AAG Session: Democracy and the Public Sphere In a Web 2.0 World

WHEN: Thursday, April 15, 2:40-4:20 pm

WHERE: Senate, Omni Shorham

WHAT: What do the much-critiqued ‘classics’ on democracy, civic engagement, the public sphere, and education (by scholars such as Habermas, Dewey, Putnam and others) have to offer critical urban geographers? The urban spaces, forms of social interaction, and modes of education that these scholars theorized are quite different than those that many urban geographers seek to understand today. Public life increasingly plays out in both material and virtual/digital spaces, with interactions and deliberations mediated through purportedly interactive ‘web 2.0’ media, including social networking technologies and interactive mapping technologies. Past geographical critiques of the public sphere emphasized the exclusionary nature of abstract liberal visions, drawing on empirical and embodied accounts of spatial life. In the disembodied world of the digital age, how do we bring our empirical research to bear on these new/old questions of collaboration, civic engagement and democratic space? What is geography’s contribution to democratic theory in the age of web 2.0?

Discussant – Robert Lake, Rutgers University


YouTube Nation
Bruce D’Arcus – Miami University of Ohio

Dominant theories on the intersections of democracy and the public sphere were the product of a media environment dominated first by print media, and later by radio and television typically produced by large multinational capital for the largely passive consumption of viewers and listeners. Indeed, Habermas’ historical narrative of the evolution of the public sphere suggests its gradual demise in the face of the pressures of corporate concentration. Even more recent critics of this thesis have often based their arguments on the role that alternative media may play in constituting the dialog that is understood to be at the heart of a vibrant public sphere. In each case, however, the cultural product of this media is largely read-only. Yet, some commentators have argued, new media forms associated with the internet complicate the relation between the production and consumption of mediated meanings.

This paper considers this argument by way of an examination of connections between new media, social networking technologies, and concrete space. I examine how conservative activists in the United States have used new media such as online video website YouTube to present particular representations of a resurgent political movement. On one hand, I argue, these new media do change the content and character of political representation and dialog by complexifying the relation between the production of space, and the production of mediated political representations. On the other hand, I suggest the challenge they present is as much to theory and methodology as it is to our understanding of changing empirical circumstances.

Cyberdominance and the Digital Footprint: Young People as Objects of Domination and Subjects of Power in the Cybercity
Gregory Donovan – CUNY Graduate Center

This paper aims to unpack the material forms and practices of the U.S. war doctrine of “cyberdominance,” and its entailments with urban youth at multiple scales. This paper will argue that through decentralized information flows, the cybercity affords new environments for education, self-expression, and civic engagement as well as new environments for surveillance and control — simultaneously challenging and enabling the realization of cyberdominance. As young people’s urban geographies blend with cyberspatial mediums, specifically the Semantic Web (SW), their digital footprints are increasingly recorded, commodified, and aggregated by state and non-state actors. Enabled by the increasing propertization of cyberspace, the SW in part symbolizes a neoliberal restructuring of cyberspace through its privileging of informational control over informational literacy. Under this restructuring, information is semantically coded and mapped for “automatic” circulation across various proprietary environments. Intertwined with the privatization and segregation of urban environments through “gating” and private governance practices, the SW affords the contradictory prospect of a mass public conducive to cyber-dominance, alongside a cascade of publics organized around situated interests that challenge cyber-dominance. This paper will conclude with a discussion of a PAR project, in progress, that engages NYC youth in producing their own social network site as a means of enhancing informational literacy and cyber-environmental consciousness. Through their participation, young people investigate how cyberdominance shapes, and is shaped by, their experiences with property, privacy, and security in the cybercity — and propose strategies for re-imagining such dominance according to their situated interests.

Situated GeoWeb Participation: A Qualitative Assessment of OpenStreetMap Contributors
Josef (“Joe”) Eckert – University of Washington

OpenSteetMap.org (OSM) is a widely cited example of the burgeoning geoweb 2.0 movement, seeking to spatially crowdsource street-level geographic information for the globe. The recent State of the Map conference for OSM participants held this year in Amsterdam was the first annual meeting that dedicated a day to emergent business interests in relation to the project. Recent literature on volunteered geographic information calls for an understanding of how user participation functions in these practices. While some research has been done on the nature of open-source software projects, the emerging neogeography literature to date has been largely devoid of economic consideration. However, there is a lack of attention to the political economies localized to a single project in neo-geography literature. This paper utilizes participant observation fieldwork from the conference as well as in-depth interviews to understand the resulting subjectivities created by the complex interplay between members of non-profit foundation at the helm of the OSM project, the business interests of for-profit companies utilizing OSM data, and those participants that simply want to “get on with the mapping.” I argue that treating participants as situated within specific economic networks is essential to our understanding of user participation in geoweb based projects. I suggest that while mapping within this project is actualized at the scale of the individual, user participation in practice is shaped by the fiscal networks required to power a transnational geoweb project and that attention to unique networks may provide a more in-depth understanding of differences in participant motivation.

Desperately seeking the public sphere: After school programs and civic life
Sarah Elwood & Katharyne Mitchell – University of Washington

In this paper we rethink notions of the public sphere, in relation to schools and after-school programs in the United States. Habermasian notions of the ideal public sphere as a site where rational individuals can freely deliberate issues of the common good have been strongly critiqued by many scholars. Much of this discussion, however, has focused on existing sites and on adults. Liberal democratic accounts of schools as sites for subject formation have offered a similarly idealistic view of schools as a public sphere, and tended to theorize young people as unformed subjects within these spaces. Drawing from research at a YMCA-sponsored after school program with young teens in South Seattle, we investigate the types of power relations, hegemonic assumptions, inclusions and exclusions that emerge when young people form their own deliberative publics, as part of a collaborative map-making project. We suggest that these deliberative spaces provide an important opportunity for young people to share, examine, and rethink their own knowledge, but that these spaces are also limited in significant ways.

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