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Can platform urbanism be agonistic? The case of mobility data specifications

Authors: Peter Dunn*, University of Washington
Topics: Urban Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: platform urbanism, agonism, digital geographies, mobility, data standards
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper applies theories of agonistic pluralism to the operations of digitally mediated mobility as a way to understand how platforms manage difference and conflict. The platform is something of a paradox in that it decentralizes, opening contribution to the platform to an expansive range of participants, at the same time it centralizes this participation within the scope of its own tightly controlled parameters. This uneasy coexistence of freedom and control frustrates any simple reading of platforms as either democratic or dominating. In the city, a convergence of proprietary digital platforms with state-controlled material infrastructures lies at the heart of phenomena that have been described as “platform urbanism.” Shared-use mobility services—rides and vehicles that are accessed, monitored, and managed by integral software systems—are one such phenomenon, and provide the empirical basis for this paper. As cities increasingly position themselves not just as the deliverers of roads and transit but as platforms for mobility services, the location of much of the politics of mobility shifts from the familiar deliberative forums of city halls to the decisions encoded in data specifications and APIs. In order to understand the shifting roles of the state, the public, and technology within platforms, I use ideas of agonistic pluralism, especially its insistence on constitutive difference and a permanence of conflict. In particular, I use common specifications for mobility data to illustrate practices through which heterogeneity is smoothed over and conflicts stabilized at the same time that “the public” is reconfigured as platform participants.

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