Thursday, October 17, 2013

Frontiers of New Media Symposium at University of Utah

So am back from the University of Utah, having participated in their Frontiers of New Media symposium. The location of Utah is not a coincidence. In 1969, the University of Utah was the fourth of four nodes of the ARPANet. It is popularly believed that the birth of the ARPANet, and later the Internet, marked the beginning of this "new frontier." To top it off, this year, the National Security Agency’s “Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center” will be completed in Bluffdale, Utah. This data center will be a key archive of the electronic communications of individuals all over the world.


In light of the PRISM/NSA scandal, this years symposum theme was "The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia." The speakers came from diverse disciplines including law, sociology, cultural studies and communication. Ron Deibert opened the symposium with an alarming keynote on the extent to which we are being watched. He drew from research taking place in his Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary research and development hothouse working at the intersection of the Internet, global security, and human rights. Pretty exciting stuff going on in that lab I must say and very relevant given the pervading issues on security and privacy. Geert Lovink followed this with a more hopeful tone in his keynote, emphasizing the activism, hacktivism and other initiatives that are going on to keep the internet diverse and open. One of the many interesting examples that he gave was the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine  that allows you to actually erase your digital past completely and guides you systematically so through this process. What an amazing idea! Interestingly though, Lovink mentioned that Facebook has slapped a lawsuit...just goes to show us how powerful these social media companies are but more importantly, a small grassroots act can rattle the biggest of corporations.

Of course there is an ongoing battle on the right to being forgotten which is by no means resolved but is well worth the fight. There is a new book out -Virtual of forgetting in the digital age by Prof. Mayer-Schönberger, which actually has a promo on YouTube (cool strategy in academia I have to say! I should remember that when promoting my book :-)


Anyway, my presentation, “From the Wild Wild West to the Global City: Spatial Metaphors across Internet history on the globalizing and architecting of digital space” is drawn from my upcoming book, "The Leisure Commons: A Spatial History of Web 2.0" by Routledge. Here is an abstract of my talk. The video should be out soon. Will keep you posted!

Over the decades we have learnt to conceptualize the Internet with the aid of metaphors, including that of the city to grasp its information highways, networks, the underlying logic dictating movement and nodes of concentrated social action (Arora, 2011, 2012; Castells, 2009; Mitchell, 1996; Lessig, 2006). By equating the Internet to the city, we are compelled to extend our imagination by applying our understandings of urban planning and geography to current conversations on the shaping of Internet spaces. The persistence of this parallel has matured significantly from the utopic notion of the web as a frontier of limitless and depoliticized western space (Barlow, 1996; Rheingold, 1993) to a more architected and socio-economic phenomenon of a propertied and contextual digital place. As we enter the political economy of algorithms, the erection of walled gardens and state firewalls to confine as well as protect, and hyperlinked networks that capture concentrations and flows of digital power worldwide, there is an urgent need to frame such global mappings of the Internet and its varied implications. This paper uses the metaphorical parallel of the city as Internet and capitalizes on the rich literature surrounding the globalization of the cityscape or what is referred to as the global city (Sassen, 2011), command centers that serve as fulcrums for the industrial, creative, leisurely, and the privileged as well as the laboring and migrant class. This effort allows us to borrow from the field of urban studies and extend important debates surrounding globalization of the geographical domain to its virtual counterpart- the Internet, to better confront its political, socio-cultural and economic dimensions and online/offline intermediations. Further, this paper historically maps out the shift in spatial metaphors that have been instrumental in conceptually architecting digital space and highlights the policy consequences of such shifts.
In drawing parallels between the Internet and global city, we see the persistence of the core-periphery nodes and hierarchies dictated by factors that are political, corporate, affective and culturally based. While certain command centers persist such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, we also see the rise of digital leisure networks that are becoming more issue, interest, group and location based such as Nextdoor, Black Planet, and Beautiful People. We also witness the indigenization of dominant networks such as Facebook wherein its usage allows for a diverse spatial representation that may have little resemblance to the original Facebook ethos. In a sense, the more global these command centers get, the more nebulous its ideology becomes as it’s impossible to impose its unique socio-cultural norms onto its substantive transnational and transcultural digital inhabitants. Additionally, it is argued that far from being disembedded from the nation state, the Internet seems represent a nation’s culture; several digital platforms have been designed for specific regions and audiences such as South Korean’s Cyworld, Latin America’s Migente, and Germany’s Studivz, as well as Google’s Orkut in Brazil. That said, we need to view these command centers not as individual nodes of power but as strategic clusters of circulating networks and capital. In the age of the hyperlinked and hybermobile community we need to pay attention to the flows between these sites and not solely that of its individual structures as the former allows for more dynamism and change. We need to consider Internet mediations between the physical and the virtual, where offline moments transform into digital memories to be consumed and played with and vice versa. Also, while new ICTs make possible the impressive blurring of lines between the real and the virtual, much of the world’s inhabitants reside in a pre-digital world and are invisible publics that have somehow slipped past the database that appears omnipresent. Poverty, rurality, criminality, and the perverse gain little attention within this larger discourse on the globalizing of the Internet. Going back to the analogy, it’s much like examining a city without taking heed of their vast slums, often where half their inhabitants live, work and play. Hence, this paper argues for the strategic use of spatial metaphors such as the global city to enrich our understandings of contemporary Internet spaces and its globalizing trajectories by being more encompassing of the marginal and the diverse, the labor and the leisurely, and the virtual and the material.