Some ideas take long time to mature into a form that you are finally happy to share them. This is an example for such thing.

I got interested in the area of Philosophy of Technology during my PhD studies, and continue to explore it since. During this journey, I found a lot of inspiration and links to Andrew Feenberg’s work, for example, in my paper about neogeography and the delusion of democratisation. The links are mostly due to Feenberg’s attention to ‘hacking’ or appropriating technical systems to functions and activities that they are outside what the designers or producers of them thought.

In addition to Feenberg, I became interested in the work of Albert Borgmann and because he explicitly analysed GIS, dedicating a whole chapter to it in Holding on to RealityIn particular, I was intrigues by his formulation to The Device Paradigm and the notion of Focal Things and Practices which are linked to information systems in Holding on to Reality where three forms of information are presented – Natural Information, Cultural Information and Technological Information. It took me some time to see that these 5 concepts are linked, with technological information being a demonstration of the trouble with the device paradigm, while natural and cultural information being part of focal things and practices (more on these concepts below).

I first used Borgmann’s analysis as part of ‘Conversations Across the Divide‘ session in 2005, which focused on Complexity and Emergence. In a joint contribution with David O’Sullivan about ‘complexity science and Geography: understanding the limits of narratives’, I’ve used Borgmann’s classification of information. Later on, we’ve tried to turn it into a paper, but in the end David wrote a much better analysis of complexity and geography, while the attempt to focus mostly on the information concepts was not fruitful.

The next opportunity to revisit Borgmann came in 2011, for an AAG pre-conference workshop on VGI where I explored the links between The Device Paradigm, Focal Practices and VGI. By 2013, when I was invited to the ‘Thinking and Doing Digital Mapping‘ workshop that was organise by ‘Charting the Digital‘ project. I was able to articulate the link between all the five elements of Borgmann’s approach in my position paper. This week, I was able to come back to the topic in a seminar in the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester. Finally, I feel that I can link them in a coherent way.

So what is it all about?

Within the areas of VGI and Citizen Science, there is a tension between the different goals or the projects and identification of practices in terms of what they mean for the participants – are we using people as ‘platform for sensors’ or are we dealing with fuller engagement? The use of Borgmann’s ideas can help in understanding the difference. He argues that modern technologies tend to adopt the myopic ‘Device Paradigm’ in which specific interpretation of efficiency, productivity and a reductionist view of human actions are taking precedence over ‘Focal Things and Practices’ that bring people together in a way meaningful to human life. In Holding On to Reality (1999), he differentiates three types of information: natural, cultural and technological.  Natural information is defined as information about reality: for example, scientific information on the movement of the earth or the functioning of a cell.  This is information that was created in order to understand the functioning of reality.  Cultural information is information that is being used to shape reality, such as engineering design plans.  Technological information is information as reality and leads to decreased human engagement with fundamental aspects of reality.  Significantly, these categories do not relate to the common usage of the words ‘natural’, ‘cultural and ‘technological’ rather to describe the changing relationship between information and reality at different stages of socio-technical development.

When we explore general geographical information, we can see that some of it is technological information, for example SatNav and the way that communicate to the people who us them, or virtual globes that try to claim to be a representation of reality with ‘current clouds’ and all. The paper map, on the other hand, provide a conduit to the experience of hiking and walking through the landscape, and is part of cultural information.

Things are especially interesting with VGI and Citizen Science. In them, information and practices need to be analysed in a more nuanced way. In some cases, the practices can become focal to the participants – for example in iSpot where the experience of identifying a species in the field is also link to the experiences of the amateurs and experts who discuss the classification. It’s an activity that brings people together. On the other hand, in crowdsourcing projects that grab information from SatNav devices, there is a demonstration of The Device Paradigm, with the potential of reducing of meaningful holiday journey to ‘getting from A to B at the shortest time’. The slides below go through the ideas and then explore the implications on GIS, VGI and Citizen Science.

Now for the next stage – turning this into a paper…

At the end of 2010, Matt Wilson (University of Kentucky) and Mark Graham(Oxford Internet Institute), started coordinating a special issue of Environment and Planning Adedicated to ‘Situating Neogeography’, asking ‘How might we situate neogeography?  What are the various assemblages, networks, ecologies, configurations, discourses, cyborgs, alliances that enable/enact these technologies?’

My response to this call is a paper titled ‘Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation’ and it is finally been accepted for publication. I am providing below an excerpt from the introduction, to provide a flavour of the discussion:

“Since the emergence of the World Wide Web (Web) in the early 1990s, claims about its democratic potential and practice are a persistent feature in the discourse about it. While awareness of the potential of ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere’ to access and use information was extolled for a long while (for an early example see Batty 1997), the emergence of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s (O’Reilly 2005) increased this notion. In the popular writing of authors such as Friedman (2006), these sentiments are amplified by highlighting the ability of anyone to ‘plug into the flat earth platform’ from anywhere and anytime.

Around the middle of the decade, the concept of neogeography appeared and the ability to communicate geographic information over the Web (in what is termed the GeoWeb) gained prominence (see Haklay et al. 2008). Neogeography increased the notion of participation and access to geographic information, now amplified through the use of the political term democratisation. The following citations provide a flavour of the discourse within academic and popular writing – for example, in Mike Goodchild’s declaration that ‘Just as the PC democratised computing, so systems like Google Earth will democratise GIS’ (quoted in Butler 2006), or Turner’s (2006) definition of neogeography as ‘Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends and visitors, helping shape context, and conveying understanding through knowledge of place’.  This definition emphasises the wide access to the technology in everyday practice. Similar and stronger statements can be found in Warf and Sui (2010) who clarify that ‘neogeography has helped to foster an unprecedented democratization of geographic knowledge’ (p. 200) and, moreover, ‘Wikification represents a significant step forward in the democratization of geographic information, shifting control over the production and use of GIS data from a handful of experts to large groups of users’ (ibid.). Even within international organisations this seems to be the accepted view as Nigel Snoad, strategy adviser for the communications and information services unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated: ‘On the technology side, Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really democratized mapping’ (cited in Lohr 2011).

However, what is the nature of this democratisation and what are its limits? To what extent do the technologies that mediate the access to, and creation of, geographic information allow and enable such democratisation?

To answer these questions, we need to explore the meaning of democratisation and, more specifically, within the context of interaction between people and technology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, democratisation is ‘the action of rendering, or process of becoming, democratic’, and democracy is defined as ‘Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege’ [emphasis added]. A more colloquial notion of democratisation, and a much weaker one, is making a process or activity that used to be restricted to an elite or privileged group available to a wider group in society and potentially to all. For example, with mobile telephony now available across the globe, the statement ‘mobile telephony has been democratised’ aims to express the fact that, merely three decades ago, only the rich and powerful members of Western society had access to this technology.

Therefore, it is accepted from the start that the notion of democratisation cited above is more about the potential of neogeography to make the ability to assemble, organise and share geographical information accessible to anyone, anywhere and anytime and for a variety of purposes than about advancing the specific concept of democracy. And yet, it will be wrong to ignore the fuller meaning of the concept. Democratisation has a deeper meaning in respect of making geographic information technologies more accessible to hitherto excluded or marginalised groups in a way that assists them to make a change in their life and environment. Democratisation evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc. (Doppelt 2006). Using this stronger interpretation of democratisation reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered as democratising.

To explore this juncture of technology and democratisation, this paper relies on Andrew Feenberg’s critical philosophy of technology, especially as explored in his Questioning Technology (1999) and Transforming Technology (2002), which is useful as he addresses issues of democratisation and technology directly. For readers who are not familiar with the main positions within philosophy of technology, a very brief overview – based on Feenberg’s interpretation (1999) – is provided. This will help to explain his specific critique and suggestion for ‘deep democratisation’ of technology.

Equipped with these concepts, attention is turned to the discussion about the democratic potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which appears in early discussions about GIS and society in the 1990s, and especially to the discussions within the literature on (Public) Participatory GIS (PPGIS/PGIS – assumed to be interchangeable here) and critical GIS. As we shall see, discussions about empowerment, marginalisation and governance are central to this literature from its inception and provide the foundations to build a deeper concept of democratisation when considering neogeographic practices.

Based on this historical understanding, the core of the paper explores why it is that neogeographic practices are assumed to be democratising and, more importantly, what the limitations are on their democratic potential. To do that, a hierarchy of ‘hacking’ – that is the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent – is suggested. Importantly, here ‘hacking’ does not mean the malicious alteration of technology or unauthorised access to computer systems, or the specific culture of technology enthusiasts (‘hacker culture’). The term is used to capture the first and second instrumentation that Feenberg (1996, 2002) describes.  As we shall see, by exploring the ability to alter systems, there is some justification in the democratisation claims of neogeography as it has, indeed, improved the outreach of geographic technologies and opened up the potential of their use in improving democratic processes, but in a much more limited scope and extent. The paper concludes with observations on the utilisation of neogeographic technologies within the participatory process that aim to increase democratisation in its deeper sense.”

The paper’s concepts are based on talk that I originally gave in 2008 as part of the World University Netowrk seminar on Neogeography. A final note is about the length of time that some ideas need from first emerging until publication – even with the current imagination of ‘fast moving technology’, there is a value in thinking through an idea over 4 years.

Continuing to reflect on Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, I can’t fail to notice how Web 2.0 influences our daily lives – from the way we implement projects, to the role of experts and non-experts in the generation of knowledge. Some of the promises of Web 2.0 are problematic – especially the claim for ‘democratisation’.

Although Keen doesn’t discuss this point, Jakob Nielsen’s analysis of ‘Participation Inequality on the Web’ is pertinent here. As Nielsen notes, on Wikipedia 0.003% of users contribute two thirds of the content, with a further 0.2% contributing something and 99.8% who just use the information. Blogs are supposed to have a 95-5-0.1 (95% just read, 5% post infrequently, 0.1% post regularly). In Blogs, this posting inequality is enhanced by readership inequalities on the Web (power laws are influencing this domain, too – top blogs are read by far more people).

This aspect of access and influence means that the use of the word ‘democratisation’ is a misnomer to quite an extent. If anything, it is a weird laissez-faire democracy, where a few plutocrats rule. Not a democracy of the type that I’d like to live in.

I have just finished reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, which, together with Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish, provides quite a good antidote to the overexcitement of The Long Tail, Wikinomics and a whole range publications about Web 2.0 that marvel in the ‘democratisation’ capacity of technology. Even if Keen’s and Borsook’s books are seen as dystopian (and in my opinion they are not), I think that through their popularity these critical analyses of current online culture are very valuable in encouraging reflection on how technology influences society.

The need for a critical reflection on technology and society stems from the fact that most of society seems to accept the ‘common-sense’ perspective that technology is a human activity which is neutral and ‘value-free’ (values here in the meaning of guiding principles in life) – that it can be used for good ends or bad ones, but by itself it does not encapsulate any values internally.

In contrast, I personally prefer Andrew Feenberg’s analysis in Questioning Technology and Transforming Technology where he suggests that a more complete attitude towards technology must accept that technology encapsulates certain values and that these values should be taken into account when we evaluate the impact of new technologies on our life.

In Feenberg’s terms, we should not separate means from ends and should understand how certain cultural values influence technological projects and end up integrated in them. For example, Wikipedia’s decision to ‘level the playing field’ so experts do not have any more authority in editing content than other contributors should be seen as a an important value judgment, suggesting that expertise is not important or significant or that experts cannot be trusted. Such a point of view does have an impact on a tool that it widely used and therefore influences society.

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