February 8, 2009

Technology as Spatial Lens

In early February I went to hear Paul Dourish when he was visiting the University of Illinois. He’s a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology. In addition to the Informatics program, he also teaches in the interdisciplinary graduate program in Arts, Computation, and Engineering (ACE). His research lies at the intersection of computer science and social science, with a particular interest in ubiquitous and mobile computing and the practices surrounding new media. His rather long title, “Accountabilities of Presence and the Commoditization of Location: Getting Beyond Privacy in Location-Based Systems,” didn’t mean much to me, but his talk was very interesting.
Here’s his abstract:
The development of mobile and ubiquitous computing applications is typically attended by concerns about privacy and disclosure. However, despite much effort over many years, the problems of privacy seem as difficult as ever. Opinions differ greatly. To some, privacy is a major obstacle to the development of location-based technologies; to others, privacy simply doesn’t matter. Perhaps the problem is that the term “privacy” isn’t very useful? In order to ground these questions empirically — and to see our way past the problems of privacy as a concept — colleagues and I have been studying a group for whom it is not a useful conceptual framework. Paroled sex offenders tracked via GPS have, as far as the law is concerned, forfeited any right to privacy — and yet the ways in which they are accountable to various other groups for their movements and their presences highlight the complex, contingent, and fluid practices that lie behind a simplistic notion of privacy.

He gave a clear presentation, with a graphically elegant power point.
He started by talking about privacy being a performance, in that it is what we do, how we interact, rather than something we have. The concept of privacy obscures other social relations that may be more relevant or important.
Dourish introduced the term technocorrections to describe the uses of databases to track sex offenders using lifetime monitoring with GPS units. In California, where Dourish conducted his study, two sets of laws–labeled Megan’s law and Jessica’s law—were passed based on emotional responses to victims of violent sexual crimes and not on whether the spatial monitoring of sex offenders was effective. With Jessica’s law, the definition of “sexual” offender became quite Draconian, so that many more people are now being monitored.  There is no gradation of risk for sex offenders in California: all are labeled high risk. Parole officers are overwhelmed with data and have very little face-to-face time with the people they are monitoring. There is no rehabilitation, just surveillance.
The experiences of the parolee wearing the device are remarkable. For example, wearing a GPS anklet disciplines the body: people wear multiple socks to pad the device and/or to hide the device. It is easily damaged and any damage is a parole violation. The wearer cannot take it off, cannot get it wet, and must recharge it while wearing it, so those things affect the jobs that the wearer can get, the way in which the wearer can get clean, and how long the wearer can be away from an electrical outlet. The battery can be damaged by overcharging it, so one cannot charge it while sleeping! This device, then, affects the ways a person carries their body, marks a person (like the Scarlet Letter), if it is visible, serves as a constant reminder of a conviction, and, for some, has the positive aspect of providing an alibi, since the person’s whereabouts is always known. The device structures a person’s time, through the necessity of battery recharging.
Space is also structured by forcing people to wear a GPS unit. There are prohibited spaces, and spaces of danger and safety for the wearer. Many end up living near prisons, because there are no schools in the vicinity, so they are not in violation of their parole conditions. Sex offenders are not allowed to get online, so they have to rely on physical maps or circumstance to learn the locations of parks, playgrounds, and schools.
Dourish then moved into broader issues related to the spread of locative technologies, and social contexts that lend location meaning: legibility of space, from within, as lived;  and from without, as representational schemas, or presence and traces; technology and the body where locative devices affect comportment, among other things; commodification (actually he called it “commoditization”) of location in which relationships are dissolved (ie, between parolees and officers); transforming data to location, and transforming location to intent (why were they there?); and recovering accountabilities; accountability of presence that is beyond a “privacy” debate; heterogeneous accountabilities that are productive of space rather than responsive.

September 20, 2008

Continuous City

The Builders Association performed their show, “Continuous City” last night here in Champaign-Urbana. I was intrigued by the publicity, since it was supposed to be about cities, social networking, and theatre all at once, and how cool is that? The funders also touted the “boundary-pushing” and “cross-cultural” understanding of interdisciplinary art productions like this one. First of all, I’m glad that Marianne Weems, director, Harry Sinclair, writer, et al., brought this to our campus. Weems has been and is in a position to really think about arts in a globalizing world, having directed some other interesting pieces here before–Alladeen and Super Vision–and co-edited, with Brian Wallis and Philip Yenawine, a book I’ve used, Art Matters: how the culture wars changed America. In the program notes, Weems cites Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums as contributing to the development of this work. So, the bar is set pretty high.

On the plus side, the video work was pretty nifty and at times stunningly beautiful. I’d like to know more about how it was done. Peter Flaherty did the video design and you can learn more about him at www.thefourthefive.org The ideas behind the production were wonderful: video contributions from Shanghai, Mexico, Toronto, and KCPA, with an amusing “vlog” by Moe Angelos. Harry Sinclair as Mike was good as a globe-trotting, clueless father who, in his exhausted, unshaven way, was trying to sell a video-networking product he didn’t believe in, to people who already had satisfying in-the-flesh relationships. And his daughter, Sam, was great as a sullen, precocious, and cute kid.

But–of course there is a “but”–with all this techno-savvy and on-stage skill, the performance was ultimately about the lead character J.V.’s inability to have intimate relationships. That theme is treated much more profoundly and richly by many other playwrights. Rizwan Mirza’s J.V. didn’t convince me that he was a stressed out Internet entrepreneur. He seemed way too relaxed for that. And the metaphor of cutting off possibilities by going into a tunnel was really unsatisfying as an ending. I’m usually disappointed by endings, but this one seemed a cop-out.

Perhaps it comes down to “social architecture,” what Richard Farson in 1970 recognized as something we need to build in order to match (or compensate for, I’m not sure) the level of the technology we have set up. It seems like the technology on stage last night was flashy, sophisticated, funny, and capable of subtlety, but the dramatic storyline was too thin, too undeveloped, to support all that computer wizardry.

There were some inklings of social complexity, with food security, immigrants, and sprawl having brief mentions. It was thought-provoking as the family members were fuzzy and static-y, the images of Mike kept breaking up, and Sam kept hiding from her dad. But the evidence of resource-intensive, upper/middle-class ownership and production juxtaposed with a seeming lip service to papadum sellers in Mumbai or Vietnamese living in U.S. trailer parks rankled. Am I ungrateful that at least these folks are trying? No. Do I want more? Yes.

November 24, 2007

The Political Equator 2

Champaign, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, and then back again. I was really tired when I got home.
The idea of this event was truly fascinating: “an exploration of the intersection between sociopolitical and natural domains, foregrounding the notion of collective territory, but also a territory of collaboration that transgresses hemispheric boundaries. At the core of such trans-hemispheric sociopolitical and economic dynamics is the conflict between transcontinental borders and the natural and social ecologies they interrupt and seek to erase.” So many interesting folks came together for this mobile symposium, but the end result was disappointing. It took a lot of energy just to move 80-100 people around, and the logistics of being able to hear, have time to pee and eat, and still have time for dialogue were too much. So maybe Political Equator 3 will allow for more time, more silence, more women, and less strutting. The highpoints for me were the show that Nick Brown and Ava Bromberg put together at LACE, “Just Spaces,” and then the bus tour of Tijuana, which was a city I had never seen before. But I came home still wanting to know about the community of San Ysidro, just on the border, and what actually might be happening with the Tijuana River and the watershed in that area. There were no specifics; just a lot of architects and artists networking in what Sarah Kanouse rightly called “transnational intellectual stars.”
On the flight home I read T.C. Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain, a chilling and powerful depiction of undocumented workers nose-to-nose with the wealthy folks who live off their labor.

November 19, 2007

Teddy, Tacos and Talk

One man after another, talking and talking. The tacos were fantastic and Teddy Cruz must be thirty times more tired than I am. What energy and passion that man puts out, bilingually and all over the map. At the start of our journey from LA, Teddy noted our tendency to “hide beneath weird complexity.” It just stayed complex for the next four days…fascinating, frustrating, and fragmented. Probably no other way it could have gone, with 120 people trailing after Teddy’s enthusiasms. Metro, train, trolley, walking, buses, and more walking. Definitely the weirdest for me was the HaudenschildGarage in La Jolla. Suzanne Lacy said she collected “language”–phrases like “archipelago of enclaves” and “critical insertion.” I met Ava Bromberg, New York-based urban planner Al Wei, CCA architecture student John Manzo, Tijuana architect Rene Peralta (who contributed to Here is Tijuana), Emily Scott of the LA Urban Rangers, Christina McPhee, Christina Ulke of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, many of Suzanne Lacy’s students, and enjoyed time with Sarah Kanouse, Nick Brown, Monica Mayer and Suzanne. Almost as a corrective to the train ride from Los Angeles to San Diego, and the party that night in La Jolla (which was over the top), was my bus ride across LA on Sunday, on the Number 33 city bus along Venice Blvd. It felt everyday, and slow…19.62 miles according to Mapquest.

September 15, 2007

Laurie Long

I just heard that Laurie Long died quite suddenly of heart failure, during treatment for lung cancer, on Thursday, September 13. Laurie is in black in the photo with (L to R) M. Simon Levin, Piotr Adamczyk, and Kevin Hamilton. I remember when Laurie came to my cabin during one of her trips to Champaign-Urbana from Vancouver, and the stories she told of animals and growing up, as we walked along the levee and through the woods. She was very excited to see cardinals.
She and Simon did so many interesting things, both here and in Australia, in Canada, and California. I am thinking of the film loop from their work in the Australian salt flats…what an eerie, gorgeous, damaged landscape seen from the air. It was mesmerizing.
What a loss.

September 13, 2007

Just Space(s)

I’m getting prepared to go to Los Angeles in November to see the Just Space(s) exhibit and participate in the tour from LA down to the Mexican border at Tijuana, called The Political Equator. This will be another version of a trip organized in 2006. Also during the Just Spaces exhibit there will be a book party for An Atlas of Radical Cartography. Altogether, it should be an intense and sleep-deprived weekend. Nick Brown, who is a colleague here, and Ava Bromberg, a mover and shaker in the Geography Department at UCLA, have been lead organizers and conveners for a huge number of events in LA this fall. Ava also co-edited the latest issue of Critical Planning, to which our group here contributed. With empyre featuring a discussion on “critical spatial practice” and all the action in Los Angeles this fall, it will be a wonder if I have any time at all to write this blog.