Hacking the streets: ‘Smart’ writing in the smart city

Spencer Jordan at FirstMonday: “Cities have always been intimately bound up with technology. As important nodes within commercial and communication networks, cities became centres of sweeping industrialisation that affected all facets of life (Mumford, 1973). Alienation and estrangement became key characteristics of modernity, Mumford famously noting the “destruction and disorder within great cities” during the long nineteenth century. The increasing use of digital technology is yet another chapter in this process, exemplified by the rise of the ‘smart city’. Although there is no agreed definition, smart cities are understood to be those in which digital technology helps regulate, run and manage the city (Caragliu,et al., 2009). This article argues that McQuire’s definition of ‘relational space’, what he understands as the reconfiguration of urban space by digital technology, is critical here. Although some see the impact of digital technology on the urban environment as deepening social exclusion and isolation (Virilio, 1991), others, such as de Waal perceive digital technology in a more positive light. What is certainly clear, however, is that the city is once again undergoing rapid change. As Varnelis and Friedberg note, “place … is in a process of a deep and contested transformation”.

If the potential benefits from digital technology are to be maximised it is necessary that the relationship between the individual and the city is understood. This paper examines how digital technology can support and augment what de Certeau calls spatial practice, specifically in terms of constructions of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ (de Certeau, 1984). The very act of walking is itself an act of enunciation, a process by which the city is instantiated; yet, as de Certeau and Bachelard remind us, the city is also wrought from the stories we tell, the narratives we construct about that space (de Certeau, 1984; Bachelard, 1994). The city is thus envisioned both through physical exploration but also language. As Turchi has shown, the creative stories we make on these voyages can be understood as maps of that world and those we meet (Turchi, 2004). If, as the situationists Kotányi and Vaneigem stated, “Urbanism is comparable to the advertising propagated around Coca-Cola — pure spectacular ideology”, there needs to be a way by which the hegemony of the market, Benjamin’s phantasmagoria, can be challenged. This would wrestle control from the market forces that are seen to have overwhelmed the high street, and allow a refocusing on the needs of both the individual and the community.

This article argues that, though anachronistic, some of the situationists’ ideas persist within hacking, what Himanen (2001) identified as the ‘hacker ethic’. As Taylor argues, although hacking is intimately connected to the world of computers, it can refer to the unorthodox use of any ‘artefact’, including social ‘systems’ . In this way, de Certeau’s urban itineraries, the spatial practice of each citizen through the city, can be understood as a form of hacking. As Wark states, “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present.” If the city itself is called into being through our physical journeys, in what de Certeau called ‘spaces of enunciation’, then new configurations and possibilities abound. The walker becomes hacker, Wark’s “abstractors of new worlds”, and the itinerary a deliberate subversion of an urban system, the dream houses of Benjamin’s arcades. This paper examines one small research project, Waterways and Walkways, in its investigation of a digitally mediated exploration across Cardiff, the Welsh capital. The article concludes by showing just one small way in which digital technology can play a role in facilitating the re-conceptualisation of our cities….(More)”