New spatial media

Leszczyski and Elwood have just published a great new paper on “Feminist Geographies of New Spatial Media” (Canadian Geographer) in which they credit me with coining the term “new spatial media.”

L&E have generously used this term a couple of times in their work. It does beg the tricky question of why these days I don’t tend to use the term myself. Part of the reason is that it was coined in response to a very specific moment.

In December 2007 Georgia State University (GSU) issued a cfp for university-wide “Area of Focus” initiatives that would take a unit or cluster of interests “to the next level.” With the support of my department (sort of…) I and a bunch of colleagues put together a proposal for a “New Spatial Media Center” which we submitted in March 2008. We asked for about half a million dollars over 3 years to fund PhD scholarships and symposia, etc.

Here’s the way I was thinking at the time (click for larger version):

Flow Chart

For readers of my Mapping book you will recognize this as an alternative conceptualization of a more generalized figure that appears in the book as Figure 1.1 (which itself was somewhat hastily created for a talk I was giving at the UNC geography department!). (Edited to add: one of the things that prompted this post, was that this conception of new spatial media makes no space for exactly the concerns that Leszczyski and Elwood are pointing to in their article.)

In the proposal I defined new spatial media as “web-based services such as locative media, volunteered geographic information and open-source spatial tools” (p. 1). The idea was that this would make the Center distinctive and provide a ramp to national recognition.

The Center was not funded, due in part to departmental politics since we put in two proposals which diffused the impact of both. I privately thought at the time that our proposal was better but a weak Chair couldn’t or wouldn’t eliminate one of the proposals meant they canceled each other out. Incidentally, when I left GSU in 2011 the Associate Dean offered to create such a center as an entreaty to stay. Decent of him, but UKY was calling!

In Mapping (mostly written years 2006-April 2009, ie., post Google Earth) I did use NSM as a chapter title. But I did so hesitantly, noting a competing flurry of other terms, which I wasn’t prepared to discriminate between (p. 26). So we have locative media, VGI, neogeography, geospatial web etc. (However, to myself, I hoped that “geoweb” would win out, which I think it has done–for now!) As you may have noticed in my definition of NSM above it defines it only by examples, using other terms (locative media etc.) that probably only fuzz the issue. Maybe another reason we didn’t get the money!

Part of the origins of the phrase is obviously “new media.” My appropriation of the term was meant to be more specific and to highlight place and space. I had followed the rise of “hypertext” throughout the 1990s after the release to the public of web browsers in 1992-3, and the digital humanities, especially the Center for Humanities and New Media at George Mason University (where I worked in the 1990s). It seemed to me that the spatial could unite across a range of social and natural sciences and we made a lot of effort in the proposal to get public health, biologists, computer scientists and historians on board! Hey we even mentioned big data and ambient technologies! In any case it reflected my strong interests in inter-disciplinary research.

So the term has its specific context and intellectual forebears. In that sense it does not have an “origin” and it is tied in with other existing terms. So should it continue? This last point, that is tied in to other discourses is its strongest value in fact. “Geoweb” is a weird word and not likely to be known to the general reader. Most people have some idea of what new media are, and could reliably guess at new spatial media. Plus it emphasizes an active medium of the processes at work, rather than a flat or static “web.” As such it can easily encompass the things L&E discuss such as the uneven and gendered landscapes of “new geosocial technologies” (p. 2).

Finally, there’s that word “new”: obviously designed to be cutting edge and up to the moment. That’s probably why we’ve used it for the New Mapping Collaboratory! (A term alas I did not coin; as I recall Sue Roberts suggested collaboratory to me, and either Matt Z or Matt W or myself the other part, but they can correct me on that. fwiw, usually go by “New Maps” now.)

Thanks to Agnieszka and Sarah for prompting these reflections!

Edited to add (June 1, 2015): In the following spring (2008) I also taught a Seminar in Cartography on New Spatial Media, for which I developed a blog. Here is the first post.

One response to “New spatial media

  1. So thought provoking Jeremy! Admittedly I did just take the term on and kind of defined it for my own purposes. However you intended ‘(new) spatial media’ to be used, I think that your coining of the term – and attendant positioning of geoweb presences (specifically hardware/software objects and information artifacts/content) as ‘media’ – actually does a lot of work for us (people who think about these things) in two significant respects.

    In the first instance, it allows us to break out materialities (“web-based services such as locative media, volunteered geographic information and open-source spatial tools”) from the amorphous ‘thing’ that is the geoweb (which Sarah Elwood and I have always defined as both spatial media + practices around those content forms and technological devices, platforms, etc.). This is somewhat instrumentalist, but it allows us to be more specific in terms of what we’re making reference to in any one instance. So our use of the term has been strategic in this respect. And, while ‘spatial media’ entails its own polemics (as you identify), it avoids the pitfalls of ‘geoweb’ by virtue of its own branding that there is some other, separate of distinct sphere of ‘the Internet’ that is ‘geo’ or spatial, and which we can draw definite boundaries around – which is not true (even though I too use ‘geoweb’ all the time). Rather, the rise of location is fundamentally underwriting our experiences of digital technologies and content on a broad scale (something Adriana de Souza e Silva has written about extensively in her work). As such, referring to these presences as spatial media allows us to understand them in the context of broader shifts and convergences vis-a-vis networked digital media more generally.

    This speaks to the second point, which is that thinking spatial media as ‘media’ brings us more directly into conversation with media theory, which is hugely significant for theorizing the particular articulations of technology, society, and space that are being wrought through our enrollments of these technics into the spaces and practices of our everyday lives. Something I’m working on at the moment…

    All of this provoked by your coming up with the term ‘(new) spatial media’ back in 2009. I’m still thinking about it, 5 years later.

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