review: Stephen Graham – The Cybercities Reader (2004)

TheCybercitiesReader-front

In The Cybercities Reader (2004) Stephen Graham – at that time Professor of Urban Technology in Newcastle – bundles a great number of seminal texts about the intersections of digital media technologies and urban life. Some articles were written especially for this reader. Others were previously published. The book departs from the premisse that “[t]he so-called ‘information society’ is an increasingly urban society. The ‘digital age’ is an age which is dominated by cities and metropolitan regions to an extent that is unprecedented in human history” (p. 3). Thus the starting proposition of this book is “the irrefutable reality that the twenty-first century will be a century marked by both the deepening urbanisation of all parts of our planet and a growing reliance on fast-advancing information and communication technologies” (p. 22). In his introductory article Graham argues against two related ideas that were dominant between the 1960s and 1990s. The first is that the physical domain of cities and the digital domain of ICTs are largely separate realms. The second is that ICTs are a substitute for urban life, and undermine the city. Throughout the book the main argument is that ICTs and the global city are not substitutes but complementary, and often modify each other in qualitative new ways. In the competitive global economy, ICTs support specialization and concentration of ‘innovative milieux’ in urban centres, while the demand for ICTs is largely an urban affair, driven by growth of metropolitan regions.

First Graham sets out to tackle the “anything-anywhere-anytime dream” of ICTs as transcending urbanization. It was long held that new technologies would overcome the need for spatial proximity in cities, ushering a “post-urban age”. Graham distinguishes four strands of ‘post-urban’ thought. First, there have been utopian visions of Cyberspace as a parallel universe that would overcome the ballast of filthy material reality. Second are the pervasive ideas about the ‘death of distance’ and ‘friction-free capitalism’ thanks to ICTs, in which cities no longer played a significant role. Third are the disembodied hopes of Cyberlibertarians that ICTs would create inherently democratic and egalitarian communities without the restraints of (urban) geography. Fourth, there have been visions of new kinds of transparant citizenship and telepresence that would replace the ‘city of atoms’ with the ‘city of bits’.

Graham then forwards six weaknesses of these “anything-anywhere-anytime dreams”. 1) They are empirically wrong since they ignore actual trends of global urbanization and mobility. 2) They ignore the material geographies of ICTs, which consists of real wires, severs, satellites, towers, etc., and the unequal spread and socio-economic organization of ICTs throughout the world. 3) Theoretically, a weak spot is that they overgeneralize the ‘impact’ of technologies as being the same everywhere. 4) Another theoretical flaw is that over-stretching the binary opposition between ICTs and urban life grants too much power to ICTs for change, and underestimates existing physical practises of co-presence. Ideas about the city influence our perceptions and use of ICTs, just like the inverse. 5) On a political level, utopian visions of the liberating capabilities of ICTs act as a cover-up for neoliberalism and the proliferation of global inequalities. Not everyone benefits from ICTs. Rather than equalizing geography, (corporate) ICTs often exploit differences between places and regions. 6) A further political weakness is that these ideas imply that transformations of urban life are more a technical matter than a political one. The potential for policy innovations at urban, regional or national levels in shaping and harnessing ICT developments is underplayed.

In contrast to these technological determinist visions of technologies as replacing (substituting) urban life, most of the studies collected in this volume show a multitude of ‘remediations’ of ICTs and the city.

The book is divided into three parts and nine sections. Each part, section, and article or book excerpt is meticulously introduced by Graham, often up to the point where reading the actual article becomes unnecessary. Graham also provides the reader with many references for further reading.

The first part – Understanding Cybercities – consists of theoretical explorations and conceptualizations of the cybercity. The first section Cybercity archaeologies consist of articles that together counter the idea that cities are only now transformed by ‘revolutionary’ technological developments. Graham argues that historical continuities exist. Cities have always been infused by technologies. The second section Theorising cybercities consists of articles which follow two broad approaches to the interrelationships between cities and ICTs. The first approach is that of substitution: new technologies somehow replace existing urban space, place, and social relations based on co-presence. Graham already criticizes this view in his introductory article. The second approach is that of coevolution: urban space/place and electronic space are produced together and mutually shape each other. This view is mostly associated with neo-Marxist thinkers. It runs the risk of oversimplification (by regarding both city and technology as singular entities) and determinism (by radically separating the global from the local and seeing the first as the unavoidable conqueror of the later). The third section Cybercities: hybrid forms and recombinant spaces comprises articles that follow a third approach: recombination. This approach – to which Graham is most sympathetic – applies actor-network theory to the interrelations between cities and technologies. It takes “a highly contingent, relational perspective of the linkage between technology and social worlds” as composed of multiple heterogeneous networks (p. 69). Cities are composed of hybrid spaces on multiple geographical scales from local to global. This makes it far less clear what a city actually is (p. 113).

The four sections of the second part  – Cybercity Dimensions – cover various domains in which ICTs and the city influence each other. The sections in this part are called Cybercity mobilities, Cybercity economies, Social and cultural worlds of cybercities, and Cybercity public domains and digital divides. The mobilities section addresses the complementarity of ‘digital mobility’ with physical mobility. It also addresses the ‘power geometries’ of unequal mobilities. The economies section addresses the ways urban economies move between centralization and decentralization, tie cities together on a global level, and remediate urban consumption through e-commerce. The social and cultural worlds section addresses three issues: the tensions between distance and proximity; challenges in representing the cybercity (esp. its invisibility); and political biasses of urban ICTs (esp. surveillance issues). The public domains section addresses the question whether and how digital media technologies can create new public domains. Hurdles are the invisibility and individual use of ICTs, their appropriation for narrow commercial interests both local and global, tendencies among the affluent to both extend their reach beyond the local and seclude themselves, and the centralization of ‘electronic power’ on a small number of people, institutions and places.

The third part – Shaping Cybercities? – explores the ways in which urban policies have been and can be deployed to shape the new reality of the cybercity. The section Cybercity strategy and politics contains a cross section of existing policy cases from various cities throughout the world. In the final section Cybercity futures Graham return to his original question about the persistence of “end of city” scenarios. He briefly introduces both utopian and dystopian urban future predictions, and exposes the influence of  cyberpunk novelists on both modernists and critical urban social science. There is a crisis in technical rationality and in the legitimacy of future predictions. Challenges for future scenarios are: exposing the role of ICTs in and between cities at various scales; revealing the role of ICTs in non-deterministic ways; and developing new and powerful – even utopian! – notions for future urban thinking. Governments and social movements need to deal with pressing issues of our urbanizing planet: “neoliberal economic restructuring, migration and multiculturalism, sprawl and environmental crises, the privatisation of public space, endemic inequality, social fragmentation and capsularisation, and the widespread disillusionment with mainstream democratic politics” (p. 391).

This collection of articles may be the first comprehensive attempt to collect the current state of thinking about cybercities. And it’s a very broad and thorough one. It can be read as a baseline work for further inquiries into the interplay between digital media technologies and the city. Since its appearance in 2004, many of the developments described in this book have intensified, withered, or changed directions. One of the main characteristics of urban ICTs for instance, their invisibility, has been subject to change. Graham writes “[e]very urban landscape crosscuts, and interweaves with, multiple and extended sets of electronic sites and spaces. Most of these remain invisible. Many are simply unknowable” (p. 113). This visualization or materialization of “Hertzian space” is precisely what many locative media projects are now actively addressing. In addition, new developments have taken place. Examples of recent developments which (obviously) do not feature in the book are – from a technological side – GPS-based navigation and mobility, location-based services and contextually relevant information technologies, the use of locative media for urban annotation, social proximity, mapping and urban story-telling, pervasive games and urban play, distributed sensing and measurement projects in ‘urban computing’ (e.g. Pachube). From a more urban perspective for instance more recent developments are an increasing interest in urban ecology and urban farming, alternative sustainable mobilities, practises like ‘smart/flash mobs’, and so on.

Does this book have any weak points? Partly due to the varying quality of contributions by individual authors, one of the weak point of this compilation is that – in spite of its intention – a dominant picture arises of the ICTs – city relationship as a one-way street. Far more attention goes out to the working of ICTs on the urban domain than how ideas about the urban shape ICTs. The book predominantly focusses on very particular, often quantifiable, changes in urban life in the cybercity ‘caused’ by ICTs. It gives far less attention to various new ways of imagining the cybercity. Further, with a few exceptions the book consists almost entirely of academic contributions. Fields of practises which have long occupied themselves with either or both the city and new media technologies – e.g. architecture and urban planning, (media) design, the arts – are largely left out. This is regrettable, since these field often contribute very interesting new ideas to our understanding of ‘cybercities’. Another point of critique is that although the book contains cases from all over the world, the bias is mostly on north America and Europe, with some examples from south-American and Asian cities. Africa is completely left out and again remains the forgotten continent. Finally, the book does not give an overarching new framework for understanding the cybercity. No overarching broad analysis is given of how ICTs differently ‘affect’ various cities and regions worldwide. Although this might not be the main task of a reader (especially when it tries to put “urban ICT studies” on the map as an emerging field of research) the lack of overarching theory feels like an omission. To show that there is no longer a clear urban essence defined by neat boundaries, Graham uses terms like multiplicity, heterogeneity, complexity, diversity, hybridity, and so on (e.g. pp. 113-114). However, I feel such abstract notions in themselves are hardly illuminating for the formation of theory about cybercities. In my view it confuses implicit pre-understanding or methodological points of departure for actual theory. It seems to take epistemology (how can we know things?) for ontology (what is the nature of things?). Such obfuscating notions further widen the gap between ‘grand theory’ about cybercities on the one hand, and ‘on the ground’ analyses of actual ‘hybrid’ urban practises on the other hand.
This raises the question what the state of affairs is five years later. Have there been significant developments in theorizing cybercities since this book? I am very much looking forward to an updated version of the Cybercities reader, say in 2014, ten years after this version…

 

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One Comment

  1. Husain Rangwala
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Respected Sir,

    I am student and I am writing a paper on “Urban Spaces and Change in identity in network society”. I needed some articles that were related to such kind of topics so that I can support my arguments in my paper.
    I came to know about this website from “The Urban design Reader” series.
    Eagerly waiting for your reply.
    Regards,
    Husain
    (India)

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  1. [...] review: Stephen Graham – The Cybercities Reader (2004) (book review) [...]

  2. [...] review: Stephen Graham – The Cybercities Reader (2004) (book review) [...]

  3. [...] En el blog podéis acceder a diversos proyectos, jornadas o innovaciones ligadas a este a veces indefinible mundo de lo digital y lo físico y a fin de cuentas humano, porque no está mal recordar que son personas las que habitan este mundo híbrido. Si clicáis en la pestaña de la literatura podéis a acceder a algunos textos y reseñas que tienen relación con el tema del blog, en particular a dos reseñas de dos libros que se adentraron en el mundo de lo digital y lo urbano cuando en el primer caso no era ni siquiera teoría y en el segundo, cuando Internet prometía dominar hasta nuestros más cotidianos hábitos. Se trata de Kevin Lynch con su imprescindible libro The Image of the City y Stephen Graham con The Cybercities Reader. […]

  4. [...] contributions in this book are more culturally and professionally diverse than, say, Graham’s Cybercities Reader (2004). But if you are looking for a book that enters this field with a stronger and more coherent [...]

  5. [...] This made me doubt whether alternative forms of spatial knowledge are necessarily displaced (substitution scenarios are all too common in new media theory..) or simply survive in the background. In their effort to [...]

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