplacement that are prescriptive and predictive of where you might or “ought to” go next (through algorithmically produced recommendations for example). Archiving or cataloging and creating a map, list, or database that make mobility patterns and presence observable can spark reflection, memory elicitation, and place-attachment that narrates place into existence in personalized and specific ways. So, self-quantification and place datafication always have the potential to produce qualified senses of self and emotional attachments to place depending on their use. But I suggest that experiential encounters with self-quantification apps and their algorithmic recommendation systems tend to re-place the city as a series of familiar places where you could potentially belong. This perspective is strongly linked to the endlessly reiterated promises of “being local” and experiencing the city “like a local” that are so prevalent in experience economy platforms and services now. Location-based recommendation systems undermine the strangeness of the city by ensuring that the places you’ve been, and the places you could be next, are for you: places come into being when you arrive which is reinforced by the data collected and visualized about your presence on screen. Place is ready-to-hand and the city is presented to be utilized in the way you’ve intended (for running, for meeting up, for eating, etc.). This interpretation borders on a neoliberal critique, especially my concern for the potential of these apps to construct the city as a locational filter bubble–or that an app’s algorithms generate recommendations of places to visit or information about the city that you’re already familiar with or that reinforce or celebrate your personal image, consumption patterns, or previous experiences of the city. I think that researchers could investigate these phenomenological relationships further to understand how they’re incorporated into ecosystems of digital placemaking and the everyday meaning of urban place.

RM: Very much appreciate this detailed answer Germaine, and I found the focus on “qualification” and “qualified self” to be especially enriching. I believe we have covered substantial ground in the interview, and for the last question, I wanted us to think about placemaking amidst Covid-19. We are having this Q/A in the moment of Covid-19, and amidst various degrees/phases of lockdown. How often do you emerge out of your home nowadays and how often do you find yourself on the streets of cities in the state of Kansas? I ask this with the intention that you could talk a bit about what happens to replace-ing the city or placemaking in your everyday activities, whether at home or outside? In what ways have you been involved in placemaking activities in the last month or so? 

GH: Great question! It feels odd to say it, but the various stay-at-home orders have created an opportune time to reflect on placemaking practices especially the ways that we engage with and produce places through digital media. I live outside Lawrence city limits and have been intentionally taking time to walk around a different neighborhood each week. Part of this practice is related to the shuttering of indoor establishments where I might usually spend time, but a driving force is also wanting to keep my infant daughter occupied and foster a sense of exploration and curiosity about the world. Everyone’s at home and outside now, and I’ve enjoyed observing the ways in which people in different neighborhoods are reproducing a sense of home through renovation and beautification projects, decorating porches and yards, gardening, posting signs and artwork, using the street, sidewalks, walls and parks for creative and political purposes. I’ve also been reading about some of the towns that used to exist in and around my neighborhood. One of which, Bloomington, was populated by a thriving African-American farming community and was flooded to make way for a state-managed lake that people use for summer recreation. The Lawrence/Douglas County African American Oral History Project has an account by a former Bloomington resident who describes what it feels like to see your childhood home underwater. I watched a couple blast through the water on jet skis and several families cruise by on pontoon boats the other day and wondered whether they knew what rested beneath them. These sorts of polysemic, almost haunting juxtapositions of place remind me of some of the locative media projects and digital placemaking activities that I analyze in the book.

Clinton Lake

In terms of re-placeing or digital placemaking, I’m not actively mapping or quantifying our walks although my location and steps are automatically tracked through apps on my phone, which I glance at to remind myself that I’ve ventured out of the house. I also use my phone to take quick snapshots while walking and share them to connect with people I miss. I sometimes record the sounds of the street. I’ve been occasionally recording the sounds of birds, insects, and trees in town to compare them with the sounds I hear living out on the prairie (where there are lots of birds and insects but no trees). One of the reasons I appreciated reading your book while “staying at home” was because I had recently become more aware of the presence of birds as markers of place. The examples in your book suture avian creatures to experiences of radiation and birds become a powerful motif in considering the overall health and care for the environment–peacocks returning to a garden, dead birds in Chernobyl, a winged cyborg.

Speaking about my everyday routines with you now, I’m reminded of how hyperlocal my placemaking activities have been. I’m increasingly curious about how communities in various locales are re-placeing the city and engaging in personal placemaking activities amidst Covid-19 restrictions. I have several ongoing projects that I’m trying to keep up with at the moment, but I hope to be able to study these relationships to some extent. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of Covid-19 related research in the coming months, and I’d love to read at least a few studies on re-placeing or digital placemaking among them.

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