Kingsley Dennis – Real-time and the politics of presence
Linear thinking will no longer be an effective mode of understanding how social engagement and civil politics are enacted within an environment increasingly unfolding in real-time. Kingsley Dennis proposes that the success in civil participation and mobilisation may rely more on connectivity and speed than content and power.
Technological change is fundamentally altering how a person is located within time, space, and environment. And these processes are increasingly dynamic as they shift relations within systems beyond the individual such that “what matters is not technology itself, but its relationship to us“. Developments in computerization have taken relationships away from fixed locations as in the stand-alone PC, to laptops that could be carried around, to wireless PDAs, to Internet connectivity on mobile phones. This trend in distributed computing fundamentally alters how events, people, and places are constituted and enacted within time.
Time in the age of instantaneous connectivity
Present trends appear to indicate an increased complexification of interrelations with daily objects and a person’s immediate social environment. This will consist of multiple information flows, technically-mediated points of reference, and increased interactions with ‘things’, mediated via information-processing devices. Daily dealings with physical objects and routines are likely to be increasingly replaced by dealings with bits and flows of information. This seemingly can only lead to a further compression of time and space that was characterised as an early feature of globalisation. The emerging global connectivity that is converging physical-digital scapes is thus also intensifying sites of place/space/time. This in turn is exerting influence upon what constitutes the ‘social’ and involves the compression of time and space:
Neither time nor space seem to exist as distance between places and moments. Time as distance has become replaced by relationships, fundamental action, and the ‘trying out’ of all possibilities before actualisation.
Time in an age of instantaneous connectivity can be managed 24-7 whether personally or through digitised devices and assistants. In such an arrangement we would carry our ‘self’ around with us as mobile units, always available, semi-transparent, and operating within a real-time that is open to all those who access our information/location.
Such an integrated system of person-information-environment would accelerate temporal differences between multiple sites of information and have significant implications for the social. Whilst this increase of interrelationships would foster ties of convenience it may also in-form greater entanglements of civil responsibility and political expression. Today collaborative tools are constantly being created that facilitate a move to a more mobile civil participation and mapping of presence and action. One example of creative innovation in this area has been developed by social research centre Proboscis, which has an emphasis upon what it calls public authoring. For them this term implies using communication technologies to author and share information rather than solely to consume. In this context Proboscis researched software ‘for annotating geographic places with content (text, images, sounds) and making relationships between places’. They named this software Urban Tapestries; the prototypes developed allowed mobile users (PDAs; phones) to map and share local knowledge ‘in situ’ – whilst on the move. The intention behind this software is to provide better understanding of the grassroots relationships between people, places, and things. It also provides data on local urban social interactions and communications. The latest project coming from the Proboscis research team is a 2-year research programme in collaboration with the London School of Economics Media and Communications Dept., titled Social Tapestries . The project aims to positively exploit the social benefits of local knowledge sharing that has been opened up through new mobile technologies of communication:
How do we map and make sense of the social tapestries which make up the warp and weft of our daily lives, interweaving with others belonging to the people we share our environment with?…The Social Tapestries experiments aim to explore how users might engage with mobile location-specific content in the context of ‘civil society’’.
Another striking example of how individuals are contributing to creating dynamic physical-digital civil social networks is through what is being termed as citizen cartography. Here, the deliberate strategy is to create an online map of a specific local area, using mobile phone and GPS technology, so that the resultant map can be posted online at an open-source destination and thus be available for creative and dynamic additions, uploads, and sharing. Most Internet maps are protected by strict copyright laws that forbid creative utilisations by users. Citizen cartography is a means whereby users ‘on the ground’ reclaim the digital representations of their local geographical spaces for network-sharing and for negotiating complex relationships of social behaviour and ‘meetingness’. One such recent project was that of ‘Mapchester’ when on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th May, 2006 over 40 individuals used a GPS receiver log local streets in Manchester, most of them on foot. The organisers see this event as a collaborative, community exercise:
Mapchester is an experiment in ‘citizen cartography’ that we hope will make a significant contribution to wider efforts in so-called ‘open-source’ mapping. This is an emerging and rapidly growing cartographic activity, driven in part by technology (cheap GPS equipment and online collaboration tools, like OpenStreetMap.org), but also by a very different ethos to knowledge production. Under open-source models the right of authorship are de-centred and the ownership of knowledge is seen as a common resource that can be distributed and re-used without restriction or license. As such ‘opening’ up mapmaking has real potential to empower people to create their own knowledge and encourages re-use of cartographic resources in novel, creative ways.
As the above examples of the Urban Tapestries and Mapchester projects inform, these are explorations into how real-time applications are being absorbed into civil practices of presence and place. This is a move that utilises practices of ‘real-time’ to take active control in how a person maps their own social-civil presence. This has some significant implications, such that presence in real-time becomes a political gesture and alibi.
An example of where such real-time mapping became a political gesture and alibi is in the case of researcher and artist Hasan Elahi. Elahi was detained and questioned by the FBI over his whereabouts on September 12th 2001 due to his ‘Arab appearance’ and his fluid lifestyle . Despite showing his Blackberry phone with its appointments he was subjected to several intense interviews and nine polygraph tests over several months before being ‘cleared’ of any wrongdoing. After this experience Elahi decided to call ‘his’ FBI agent before every trip he made in order to supply the route and provide transparency. This arrangement then shifted towards real-time in that Elahi turned his mobile phone into a tracking device that he wears to report all his movements onto a map. He also documents his life in a series of photos for all to witness, including the places he passes through, the meals he eats, and the bathrooms he uses. Other lifestyle records, such as banking records and purchases, are also flagged and made available. This form of self-surveillance not only serves as an art form but is also a means to create an ongoing, fluid alibi through making transparent all the complex entanglements that a physical-digital lifestyle entails. Here is an instance where pervasive communication technologies are integrating experiential time into the now.
To conclude, linear thinking will no longer be an effective mode of understanding how social engagement and civil politics are enacted within an environment increasingly unfolding in real-time. The success in civil participation and mobilisation may rely more on connectivity and speed than content and power.
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