The Mediapolis Q&A: Myria Georgiou’s Being Human in Digital Cities

Myria Georgiou talks to Scott Rodgers about her latest book, Being Human in Digital Cities.
[An audio version of this interview has been published simultaneously on the Mediapolis Now podcast.]

Scott Rodgers: One could be forgiven for thinking, Myria, that in popular discourses around digital technologies, the emphasis would be on just that: the technical devices, the infrastructures, the software, the platforms, as such. And yet, you start your book Being Human in Digital Cities with a paradox. There has been this apparent turn to a kind of people-centrism in digital cities discourse emanating out of the tech sector, as well as from related opinion makers. For example, you quote a line from a 2019 article in Forbes magazine, which says, “Delete Technologies, Add Humans.” You call narratives like this one a kind of popular humanism. What’s going on with this apparent turn to people centrism or popular humanism in the tech sector today?

Myria Georgiou: Thank you for starting by picking on this paradox, because this paradox that you are identifying has actually been quite important to me in my framing of the book. When I started researching the book, ironically, what I did notice is that academic discourse was very much centered on infrastructures, on software, on platforms. And sometimes I found myself frustrated, especially as someone who does a lot of research with humans, with people. Sometimes I found myself frustrated about the lack of humans in our academic discourse around digital lives and digital cities. I decided to start researching this book, and to try to find out where humans are in the digital cities. And while often humans were absent or subdued in academic discourse, what I was surprised to find out is that humans were everywhere in corporate, state, and media discourse around digital cities. I found that very interesting and curious, and I started investigating what was going on.

Again and again I was surprised to find out that in advertising and media discourses, state and city policies, those in power were more likely to refer to humans, were more likely to refer to futures that are humane, sustainable, progressive, centered on human rights when actually promoting digital change, rather than referring to technologies themselves. So this is where I started thinking about what is going on with this incorporation of humanist values by those powerful actors. This is what I refer to as popular humanism, and basically this concept of popular humanism, which is also inspired by the popular feminism that is developed primarily by Sarah Banne Weiser, is the incorporation of those humanistic values – and very often progressive humanistic values – to push technologies very often in the name of order, in the name of social order, and very often in the name of profit.

SR: That’s interesting. So you make it quite clear why we should be a bit suspicious of this rise of a kind of humanism in tech discourse. But I was wondering, does it have any redeeming qualities? Does it give us the trace of something encouraging, or is it just entirely a false narrative?

MG: That’s a very good question, and of course any proper academic answer is a yes and no answer, right? Popular humanism, and its discourse that promises human cities through technology, is in many ways a false narrative and sometimes even a dangerous narrative. Why is that the case? Because it promises that these humane, egalitarian, inclusive and sustainable futures have to be rooted through technological change. Of course, we can talk about the many reasons why this is problematic, right? We can talk about the techno-determinism that is embedded in this kind of promise. We can talk about the concerns about the interest[s] that of course are incorporated in the promise of technological futures and so on.

However, I think there is some hope behind those false narratives, and the hope relates to what this incorporation of progressive values in the discourse of powerful actors means. Where does it come from? I think on the one hand, it comes through this tradition, the ongoing tradition of liberal humanism, which of course is very problematic and we can talk more about it. But on the other hand, it comes as a response to the different voices, different movements that question the current social order in cities. These are voices that come from social movements, for example, like Black Lives Matter, like #MeToo, that question the given order of patriarchy, racism, and deep inequalities in cities and demand change. The hope behind the false narrative of popular humanism is that these voices cannot be ignored anymore. Where this will take us of course, I think, is a process that remains to be seen.

SR: One of the two contrasts that you set against popular humanism is demotic humanism; that’s the first one, which refers to ordinary creative practices with and through various digital technologies. Now, of course, ordinary and creative practices with digital technologies permeate all walks of life in the city. It starts with perhaps those who are most powerful, and their own ordinary and creative practices, but it of course extends to those who live on the so-called margins. And here you draw some inspiration from bell hooks, and you place a particular emphasis on starting from the digitalized experience at the urban margins. Can you give us an example or two from the book where you work through this demotic humanism on the margins?

MG: The space of the demotic, as you say, the space of the ordinary or the space that many different people occupy. And some people who occupy this demotic space are more privileged and others are not. I thought it was very important to make a point and start from the margins and move to the center, rather than the other way around, when talking about demotic humanism. And why is that? Obviously, a lot of the research I have done over the years is with people who have been marginalized and racialized: refugees, migrants, people of the urban margins more generally. However, if you start from the margins, you very quickly become aware that many of the technologies and the logics of surveillance, control and certain kinds of unequal urban order are not new and only associated with digital technologies. A very clear example is racialized neighborhoods. Racialized neighborhoods have not become subjected to predictive policing only through AI. These kinds of techniques of assorting people, of stigmatizing people in certain parts of the city, have been going on for a very long time. If we historicize our conception and understanding of the digital order, then we can see how those particular technologies are situated within longer trajectories of technologies of control, change, but also of liberation. And we can then understand more clearly what is distinct about digital technologies.

The other thing about starting from the margins is that we are more able, I think, to understand that constant interplay between power and resistance that is situated in everyday life. This is helpful, I think, to neither demonize nor celebrate digital technologies. And let me give you an example from another place outside of the West: Havana, which is one of the cities where I’ve done a bit of research on the book. One of the interesting things that I saw in Havana is how access to digital technologies, access to fast internet connection for example, is extremely racialized and classed. The people with the fastest and more reliable internet connection are those who are staying in the four and five star hotels. Many of the people of Havana, the residents of Havana, lack this privilege. But an interesting example that I saw is how, within the context of everyday life, we can see how the ordinary residents of Havana, who are excluded from the digital privilege, congregate outside the gates of the luxury hotels and claim their space in a digital agora by hacking the system and using the fast Wi-Fi of the hotels. They’re claiming a space in the agora that is denied to them because of the hotel gates, which they can reclaim through hacking the system and joining the Wi-Fi networks of the hotels.

SR: So you’ve talked about one kind of, let’s say, digital divide. But when I was reading about your discussion of demotic humanism as it relates to digital technologies, there seems to be a recurring set of contradictions of another type as well. One example I was thinking of is during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a rise of these mutual aid groups. Very often these mutual aid groups were mediated by, and maybe even dependent on, proprietary platforms owned by big technology companies like Meta, WhatsApp, Facebook, or Nextdoor, to give a different example. And so that’s a different kind of contradiction. It’s not so much about access and/or people hacking in to get access to digital spaces like, say, Wi-Fi signals or that kind of thing. It’s more using these proprietary platforms that are extracting their data, and then using it to nudge them in various ways, or to target them with advertising, right, but at the same time, it’s being used as a way to perhaps organize and express collective agency, collective care. How should we make sense of that contradiction? Is it just a necessary kind of condition of being in the digital city, that you have these things coexisting, using proprietary corporate apps on the one hand, yet doing it for things that actually might be quite productive and full of care?

MG: There are two reasons why I choose to talk about demotic humanism. The first one is because I draw on the long tradition of studies of everyday life, the phenomenological approaches to everyday, the practice theory inspired work, which is also inspiring me to try to go and look at everyday as that messy space, as that messy space which is both a side of agency and control. The other reason that I’m talking about demotic humanism is because I think that messy space of the everyday presents us with those realities of what it means to really set forward values about life with dignity, freedom and autonomy in cities that we know are more and more unequal. However, I think that demotic humanism, precisely because it’s such a messy space, invites us also to think about the more normative questions. If the everyday is full of contradictions, it might give us those glimpses of hope. But what do we do with this hope? How do we create another vision for digital cities that are not controlled by Big Tech, that are not necessarily controlled by a surveillance state and surveillant corporations?

SR: That’s a perfect segue to the third dimension of competing humanisms in the digital city that you discuss in the book, which is critical humanism. And critical humanism is more about contestation. As you say in the book, “Critical humanism is a performative opening, practice, and an intellectual invitation, an epistemology for contesting the digital makings of a hierarchical humanity.” That’s the abstract version, but maybe tell our listeners a little bit about how critical humanism might take shape on the ground or in practice.

MG: Critical humanism, as you said, is the third dimension of the competing humanisms of the digital cities in the book. And it is the third and last point that I want to end up with in the book. Not only because I think we need to sustain politics of hope, but also because I think we need to see the politics of hope where they imagine digital cities and where I think we need to also contribute to these politics of hope. But when I talk about critical humanism, I think it’s very important to talk about it both as praxis and as a normative compass. Because I think it’s important not only to think about the normative ideals, which I think is a responsibility for us as researchers, but also to situate these normative ideals within experience of our vision; and to be able to observe, and record, and recognize when those normative visions are not just abstract, theoretical conversations but actually at least partly rooted in the city and the lived experience. Let me explain what I mean here. I think critical humanism as praxis is what we observe perhaps not as often as popular humanism, which represents the hegemonic way in which claims to the human are being made. But we see critical humanism emerging in different occasions in the city on a small, medium, and large scale. And I’ll give you a couple of examples. For example, we see critical humanism in movements like Black Lives Matter. If we think of the incorporation of digital technologies and how BLM became an urban and a trans-urban movement, we can see how there’s evidence that there’s this critical, radical, and oppositional way to work with technologies in cities. We see BLM exploding as a movement after the smartphone becomes a witnessing device that records the murder of George Floyd. This witnessing device then is used to circulate that evidence of inhumanity across different social media, in a specific city, but also across cities. And then we see that explosion of protest where BLM is reclaiming both the material and the digital street by incorporating those ideals of radical justice and redistributive justice in the city. The evidence of critical humanism is there.

We see that also in more formal processes. The municipalist movement, for example, has been repeatedly and increasingly making claims for digital justice in cities. And we see different urban governments that demand accountability by the state, but also the big corporations that are using technologies of data extraction and of surveillance in cities. So, we have the critical humanist praxis, which is very important to recognize, to see and learn from. And they should also inform our critical humanist epistemology. That is the way that we approach knowledge, the way that we feel our responsibility when we conduct research in digital cities, not only for the purposes of critiquing, but also for understanding, recognizing, and seeing the people that make those cities.

SR: I’d like to end by opening out this question of the human just a little bit further. One reaction that listeners who haven’t yet read the book could have in reading your book might be something along the lines of, “Isn’t this just positing the human against technology, or, isn’t this treating humans and technologies as separate?” And perhaps those imaginary listeners might be thinking about various post-humanist theories and philosophies, which challenge the notion that there’s any such thing as a pure or pre-technological humanity.

Post-humanist thinking usually puts forward an understanding of humanity as always already bound up in complicated ways with technologies. And by technologies, we don’t mean just digital technologies, but it could even be early technologies like clothing, or the controlled use of fire, or the domestication of animals, or the emergence of writing. That sort of reading is not necessarily your emphasis, but you are aware of these lines of thinking and you do discuss them in the book a little bit. Tell us about how your notion of humanism interrelates or coexists with other ways of thinking about humanism, or indeed post-humanism in the digital age.

MG: The concept of humanism raises a lot of suspicion quite often, and quite rightly so. Because for most of us when we think about humanism we have the reference of the Enlightenment humanism, the Eurocentric ideal of the Human who is male, who is white, who is European, and who has certain purity and essential characteristics. Of course, we know that that pure human does not exist. We also know that this idea of the pure, Enlightenment European, and Eurocentric human has been used historically to sustain and to justify colonialism, to sustain long histories of violence, and to sustain long histories of hierarchical humanity, where certain humans are seen and recognized while others are marginalized and denied their humanity. That space of humanism is a troubled space.

However, what I wanted to do by insisting on using the concept of humanism was to recognize the many, multiple humanisms. Not only for the digital cities I propose in the book, but the many different humanisms that are part of philosophy, that are part of human history. Those of us who are sitting in the Global North might take for granted the Enlightenment humanism as the singular way of understanding conceptions of the human. However, by doing a bit more research, one finds out the many parallel histories and the competing histories of humanism. We have, for example, the Black humanism of Frantz Fanon or Sylvia Wynter, who are actually claiming the human from that position of the subaltern, that position of marginality, reminding us that the right to be human is not only a right that is for the privileged white Europeans. We have the humanism of Ubuntu, the African humanism, that very much speaks to the relationality of humanity, that emphasizes that every human exists and becomes human only in relation to others, and other humans and non-human actors, like non-human actors in nature. We have the humanism of Escobar’s pluriversality who is calling us to think about our world and our responsibility to the world as an understanding and a respect of a world of many worlds. It is these different traditions of humanism that inspire me to think about critical humanism, and think about that right to be human, and that right to become human, as being a right that we all should have access to.

Now we know that some of these conversations that challenge the ideal human and the “pure human” are taking place within post-humanist scholarship. However, we should remember that these conversations have been taking place a long time before post-humanist scholarship, not only in the examples that I mentioned, but also within cultural studies for example, and with Stuart Hall as a key reference for me. We have been reminded for a long time that being human is both about being and becoming. The human is always contextualized, situated in systems of power and knowledge, and of course always incomplete. We know from the different traditions of critical humanism that the conception of the human is a conception that is always relational.

And, of course, this is where technologies come in. Of course, humans are situated within systems of knowledge that are produced on platforms and networks, and of course these technologies matter. And they matter in particular ways, but they also matter in ways that technologies have always mattered, in the way that humans have been constituted. Networks and platforms might create particular dynamics through which knowledge is constituted, and thus inevitably humans, but also we can think about the longer history of how technologies have been embedded in the constitution of humans. For example, the non-human actors of the machines, the industrial machinery, or the ships that created the hierarchical humanity of the master and the slave. The technological constitution of the human is not new, so it’s very important for us to understand what is distinct about digital technologies, making particular kinds of humans, or competing humanities. But it’s also important to recognize that this is not a unique moment in human history. Technologies and humanities have always been co-constituted in different periods and of course in different ways.

Georgiou, Myria and Scott Rodgers. "The Mediapolis Q&A: Myria Georgiou's Being Human in Digital Cities." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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