Graham, Zook, & Boulton, “Augmented Reality in Urban Places”

Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in Urban Places: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3), 464-479. (15 pages)

Graham, Zook, and Boulton look to the power relations inherent in the code and content of augmented realities and how the construction of augmented realities have implications for meaning and behavior.

Augmented reality refers to “the indeterminate, unstable, context dependent and multiple realities brought into being through the subjective coming-together in time and space of material and virtual experience. …In other words, augmented reality is the material/virtual nexus mediated through technology, information, and code, and enacted in specific and individualized space/time configurations” (465). A Focus on augmented reality also propels them to challenge the clear distinction between cyberspace and material space: rather, these spaces are inextricably linked. While they note that augmented reality has existed long before digital technologies (through paper maps, audio cassettes in museum exhibits, music, etc), they focus their attention to digitally mediated augmented realities. They point to three reasons that contribute to their emphasis on digital augmented realities:

  1. There has been a move toward the mobile web with mobile devices.
  2. There has been a growth in authorship: there has been a “growing amount of information created by non-experts and freely share don the open Web” (466).
  3. There has been an emergence of a geospatial Web: the “geocoding of Web content to specific parts of the earth surface driven by a combination of automatic and user generated efforts and resulting in a growing body of content with specific spatial reference” (466).

Taken together, we are able to see how the everyday writer is able to create geographic content and representation; such production of content shapes how place is enacted as well as how software helps bring specific types of space into being (466).

Such participatory representations of places carry with it some other kinds of implications. For example, as the authors write, “augmented realities are not immutable mobiles,” or constantly changing, being replaced, not static, “they are always ‘of-the-moment, brought into being through practices (embodied, social, and technical), always remade every time they are engaged with’” (467). Geospatial content within augmented realities is “necessarily spatially, temporally, and personally context-specific” (467).

The authors make a distinction between two different kinds of spaces (forwarded by Dodge and Kitchin): code/space which refers to spaces where code dominates the production of the space and coded spaces which refers to spaces where code is part of, but not incidental to, the production of space (467). In each case, the use of code is pervasive and it is often ignored as a source of creative, ideological power thus contributing to its hegemonic operations. The authors, then, suggest “four kinds of power that manifest in the coming-together of material and virtual spatialities” (468):

  1. Distributed Power: “much of online geospatial content can be traced back to decentralizes and user-generated initiatives” For instance, a landmark can be constructed in a number of platforms with any number of user participation: Wikipedia article, Twitter mentions, photos hosted on Flickr, Youtube videos, etc. However, “some people are simply better positioned and hence more likely to engage in content production because of their available resources…less obvious, but equally important, is that even among those with time and access, only a small minority tend to engage in production of geospatial content” (469). Despite the relatively small number of authors representing augmented realities, such representations have a high power to influence representations of place.
  2. Communication Power: “It takes not only well-networked connections to give visibility to particular bits of information, but also the ability to package information in a way appealing to those that are most likely to circulate it…Communication power thus allows certain people and groups to filter and promote the representation and circulation of a stabilized meaning of place. It provides a way for some information to be amplified and other information to fade form the spotlights of attention” (469).
  3. Code Power: this highlights “the power of code to shape regimes of visibility and invisibility” (470). The code or algorithms can often shape how elements of place are visible. E.g. personalizations of filter bubbles can show only content that supports one’s own pre-existing views. The authors specifically point to Google’s PageRank.
  4. Timeless Power: this refers to the flattening of time: “when one accesses digital representations of a place, such as a set of Google Maps placemarks or Flickr photos, references to time largely disappear. Business that have been shuttered may be listed as open, photos of snow-covered landscapes remain in summer, and buildings that have been razed spring back to life” (471). They refer to the idea of “timeless time” where the sequence of events is disordered “making them simultaneous, thus installing society in an eternal ephemerality” (471).
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