An Informational Right to the City? Code, Content, Control, and the Urbanization of Information

Abstract

Henri Lefebvre talked of the “right to the city” alongside a right to information. As the urban environment becomes increasingly layered by abstract digital representation, Lefebvre's broader theory warrants application to the digital age. Through considering what is entailed by the urbanization of information, this paper examines the problems and implications of any “informational right to the city”. In directing Tony Benn's five questions of power towards Google, arguably the world's most powerful mediator of information, this paper exposes processes that occur when geographic information is mediated by powerful digital monopolies. We argue that Google currently occupies a dominant share of any informational right to the city. In the spirit of Benn's final question—“How do we get rid of you?”—the paper seeks to apply post-political theory in exploring a path to the possibility of more just information geographies.

Introduction: The Urbanization of Information

In prioritizing urban space as the object of political struggle, Henri Lefebvre conceived of a “right to the city” as a broad and ambitious transformation of political life. Amongst other things, this demanded a renewed access and self-management of resources, surplus production, and the urban core (Harvey 2012; Lefebvre 1968). Importantly, Lefebvre also called for a complementary “right to information” that would assist in facilitating a withering away of the state and superseding metro-work-sleep with a more egalitarian and fulfilling urban society (Lefebvre 1990). He argued that such concepts would help dispense with the “urban problematic” as produced and ideologically sustained by the forces of capitalism (2003). Examples of this might include uneven development or notions of scarcity and public consultation.

However, given that the world's urban population now has more access to information than ever before, and yet urban injustice persists en masse, we contend that the right to information is now a more complex aspect of political struggle than Lefebvre could realize (at the time). And, that a right to the city now depends upon a better reading of today's critical phase in urbanization as a period where the city is increasingly reproduced through digital information (Shaw and Graham 2017).

Lefebvre's original discussion of the production of space and political struggle was marked by his understanding of “abstract” space as produced and controlled by urban planners and architects (Lefebvre 1991:229). But today there is a newly dominant source and mediation of such abstract space that permeates the city: the flows of representations produced and mediated through digital information which now contribute to a densely digitally layered urban environment (Graham et al. 2013).

The ubiquity of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) that produce and distribute this abstract space is now central to the reproduction of urban space. Kitchin and Dodge (2011) have, for instance, focused on the ways that computer code can shape how spaces are brought into being. Graham et al. (2013) similarly point to the ways that digital information can augment spatial experiences. While none of these authors explicitly draw on Lefebvre, such explicit conceptualizations of the spatiality of code and content serve as a useful starting point to begin thinking about the problematic entanglements between digital information and a Lefebvrian understanding of abstract space. From smartphone applications to GPS devices, Uber, Wikipedia and TripAdvisor, the code and content relating to the buildings and spaces of our cities is often as important as their bricks and mortar. Consequently, the power afforded to traditional actors of urban power—developers, planners, landlords—is now rivalled by the rise of new informational monopolies such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google.

In this respect, much as the city has been conceptualized as the correlate of the road, so too it may now reveal itself as the correlate of the optic fibre. Urban society is now materially produced as a function of networked informational circulation—a point defined by entries and exits (Deleuze and Guatarri 1997). The urbanization process has now assembled ICTs and people as a productive force that is both powerfully creative and planetary in scale (Brenner 2014; Lefebvre 2003:173). To develop Lefebvre's right to the city in this context, we argue that the city must now be read as unequivocally informational, and with a renewed attention to such flows of digital information. Flows which are produced and mediated by a technology that further saturates the urban environment and yet which also retains the city as a primary site of experimentation (Luque-Ayala and Marvin 2016:194).1

From a perspective of spatial justice and a right to the city, a key task of this reading is to critically examine the power relations around conduits of digital information as it becomes urban: the urbanization of information. Just as the urbanization of water is a processional notion which can uncover “stories about the city's structure and development”, so can a reading of the city's “political, social, and economic conduits” through which information flows also “carry the potential for an improved, more just, and more equitable right to the city” (Swyngedouw 2004:4). The urbanization of information is now just as relevant to questions of spatial justice and the city as those which surround other historical infrastructures and commodities. And so, the original division between a right to information and the right to the city is also problematic inasmuch as ICTs have become an integral part of everyday urban life. Information produces space and the urban environment; it circulates as a commodity which can be accumulated; and we have become increasingly dependent upon it. This raises many questions: What occurs when information becomes the urban? What spatial processes typify the reproduction of the digital-informational city? And how is this relevant to spatial justice and the right to the city?

In order to demonstrate such relevance of ICTs to power and a right to the city, we use the five questions of power posed by British Labour politician Tony Benn in 2001: “What power have you got?; Where did you get it?; In whose interests do you use it?; To whom are you accountable?; And, how can we get rid of you?” (UK Parliament 2001).2 Instead of directing those questions to individuals like Joseph Stalin or Bill Gates, we now direct them at a theoretical case study of Google, in order to better understand Google's power over urban information. And more importantly, to approach the ultimate question of democracy and a right to the city: “How do we get rid of you?” In doing so, we hope to avoid a post-political reading of Lefebvre (Purcell 2002), and will achieve this by directing our discussion to three principles for properly political acts: a need to enunciate dissent, traverse the fantasies of the elites, and refuse to act as we are invited (Swyngedouw 2011). This paper thus both illustrates the utility of thinking about the role of ICTs in any useful conception of Lefebvre's right to the city, and suggests ways that we might pursue any informational right to the city as a political project.

Image: wikimedia.org

Source: Online Library

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.

Author: 
Joe Shaw, Mark Graham

Gateway Fields