The written texts from the AAG panel session I co-organized with Agnieszka Lesczczynski entitled “Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation” are now available. The panelists were Elvin Wyly (UBC), Rob Kitchin (National University of Ireland at Maynooth), Agnieszka Leszczynksi (University of Birmingham) and Julie Cupples (University of Edinburgh).
Two were posted to blogs (linked below) and two are reproduced below. Although I posted links to a couple of these previously, this blog entry collects them all. (Two panelists, Sam Kinsley and David Murakami Wood, were regrettably unable to attend.)
Thanks again to all!
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Elvin Wyly: “Capitalizing the Records of Life” (see below)
Rob Kitchin “Towards geographies of and produced by data brokers”
Agnieszka Leszczynski “What makes location valuable? Geolocation as evidence, meaning, & identity” (see below)
Julie Cupples “Coloniality, masculinity and big data economies”
And here again is the audio from the session.
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Let me begin with a confession. I did some homework reading the cv’s of my colleagues on this panel, and this is where I found the answer to our central question, “Where’s the value in the emerging digital economies of geolocation?” I. Am. In. Awe. It’s here, right here, right now, in the intersecting life-paths of extraordinary human geographers coming together to share the results of labor, creativity, critical insight and commitment. Julie Cupples’ work on decolonizing education and geographies of media convergence intersects with Agnieszka Lesczynski’s inquiry into the gendered dimensions of the erosion of locational privacy and the “new digital spatial mediations of everyday life,” and Sam Kinsley’s ‘Contagion’ project on the movement of ideas through technologically mediated assemblages of people, devices, and algorithms. David Murakami Wood’s Smart Cities project and editorial assemblage in the journal Surveillance and Society respond directly to the challenges and opportunities in Rob Kitchin’s (2014) call in The Data Revolution for “a more critical and philosophical framing” of the ontology, epistemology, ideology, and methodology” of the “assemblage surrounding” the production and deployment of geolocational data. And many of these connections have been the subject of wise anticipatory reflections on Jeremy Crampton’s Open Geography, where the adjective and the verb of ‘open’ in the New Mappings Collaborative give us a dynamic critical cartography of the overwhelming political and knowledge economies of spatialized information.
As I read the cv’s of my panelists, it became obvious that the value of a record of a life — that’s the Latin curriculum vitae — is the new frontier of what James Blaut (1993) once called The Colonizer’s Model of the World, and what Kinsley (2014) has diagnosed as “the industrial retention of collective life.” Smart cities, the social graph, the Internet of Things, the Quantified Self, the Zettabyte (270 bytes) Age analyzed by Kitchin: all of this signifies a new quantitative revolution defined by the paradox of life in the age of post-humanist human geography. In the closing lines of Explanation in Geography, David Harvey announced “by our models they shall know us” — a new generation of human geographers bearing the models and data of modern science; today, it’s the algorithms, models, and corporations that arrive bearing humans — millions and billions of them — whose curricula vitae can be measured, mapped, and monetized at scales that are simulteneously perrsonalized and planetary. Facebook alone curates more than 64 thousand years of human social relations every day (four-fifths of it on mobile devices and four-fifths of it outside the U.S. and Canada) and LinkedIn CEO Jeffrey Weiner (quoted in MarketWatch, 2015) recently declared, “We want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, companies, jobs, skills, higher educational organizations and professional knowledge and allow all forms of capital, intellectual captial, financial capital, and human capital to flow to where [they] can best be leveraged.”
Capitalized curricula vitae, however, are automating and accelerating what Anne Buttimer once called the ‘dance macabre’ of the knowledge economies of spatialized information, because the deceptively friendly concept of ‘human capital’ is in fact a deadly contradiction: capital is dead labor, the accumulated financial and technological appropriation of surplus value created through human labor, human creativity, and human thought. Buttimer’s remark about geospatial information being “a chilly recording by a detached observer, a hollow rattle of bones” hurt — because this is what she said in a conversation to the legendary time-geographer Torsten Hägerstrand, who in the 1940s spent years with his wife Britt in the church-register archives of a rural Swedish parish to understand “a human population in its time and space context. Here’s what Hägerstrand (2006, p. xi) recalls:
“[We] worked out the individual biographies of all the many thousands of individuals who had lived in the area over the last hundred years. We followed them all from year to year, from home to home, and from position to position. As the data accumulated, we watched the drama of life unfold before our eyes with graphic clarity. It was something of stark poetry to see the people who lived around us, many of whom we knew, as the tips of stems, endlessly twisting themselves down in the realm of times past.”
Hägerstrand wrote that he was disturbed and alarmed by Buttimer’s words, and I am too, because Allan Pred (2005, p. 328) began his obituary for Hägerstrand by quoting Walter Benjamin, emphasizing that it is not only knowledge or wisdom, but above all real life — “the stuff stories are made of” — which “first assumes transmissible form at the moment of …death.” But just as “every text has a life history” (Pred, 2005, p. 331) that comes to an end, now Allan Pred’s curriculum vitae has also assumed transmissible form of the market-driven, distorted sort you can track through the evolving Hägerstrandian time-space prisms of the digitized network society. Hägerstrand is dead, but he has a Google Scholar profile that’s constantly updated by the search robots, and the valorized geolocatable knowledge of his citations put him in a dance macabre of apocalyptic quantification: he is “worth” only 1.093 percent of the valorization of another dead curriculum vitae, that of Foucault, who’s also on Google Scholar. The world is falling in love with geography, but we don’t need more than just a few human geographers to do geography, thanks to the self-replicating algorithms and bots of the corporate cloud of cognitive capital.
The geolocatable knowledge economy is thus a bundle of contradictions and the endgame of the organic composition of human capital. Human researchers spending years in the archives to build databases are now put into competition with the fractal second derivatives of code: how do I balance my respect and reverence for our new generation of geographers screen-scraping APIs and coding in R, D3, Python, and Ruby on Rails without giving up what we have learned from the slow, patient, embodied labor of previous generations working by hand? I see the tips of stems, not just in Hägerstrand’s small Swedish parish, but right here, in this room. Tips of stems, endlessly twisting down in the realm of times past — but in today’s times where each flower now faces unprecedented competition in every domain: jobs, research support, academic freedom, human care, human recognition, human attention. Tips of stems, endlessly twisting through time-spaces of a present suffused with astronomical volumes of geographical data in what the historian George Dyson (2012) calls the “universe of self-replicating code.” Tips of stems, tracing out an entirely new ontology of socio-spatial sampling theory defined by the automated mashup analytics that now combine Hägerstrand’s time-space diagrams with Heisenberg’s observational uncertainties, Alan Turing’s (1950) ‘universal machine,’ and Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge blended with Marx’s conception of the “general intellect” and Auguste Comte’s notion of the ‘Great Being’ of all the accumulated knowledge of intergenerational human knowledge, tradition, and custom. Tips of stems, tracing lifeworlds of a situationist social physics that treats smartphones as “brain extenders” (Kurzweil, 2014) converging into a planetary “hive mind” (Shirky, 2008) while reconfiguring the observational infrastructures and human labor relations of an empiricist hijacking of positivism: if Chris Anderson (2008) is correct that the petabyte age of data renders the scientific method obsolete, then who needs theory?
We all need theory — we humans. Theory is the intergenerational inheritance of human inquiry, human thought, and human struggle. Let me be clear: I mean no disrespect to the extraordinary achievements of the new generation of data revolutionaries represented by my distinguished panelists, and all of you who can code circles around my pathetic do-loop rusty routines in FORTRAN, Cobol, and SAS. Tips of stems, twisting themselves down into the realms of human history: take a look around, at one of the last generations of human geospatial analysts, before we’re all replaced by algorithmic aggregation. Yesterday’s revolution was humans doing quantification. Today’s revolution is quantification doing humans.
Anderson, Chris (2008). “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.” Wired, June 23.
Blaut, James (1993). The Colonizer’s Model of the World. New York: Guilford Press.
Dyson, George (2012). “A Universe of Self-Replicating Code.” Edge, March 26, at http://edge.org
Hägerstrand, Torsten (2006). “Foreword.” In Anne Buttimer and Tom Mels, By Northern Lights: On the Making of Geography in Sweden. Aldershot: Ashgate, xi-xiv.
Kitchin, Rob (2014). The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage Publications.
Kinsley, Sam (2014). “Memory Programmes: The Industrial Retention of Collective Life.” Cultural Geographies, October.
Kurzweil, Ray (2014). Comments at ‘Will Innovation Save Us?’ with Richard Florida and Ray Kurzweil. Vancouver: Simon Fraser University Public Square, October.
MarketWatch (2015). “LinkedIn Wants to Map the Global Economy.” MarketWatch, April 9.
Pred, Allan (2005). “Hägerstrand Matters: Life(-path) and Death Matters — Some Touching Remarks.” Progress in Human Geography 29(3), 328-332.
Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin.
Turing, Alan M. (1950). “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind 59(236), 433-460.
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I want to invert the question that Jeremy and myself posed to the panel when organizing this session by asking, rather than ‘where is the value’ in geolocation, what is it that makes geolocation valuable? In contending that there are particular kinds of economies emerging around location, it is because geolocation itself is somehow intrinsically valuable, and I’d like to make some preliminary propositions to this end.
Over the last few years I have been particularly interested in the ways in which emergent surveillance practices of the securities agencies, made broadly known to us through the as yet still-unfolding Snowden revelations, are crystallizing around big data – its collection, mining, interception, aggregation, and analytics. And specifically, I’m particularly interested in the ways in which locational data is figuring as central within these emergent regimes of dataveillance. Indeed at the close of 2013, Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani, reporting in the Washington Post, identified at least ten American signals intelligence programmes or SIGADs that explicitly sweep up locational data – i.e., where location data is the target or object of data capture, interception, and aggregation.
- Under a SIGAD designated HAPPYFOOT, the NSA taps directly into mobile app data traffic that streams smartphone locations to location-based advertising networks organized around the delivery of proximately relevant mobile ads, often unencrypted and in the clear. This locational data, which is often determined through mobile device GPS capabilities, is far higher-resolution than network location, allowing the NSA “to map Internet addresses to physical locations more precisely than is possible with traditional Internet geolocation services”
- Documents dating from 2010 reveal that the NSA and GCHQ exploit weaknesses in ‘leaky’ mobile social and gaming applications that veil secondary data mining operations behind primary interfaces, piggybacking off of commercial data collection by syphoning up personal information including location under a signals intelligence program code-named ‘TRACKER SMURF’ after the children’s animated classic
- In perhaps the most widely publicized example, the NSA collects over 5 billion cell phone location registers off of cell towers worldwide, bulk processing this location data through an analytics suite code-named CO-TRAVELLER which looks to identify new targets for surveillance on the basis of parallel movement with existing targets of surveillance – i.e., individuals whose cell phones ping off of the same cell towers in the same succession at the same time as individuals already under surveillance.
- Just a few months ago, it was leaked that the CSE, or Canada’s version of the NSA, was tracking domestic as well as foreign travelers via Wi-Fi at major Canadian airports for up to two weeks as they transited through the airports and subsequently through other ‘nodes’ including other domestic and international airports, urban Wi-Fi hotspots, transport hubs, major hotels and conference centers, and even public libraries both within Canada and beyond in a pilot project for the NSA;
- and, most recently, under a SIGAD code-named LEVITATION, the CSE has been demonstrated to be intercepting data cable traffic to monitor up to 15 million file downloads a day. Particularly significant in the leaked CSE document detailing this programme is that the CSE explicitly states that it is looking to location data to improve LEVITATION capabilities for intercepting both GPS waypoints and “[d]evices close to places” so as to further isolate and develop surveillance targets, including those carrying and using devices within proximity of designated locations.
So the question is, why geolocation? Why is it of such great interest to the securities agencies? And here I want to argue that it is of interest because it is inherently valuable, and uniquely so amongst other forms of PII. And this value is latent in the spatio-temporal and spatial-relational nature of geolocation data.
- the spatio-temporal nature of many spatial big data productions means that it may be enrolled as definitive evidence of our complicity or involvement in particular kinds of socially disruptive events or emergencies by virtue of our presence, or as in the case of CO-TRAVELER, co-presence and co-movement, in particular spaces at particular times
- furthermore, longitudinal retention of highly precise, time-stamped geoloational data traces allow for the reconstruction of detailed individual spatial histories, which like the CO-TRAVELER example, similarly participate within what Kate Crawford has recently characterized as emergent truth economies of big data in which data is truth;
- the relational nature of spatial big data productions, in which our data may be used to discern our religious, ethnic, political and other kinds of personal affiliations and identifies on the basis of the kinds of places that we visit and the ability to establish linkages with other PII across data flows;
- and, in this vein, the ways in which locations are inherently meaningful – for example, they may be as revealing of highly sensitive information about ourselves as our DNA. For instance, on the basis of the specialty of a medical office that we visit, this information may be revelatory of the fact that we may have a degenerative genetic disease and the nature of that disease – information that socially we otherwise understand as some of the most private information about ourselves.
- and, of course, the ways in which location is not only revealing of identity positions, but it is identity – for example, a group of researchers determined that unique individuals could be identified form the spatial metadata of only four cell phone calls at a very high confidence level.
So in asking where is the value in geolocation, my take is that it is valuable – to both the intelligence apparatuses that I have highlighted here but also corporate entities – because it is uniquely sensitive – revealing and identifying – amongst other forms of PII.
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