FRITH, Jordan. Splintered space: hybrid spaces and differential mobility. Mobilities, Vol 7, No. 1, 131-149

Early theories of the internet imagined that individuals would begin living most of their lives online, decreasing the importance of physical mobility and urban spaces. With the development of internet-enabled mobile phones, these early predictions have been proven false.

The internet has begun to merge with physical space, leading to new types of hybrid spaces.


With the rise of digital technologies, the less fortunate are also being excluded from ways of understanding the places they inhabit.

To many internet theorists of the 1990s, rather than living our lives in the corporeal world that needs to be navigated and managed, we would transcend to a disembodied reality, and the bits running through servers would replace feet walking the streets.

At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty first century, it is clear that these theorists who imagined the digital overcoming the physical were wrong.

With the rising popularity of internet-enabled smartphones, it is even more apparent that the digital spaces of the internet are interconnected with physical places.

Smartphones show that the spaces we move through and the digital information we interact with have merged.

The shift from sedentary to mobile internet access is not a minor point. When mobility and digital information merge, the nature of the information changes.

As mobile individuals access digital information that is mapped onto physical space, the nature of both the digital and the physical change (Ishii, 1999). The information becomes a part of that space, and the interface of the mobile device becomes a representation individuals use to negotiate their interactions with physical space.

People who move through hybrid spaces penetrated with digital information have a qualitatively different experience of mobility than those who do not.

How people experience mobility and how access to different mobile technologies allow individuals to exert more control over their mobile experience.

As hybrid spaces continue to proliferate, we must pay close attention to who is being excluded from these new experiences of space.

Differential Mobility

For most of the twentieth century, the social sciences were mired in what Jensen (2009) calls ‘sedentary thinking'.

Sedentarism treats as normal stability, meaning and place, and treats as abnormal distance, change and placelessness'.

For Deleuze and Guattari, it is not the nodes in the network that matter most, it is the paths people travel.

Drawing from the works of Deleuze and Guattari (1977, 1987) and others, Sheller and Urry (2006) proposed a new mobilities paradigm that focuses on issues surrounding mobility.

This new paradigm asks new questions about everyday life and contrasts with traditional thought by focusing on the travel to and from the sedentary enclaves that comprise the urban landscape (Jensen, 2009).

Mobility is a resource distributed unequally among social groups.

Certain groups are excluded from forms of mobility, whether through legislative regulation (Massey, 1994, 2005; Lewis, 2006; Drakakis-Smith, 2007), or through modes of transportation (Graham & Marvin, 2001; Wood & Graham, 2005; Hine, 2007).

For many people, mobility is a reflection of the lack of power they have over their lives. Take the woman forced to work in the suburbs who commutes over an hour to work each way. She is certainly mobile, but that mobility is not a choice.

Or take the example Massey gives of displaced people forced to migrate for political or economic reasons. They certainly have less power, less freedom, than the man who lives in the gentrified part of downtown and walks to work. These examples clearly show that a blind equation of mobility with freedom will not do.

Clearly there is a difference between someone driving a car to work and someone who takes a city bus. Even if the travel time is nearly equal, which it most likely is not, there is a qualitative difference in these two types of mobility.

It is not just the ability to move, but the manner of movement, the way that movement is experienced.

Analyzing the ways people manage their experiences with everyday mobility provides a productive avenue to examine the construction of the city as a whole.

Those who have access to mobile technologies are able to experience mobility in a qualitatively different way than those who do not. With the spread of smartphone technologies, this divide will only widen as the technolog-ical elite are able to occupy new forms of hybrid spaces.

Reading, Listening, Moving

Simmel (1950) claimed that urban individuals developed what he called the blasé attitude, which served as a sort of filter that allowed them to disengage from the multiplicity of activity occurring on urban streets.

The blasé attitude allowed people to deal with crowded spaces more on their own terms.

The experience of mobility for European first class railway travelers was shaped by the book. Faced with trains that placed passengers in eight person compartments, passengers turned to the book as a way to avoid interacting with the strangers

The rich could escape the strangers on the rail-way car by focusing on the narrative of the novel or a newspaper; the poor did not have the option of that escape and had to engage with the stimulation and strangers present in the railway car.

Walkman users were able to white-wash the sounds of the urban area, which follows a greater trend to mask some of the unpleasantness of urban spaces.

Train passengers are now able to stay connected to work and friends while mobile through the use of laptops and cell phones.

The boundaries between travel time and activity time are increasingly blurred. Specifically, many people are using travel time itself to undertake activities. The cost to the individual of travel time is reduced as travel time is converted into activity time. (Lyons & Urry, 2005, p. 263)

Lazarus devices

Just as Lazarus rose from the dead, these mobile technologies ‘“resurrect” mobile time that would have previously been considered “dead”' (Green, 2002, p. 289).

But the idea that mobile devices ‘resurrect' dead time has a rather troubling implication: for mobile individuals who do not have access to these technologies, their time remains dead.

0's, 1's and City Streets

The internet has become tied to physical mobility in new ways, leading to a new form of splintered urbanism: the divide between those who have access to hybrid spaces and those who do not.

Computing leaves the desktop and moves out into the lived spaces of the city.

The traditional division between digital and physical becomes blurred because the spaces of the city become increasingly networked and infused with digital information.

These spaces are only accessible to the less than 20% of the population of industrialized nations who own smartphones. At this stage in the development of these technologies, it is important to critically examine how hybrid spaces may lead to new types of sociability and exclusion in urban spaces.

The Database and the Personalized City

Everything from photos on services like Flickr to messages on Twitter now include longitude and latitude coordinates that make it possible to map their point of origination.

Smartphones have been instrumental in the push to locate everything, and many smartphone applications use geolocated data to provide information about surrounding space.

The proliferation of geolocated data serves multiple purposes, but one of the major functions is to make urban space seem more legible and understandable.

They can access local tweets, gas prices, Thai restaurants, or the best routes for travel. They can, in a sense, read the space through the mapping technologies of their smartphones, and the representations are constructed by their preferences and personal choices.

As Lefebvre points out, urban planners desire to make cities seem readable.

By making the signs and symbols comprising urban space accessible to inhabitants, the city gives the impression that it is functional and free of ideology. But Lefebvre denounces the supposed intelligibility built into urban spaces, saying that ‘the impression of intelligibility conceals far more than it reveals' (1991, p. 145). We should fear the spaces we think of as most transparent because it is precisely that illusion of transparency that conceals hidden agendas and political aims.

However, just as the functionalism-formalism built into supposedly intelligible space conceals ideology, so does the functionalism of smart-phone applications.

The personalization of mobile mapping technologies is part of the push towards customization and personalization that defines late capitalist production.

Spaces are built as a database, waiting for users to activate pieces of information and personalize their narrative of the city.

The digital possessive can be seen most obviously in the growth of possessive pro-nouns online: ‘my' Facebook page, ‘my' Amazon profile, ‘my' search preferences.

These sites allow users to materialize their subjectivity and also give them some semblance of control over the vast expanses of the internet. Just as Simmel's early twentieth century urbanites developed a blasé attitude to carve out their space in the chaos of city streets, internet users construct personalized preferences as a form of control over digital spaces.

With the rise of hybrid spaces, I argue that the city as a whole becomes both a database city and a digital possessive by allowing individuals to exert increased control and personalization over the information they access while moving through the city.

This urge for control over the signifiers present in all spaces, an urge to order them and personalize them, that links smartphones to the idea of the database city.

Through the interface of the mobile device connected to a diverse set of databases, the individual is able to exert control over signifiers and construct a semi-narrative out of the fractured city streets.

There is no need to recognize the restaurant around the corner if it does not match one's preferences.

In the database city, the user is not lost to an avalanche of signifiers; she is given the authority, motivation, and framework to filter them.

With the development of newer, better algorithms by services like Google, Face-book, and Pandora, what individuals gain in convenience they often lose in privacy.

Because of these privacy concerns, some will undoubtedly decide that the personalization and control gained through new hybrid spaces will not be worth the information they are forced to give up.

Insularity and Control

What frightens people about cities is also what makes them great: they are sites of unexpected encounters, encounters we cannot always control.

It was this constant contact with strangers that sociologists such as Simmel (1950) and Goffman (1963, 1990) saw as one of the defining aspects of urban life. Modern cities, however, are often built to decrease the chance of random contact.

The growth of city infrastructure supporting automobility accomplishes much the same thing, allowing people to move from node to node without having to socialize.

Supermarkets in the UK have experimented with models where the prices of groceries are different depending on the time of day. Rich people who do not want to share a supermarket aisle with the less fortunate can choose to pay more for that privilege.

Location based social networks (LBSNs), such as Fousquare, are designed to overcome randomness and chaos.

These applications use GPS to locate users in physical space, and those users share their location with their friends.

Urban spaces should be places of encounters.

The streets of the city, the public places of the city, are places where heterogenous elements intersect.

Richard Sennett (1977) calls this intersection of elements public life, and it is the disintegration of the public life of the city he outlines in his book The Fall of Public Man.

The public life of the city, however, has been on the decline for decades. Sennett traces this decline to the growth of individuality and argues that private life has invaded public life.

With the primacy of the individual in modern life, city dwellers expect to interact with others in terms of their private lives. In private life, ties are strong ties; it is public life where weak ties are fashioned and where horizons are expanded. When we lose our weak ties by creating insular communities defined by strong ties, we lose the ‘codes of impersonal meaning' that had long defined interactions in urban places (Sennett, 1977, p. 5).

Sennett (1977) argues that cities have been built to encourage the insularity of community, decreasing the intermixing of heterogenous elements (see also Jacobs, 1961). He sees insular community much as Harvey (1996) sees place: as an often reactionary construction designed to exclude difference.

With networked individualism, social networks begin to dominate over groups. Sociality becomes less place dependent, and one is no longer defined as much by community associations; instead, people are often defined by their personal social network, which is now ‘sparsely knit, linking individuals with little regard to space' (Wellman, 2002, p. 1).

People are no longer forced to socialize mainly with people who live in the same community. They are now able to maintain relationships at a distance and construct a personalized social network not as reliant on proximity.

Sennett (1977, 1992) argues that sociability between strangers has decreased because of the growth of individualism and private life.

Strong ties become stronger as they are visualized on a map, meaning that as long as someone familiar is nearby, there is no need to associate with strangers. The space becomes personal, but only personal for those who have access to the right services. Everyone else is left out of the network, with no way to get in.

Geotagging: The Writing's on the Wall

The hybrid space is more malleable than physical space because information can be filtered through the interface of the mobile device.

A Forward Facing Conclusion

Hybrid spaces also afford opportunities only avail-able to smartphone users.

Greenfield, discussing the growth of ubiquitous computing environments, argues that, ‘the infrastructure that gets us these amenities also lends itself to repression, exclusion, and reinscription of class and other sorts of privilege' (2006, p. 259).

Hybrid spaces will affect the way we perceive the spaces we move through, and the spread of hybrid spaces raises the specter of a two-tiered system of city travel: one group will move through malleable, personalized, digitally infused streets, and the other group will move through streets that remain as impersonal as ever. As Deleuze and Guattari stated, ‘the life of the nomad is the intermezzo' (1987, p. 380). But not all nomads, and certainly not all intermezzos, are created equal.

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