Brewer & Dourish, “Storied Spaces”

Johanna Brewer and Paul Dourish, 2008. “Storied spaces: Cultural accounts of mobility, technology, and environmental knowing,” International Journal of Human–Computer Studies, volume 66, number 12, 963–976.(13 pages)

“Both mobility and technology are deeply embedded in particular ways of thinking and imagining the world and ourselves” (963).

“the social organization of space is a consequence of the ways in which it is inhabited and traversed; that mobility, in other words, is a means through which spatiality is produced” (964).

“Our embodied experience of the everyday world is not least a spatial experience” (964).

Brewer and Dourish challenge traditional distinctions between space and place: one that fashions them as a geometric account and experiential account, respectively. In this traditional account, the physical dimensions of spaces and objects “clearly afford different kinds of action, ‘appropriate behavioral framing’” (964). However, as they describe, “the very features that the geometric view describes as ‘essential’ properties of the everyday world…are themselves social products, and elements whose appropriate use is negotiated through linguistic and social interaction” (964). In other words, space is not simply an objective reality that has an impact on the social construction of place; rather, the authors “see both as social products”: “space is not simply an ‘inert container’ for the places of everyday experience; rather, space itself is the outcome of particular ways of reasoning about the represented world” (964-5). A focus on place is the focus on the particular embodied experience of settings that have “particular kinds of extent, opportunity, and potency. ‘Place’ is fundamentally here about difference and distinction—about what makes one place different from another, and how the boundaries and transitions are encountered and defined…’Space’ concerns those properties of measurement and uniformity by which settings can be connected and understood. …Space, then, is a creation a product of movement and reflection…When we talk of moving through space, or the space between two points, we invoke the notion of a uniform continuum by which the distinctiveness of place is erased or submerged” (965).

Mobility in mythic space: The authors also focus their attention on the ways that space is often imbued with knowledge of events that took place there, including mythic legends: “this knowledge, too, is not evenly distributed; the stories that give places their potency may be the stories of different clans, lines, age groups and genders. Place and identity are deeply bound together” (966). “The landscape is understood, then, in terms of its relationship to social groups and cultural meanings; movement in the landscape itself becomes meaningful because of the ways in which it juxtaposes physical and cultural constraints” (966). However, such a convergence of land with the knowledge about it is often seen as odds with Western understanding of land that, because of ownership of private property, attempts to separate the two.

Mobility in moral space: Stories about places, are integral to how people navigate and understand their relationship to places: “it is not just that stories are about places, then, but that stories are about being in places” (966). “in these settings, then, the physical world becomes a moral landscape, reflecting collective standards of behavior, embodying lessons and forming the basis of wisdom…Here we literally see the notion of a ‘moral compass’; the ways in which movement through and situated within particular spatial environments links one into a set of collective values” (967).

Mobility in imagined space: “patterns of movement and mobility in urban environments becomes the basis of finding that space meaningful…mobility lends city a social geography…the maps display the city as imagined and experienced rather than as it is actually laid out; the shapes of urban features are adapted to common paths, routes, and landmarks around which the city is organized” (968).

Mobility in historical space: “Here, then, the encounter with space is also an encounter with social structure, its antecedents and causes” (968).

Turning their attention to technology, they write that “technologies of all sorts—maps terrestrial, maritime and cadastral, compasses, sextants, and theodolites, team engines, tide charts, square rigging—have always played a key role in how we understand the space through which we move” (969).  When looking at the relationship between technology and mobility, we also need to pay attention to practices: “how people act in space, and how those actions render spaces meaningful” (969). “The technologically mediated world does not stand apart from the physical world within which it is embedded; rather, it provides a new set of ways for that physical world to be understood and appointed” (969). “Mobile messaging technologies in the examples cited by Ito and Okade do not create new spaces, but rather allow people to encounter and appropriate existing spaces in different ways. These new mobile practices, then, transform existing spaces as sites of everyday action. Far from seeing technology as creating a space apart, we see it as being fundamentally a part of how one encounters urban spaces and how it is shaped through technologically mediated mobility” (696). We can understand spatial practices in three ways:

Legibility: “how it is that [spaces and actions] can be read and understood as conveying particular sorts of messages” (970). There are two kinds: panoptic legibility (e.g. statehood; “a standard scheme can be applied across multiple settings and locales in order to measure and compare them” 970) and local legibility (on the ground; “the heterogeneous nature of everyday objectsand actions, seeing them in terms of individual differences” 970).

Literacy: consider the relationship between books and marginalia: people create meaning through annotating spaces, maps, representations.

Legitimacy: “different epistemologies do not always sit comfortably side by side, but are frequently in tension with each other. Implicitly in any consideration of how to understand the informative nature of a space, then is the question of the struggle for legitimacy of different forms of knowledge” (972).


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