Digital ordering of public space: The city, software, and exclusion

Authors: Peter T Dunn*, University of Washington
Topics: Urban Geography, Social Theory, Communication
Keywords: digital geography, software, public space, urban politics
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Endymion, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The ordering of the city and its public spaces—by sanitized and controlled real estate development, by the policing of homelessness, or by the privatized management of the city, to give a few examples—has been a longstanding concern of theorists of public space. Highly ordered spaces work to suppress difference and eliminate conflict, they argue, and in these exclusions such spaces are fundamentally anti-democratic. This paper argues that software is increasingly implicated in the spatial orderings and exclusions of the city. Digital technologies are inherently ordered, built on a the structures necessary for data and algorithms. Yet the order they produce in the city is not merely the incidental result of this underlying structure, but is instead, I suggest, a fundamental aim of the software’s creators. Smartphone-based apps for navigation, local business information, and social communication (among others) are working to produce cities with structures that align with their own digital models of the city. As with the more well-examined cases of urban ordering, the digital acts as an instrument of power to constrain and direct behavior under the illusion of a benign, civic-minded tidying-up. This paper explores the extent to which existing theories of public space can illuminate the workings of urban software in creating cities of order and exclusion. At the same time, it asks how software might be compatible with a disordered city, and whether it offers any potential for more emancipatory, democratic engagement in public space.

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