Messy Infrastructure, Digital Labor, and the Everyday City I: Labor and Practices

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Urban Geography Specialty Group, Digital Geographies Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Washington 3, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Organizers: John Stehlin, Will Payne
Chairs: Will Payne


The data-driven or “smart” city, whether a greenfield development or retrofitted into existing urban contexts, is often framed as portending a return to high modernism: a new, totalizing logic of “algorithmic” urban governance (see Zuboff, 2015; Krivý, 2018). Similarly, urban infrastructure systems, while undergoing “splintering,” often appear to express a technocratic logic, organizing urban space differentially according to social divisions along race, class, gender, nationality, and other forms of difference (Graham and Marvin, 2001). Scholarship on the everyday practice of urban life, on the other hand, emphasizes the provisional and contingent (Simone, 2004). Where data and infrastructures appear to correspond to grand strategies, this perspective sees practices as micro-scale “tactics” that city dwellers use to interrupt them from below , or sites where government is contingently worked out (Roy, 2009)

This series of sessions hopes to bring these dimensions together in the contemporary city, theoretically and/or empirically. We seek papers that grapple with the uneven, provisional, and contingent natures of both digitally mediated and “analog” infrastructures–even seemingly “totalizing” ones–in actually-existing cities (Angelo and Hentschel, 2015). We are especially interested in the everyday practices that enact, shape, narrate, evade, or resist the data-driven or infrastructural city, without losing sight of structural power asymmetries that profit-driven technology companies and/or austerity-squeezed public agencies seek to exploit (Barns, 2016).

For example, Airbnb as a platform extracts previously unrealized value from the built environment, but depends on the situated practices of “authentic” neighborhood life for this value (Spangler, 2018; Wachsmuth and Weisler, 2018). Yelp and TripAdvisor rely on the free labor of “elite” reviewers, whose preferences shape the future trajectories of urban consumption and the gentrification frontier. Domestic workers arranging temporary gigs through apps, without employee protections or bargaining power, use private messaging groups to organize and protect each other. “Mobility as a service” platforms promise a seamless journey, but the proliferation of apps and discarded vehicles results in something akin to “mobility spam” rather than a totalizing transportation system (Smith, 2016). In high-demand areas, food delivery services explode the restaurant into dedicated entrances for couriers and “dark kitchens” without seating. “Neighborhood social network” Nextdoor weaponizes Jane Jacobs’ idealized “eyes on the street” through rampant racial profiling and close collaboration with local police departments (Levin, 2015).

We hope to host a lively discussion about how contemporary digital and infrastructural modes of organizing urban space produce lived realities of disjuncture and unevenness, and what this means for political economy, social life and reproduction, built environments, metabolic relations, and possible futures.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Ian Spangler*, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY, “One More Way To Sell New Orleans”: Airbnb and the Commodification of Authenticity Through Local Emotional Labor 20 8:00 AM
Presenter Do Lee*, Queens College, E-Legality: Tech Companies, Immigrant Delivery Workers, and Electric Micro-Mobilities 20 8:20 AM
Presenter Carolyn Prouse*, Queen's University, Socially reproducing South African cities through infrastructures of donor human milk 20 8:40 AM
Presenter John Stehlin*, University of Manchester, Will Payne, University of California, Berkeley, “Meso-level” infrastructures and uneven development: bicycle sharing systems and “already-splintered” urbanism 20 9:00 AM
Discussant Sarah Barns University of Western Sydney 20 9:20 AM

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