Net Locality – Space doesn’t matter, but place does.

It is a commonplace as well as a premise for thinking about the global network society, that networked information and communication technologies have – for better or worse – freed us from the limiting conditions of time and space. Castells spoke about the “timeless time” and the “space of flows” typical of network society. If there was one thing everyone thought they knew about the digital media revolution, then it was that communication and action were global and instantaneous. This is the whole point of connectivity. We can access information and act upon it, whenever, wherever, independently of where we physically happen to be.

This is why the book Net Localities by Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva (Oxford, Blackwell 2011), authors who are indisputably among the forefront of network theorists, is interesting; because the authors seem to claim the opposite: “Physical space has become the context for … information” (9).

Citing the development of location based services such as Google Maps, Four Square, etc. on the basis of geographic information systems, GPS, mobile devices, and associated technologies, the authors proclaim that space does indeed matter after all and that we need no longer feel lost in the ubiquitous cloud of information that the Web seems to be.

For those who do feel lost, or at least disoriented, between the local and the global and between physical reality and virtual reality, the authors bare good news. “…the web has merged with our physical spaces.” (4) “The new organizing logic of the web is based on physical location.” (7) This is at least interesting, if not shocking.

But before we return to space and time, our local habitats, our neighborhoods, and our towns, let us ask if this is really what LBS and locational media are all about. It may be that if the web has “merged with our physical spaces” these spaces are no longer physical, but virtualized, transformed into information, integrated into an all-encompassing interface. Perhaps it is not the digital that has returned to physical reality, but the other way round; physical reality has now been completely virtualized. If everything is digitalized, even location, then perhaps this doesn’t mean, as the authors claim, that “locating oneself…literally sets the conditions for interaction and provides the context from which information is interpreted and used” (12) … and thus “central to the way we navigate information.” (13) If this were true, then if we wanted to find out about Immanual Kant, we would have to travel to Konigsberg and using Google Maps find Kant’s house and stand by his desk in order to call up an early version of the Critique of Pure Reason. This cannot be what the authors mean. Perhaps “net localities” are not local at all in the sense of good old space and time, but something altogether different, something that demands to be conceptualized on its own terms and on the appropriate level of generality.

Admittedly, LBS and the technologies it is based on do attach information to physical spaces, that is, to markers within physical spaces. These markers and the information attached to them can be used as filters to open up layers of meaning and action. They can be termed “places,” even “net localities,” but they are no longer physical spaces, and they are not the only filters we use, as the example of Kant demonstrates. Layers opened up by filters are hybrid, both virtual and physical, a new form of being, that we could name “mixed reality.” In mixed reality space doesn’t matter even after LBS, but “places” do.  The authors themselves point out that “The web and the world it occupies can no longer be separated” (173) and that “…the very nature of physically situated social interaction is transformed” (173). If we hold on to this insight, then what sense can it make to talk about net localities as “commodified spaces” that “are not fundamentally different from traditional ‘offline’ urban spaces…” (173) as the authors in their conclusion to this valuable book do?

Either we are talking about something really new and exciting, a new kind of being that is indissolubly composed of bits and atoms, a kind of being for which we perhaps have no name, or we are lamenting the absorption of “physically situated social interaction” into “an urban consumer” (173) space. The authors conclude with the unresolved conflict between net localities that empower individuals on the one hand and net localities that “also delivers the individual into a highly rationalized consumer space where the distinction between consuming and being is blurring” (173). This may be a convincing description of our empirical experience, but it is not satisfying theory.

Perhaps we should hold on to the vision of a network society in which capitalism is also subject to network norms, where markets have become conversations, and “prosumers” are taking the place of consumers. If we locate net localities on the level of a general theory of being, that is ontology, maybe we can enjoy our LBS without constantly having to look over our shoulders to discover the modes of injustice and exploitation characteristic of industrial, mass media society, but not of a global network society in which we are now living.


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