A few of us working at the intersection of data, civicmedia and citizenship are taking a look at this article by AbdouMaliq Simone. Some rambling comments follow:
First, just a short point about style: I’m delighted to see Simone’s unapologetic use of rich descriptions of Jo’berg’s streets. They are in striking contrast to what I see to be the standard ethnographic account in HCI papers. What I find tedious is the usual preamble in HCI works—explaining method—and then the use of participants’ quotes as a kind of ‘proof’ of particular points. Also, both point to a curious idea of what it means to demonstrate evidence or proof. Simone bothers with none of this. He gets straight to the stories, to the rich descriptions of inner city Jo’berg and its underbelly.
On to the paper’s content, I like what I take to be its overriding argument, that the infrastructures of accountability in ordinary civil society sit uneasily against what goes on on the streets of Jo’berg. In fact, life in this inner city opens up a manifestly different set of (infra)structures and practices that force a reimagining of how cities might be organised. Thus I take Simone to be arguing that the conventional structures for organising society are alienating when projected into environments like Jo’berg:
“Efforts on the part of both the urban government and civil society to reconstitute viable territories of belonging and accountability through an array of decentralisation and popular participation measures may have the converse effect of highlighting the failures of groups and individuals to secure themselves within any durable context.” P. 419
Reading Simone’s descriptions of Jo’berg street-life, I really want to be convinced of this argument. However, I have to say his accounts don’t fully satisfy me. I may simply be too conservative to reconcile Simone’s argument and his details of city life, but I’m troubled because they read to some extent as a rationale for lawlessness and social transgressions. They present a case where opportunity, cultural bricolage, geographic fluidity and ‘adaptable collaboration’ are placed above civic responsibility and, well, good citizenship. I imagine Simone’s response to this to be not a defence of the criminality, but to claim the example as an indication of how other non-conventional forces can be at play, working beyond the establishment. However, in this case difference and vice (as he articulates so well) are so bound up with one another. It is precisely because they are nefarious that the inner-city practices must operate at the fringes of visibility, cemented infrastructure, etc.
Something else I struggle with are the details of Simone’s points. The paper skips across so many lovely little themes and points yet, to me, these don’t always join up easily or help to build a coherency of argument. Many could probably be papers in themselves. For example the points around expansion, provisionality, and preparedness are all compelling, but they seem to be just left and not brought back to the wider argument of infrastructures (at least not in any clear or constructive way).
Having listed a couple of what I see to be the paper’s weaknesses, I do find inspiration in it. What I find productive is the way Simone points to infrastructures (tied to “conventional imaginaries”) as socially organising. They both enforce social or civic order and expect it to be visibly reproduced.
“Not only does the city become the objective of a plurality of coding systems, it is meant to manifest itself more clearly as a system of codes. In other words, it is to be an arena where spaces, activities, populations, flows, and structures are made visible, or more precisely, recognisable and familiar.
Once this enhanced visibility is accomplished, urban spaces and activities are more capable of being retrieved and compared for analysis” P. 426
So the codes of (infra)structures are a mechanism of control and visible, public accountability:
“Urban politics then operates not as a locus of mediation and dialogue among differing experiences, claims, and perspectives but as a proliferation of technical standards by which every citizen’s capacities are to be compared and judged.” P. 420
Vis-á-vis data (and the research a few of us are doing at the intersection of data, citizenship, community, civic society, etc.), we see a similar case in which homogeneity is needed. In Simone’s argument about infrastructure, we find the justification for why common (technical) standards are built into infrastructures, they help compare and judge (in visibly accountable ways). Just like the contemporary built environment that is built on standards and, at the same time, resembles everywhere and nowhere (see Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk), data enforces regimes of homogeneity to get the data to work at any/every degree of scale. The popular imaginaries surrounding (big) data are all about this idea of comparison and judgement.
This itself isn’t an especially sophisticated point, but what Simone does with it is show how Jo’berg’s inner-city life offers another possibility of “complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices” that are far more provisional, fragmented and, to be be blunt, useful for those on the streets. I take Simone’s argument then to be one of seeing infrastructure (in its richness and variety, rather than homogeneity) as an ingredient for, as he puts it, “expanding spaces of economic and cultural operation” P. 407. That is, we might see data (and its associated infrastructures) not as a singular rationalising force for reproducing social/civic norms and practices, but instead as a opportunity to feed into progressive movements that allow for “alternative regimes of property and contract to coexist experimentally within the same economy.” (Roberto Unger, 2009). Ultimately, data and its associated infrastructures might be refigured to extend beyond the flattening of social/civic life, and be given over to enabling a ‘fuller life’ for citizens—as Unger phrases it, “a larger life, a life of greater intensity, of greater scope, and of greater capability.”