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Code, Content, and Control: An Informational Right to the City?

I am pleased to announce that myself and Mark Graham have had an abstract accepted to the 7th International Conference for Critical Geography in Ramallah, Palestine (26-30th July, 2015). We plan to examine information as a subset of the broader notion of ‘the Right to the City’, with particular consideration given to spatial search.

Abstract

Cities are not just material and physical, but are also increasingly augmented both  digitally and informationally. As such, it follows that the production and control of urban information plays a central role in the reproduction of contemporary cities. Yet, these digital augmentations are often controlled by only a handful of dominant institutions. Google is one example, where an organisation that dominates the European search market is able to directly control digital visibility in the city. In this case, the presence or absence of a business, service or place within Google’s output has a direct impact on material flows of people, commodities and capital. Yet, despite the real and tangible forms of governance exerted by entities like Google, this power is often duplicitously obfuscated by appeals to algorithmic neutrality, the freedom of the individual using their services, or the supposedly democratic processes of peer-production.

Whilst the production of space is being controlled and filtered in new ways that are yet to be fully understood, there remains a need for critical inquiry into the uneven geographies that appear to be reproduced by the digital governance of our cities. Therefore, this paper directs Tony Benn’s five questions (“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”) to a case study of Google: a firm with a monopoly over the digital augmentations of our urban environments. By tracing the movement, political economy and mediations of code and content, this paper outlines some of the key ways that power is exercised in and through the digitally- mediated city. It is demonstrated that forms of digital governance are largely unaccountable and unrepresentative of the voices and practices of many of the currently disempowered in society. The paper concludes by re-contextualising our findings within the longer history of work on the political economy of cities, with a specific focus on Harvey’s recent re-articulation of a ‘right to the city.’ Building on the premise of the paper – that the digital is an integral element in the urban – we then propose an ‘informational right to the city’ and offer some directions for what alternative augmentations of the city might look like.

Joe Shaw

Joe Shaw is an OII DPhil student.

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