Tuesday, September 2, 2014

RGS 2014 - a surveillance recap

It’s been a while since the last conference recap – so here we go again! Surveillance studies has been a multi-disciplinary field from the outset, and particularly geographers have investigated the production and transformation of space through techniques of surveillance and control.

At this year’s edition of the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference in London, Matt Finn and Nat O’Grady organized a double panel on “The co-productions of data-based living” (1) (2), seeking to explore the effects of computational infrastructures on the organizational transformation and re-configuration of lived experience, the formation of new modes of governance and intervention, and forms of mediation between humans and data – thereby of course dealing with multiple core surveillance studies questions.

Lunch break at the RGS-IBG building garden

Both Rob Kitchin and AndrĂ©s Luque engaged the concept of “smart cities” and the changing rationalities of governance that emerge through the measurement and quantification of almost every aspect of urban life, while Matt Finn gave an empirical account of data-driven schools, in which students as well as teachers become enrolled in data-regimes that set individualized performance goals in order to maximize “care” as well to clear future career paths, thereby introducing a form of educational governance through self-optimization. 

In a similar vein, Ewa Luger and Chris Speed’s presentation on reconstruction of the family home through smart objects, as well as Matthew Wilson’s inquiry on the “quantified self-city nation” probed questions of identity and the self, and how they become transformed through streams of information. Finally, Agnieszka Lesczczynski problematized issues of interfaces between data-enabled technologies and their human users through which social, technological and spatial experiences become mediated. I chipped in with a piece that sought to make sense of the moment of the decision as something that is co-constituted, but necessarily not determined by data-driven knowledge.

Themes of surveillance (or rather, dataveillance) and control were of course implicitly running through all the talks, which unanimously emphasized the interactive and emergent nature of co-produced living through ubiquitous and pervasive calculative architectures. As someone who was part of the RGS conference for the first time, I was not exactly surprised but still somewhat amazed how cross-cutting the surveillance studies agenda has become, now that we supposedly live in that ominous age of “Big Data” – and at the same time I feel that geographical literature can indeed contribute to a better understanding of how we can make sense of a digitized world (and in turn how this digitized world makes sense of us). I will be back!

[as always, this recap reflects my personal experiences and my own very limited perspective on an incredibly large event of which I could only grasp a small bit]

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