Monthly Archives: June 2006


I had the honour to represent my “chef”, at a meeting of the “cyberterritories and prospectives” group supported by the DIACT, the French ministry of regional development. The group has a very interesting purpose: to imagine “prospectively” how urban, exurban, and rural spaces will develop in the next 25 years, along with communication technologies. To do this, a coalition of government representatives, civil society advocates, tech company researchers, professors and graduate students meet every month for day-long meetings featuring presentations of current research, discussions, “creative exercises” and drafting of a final report.

I am not so keen on the term “cyberterritory” – it seems too much like “virtual world” but I found the mandate of imagining the future sort of inspiring, if a bit forced. But on the other hand, if no one forces city planners to look 25 years in the future, who will?

The first presentation, by Michel Vol, talked about ICTs in business. I had two issues with his framing of the ICT issue: first, his model for institutional change was based on Bertrand Gilles, who argues that historical catastrophes provoke inventions, which then create the conditions for future catastrophes. I much prefer Innis’ conception of monopolies of knowledge, which presents the transfer of knowledge as something that happens organically (while still based on changes in methods and manners of communicating.

The second set of presentations was a recap of things I had already been thinking about: Dominique Cardon and Christophe Aguiton from France Telecom presented on bottom-up innovation and Web 2.0. Dominique reiterated that nodes of innovation are very small-scale – not necessarily geographically bounded, but also potentially restricted in terms of creating very tight communities of interest. Christophe looped around onto the same point, evoking Danah Boyd’s concept of glocalism to explain the valorization of certain kinds of localities in global space. He provided the example of Craigslist to illustrate how San Francisco is everywhere through the Craigslist format (this is true, at least in Paris: one finds primarily ads from expats on the list here . . .).

I loved the first section of Chantal de Gournay’s presentation, which provided a literature review of various philosophies of urbanity, and then connected the results of her comparative study (Brazil-UK-France-Spain-Reunion-China-Japan) with these different visions of urban space. She argues that the currently emerging model is the Far East model, where the distinction between the city and the country is effaced, and where the public sphere ceases to be the primary operator between unknowns. This is interesting, and perhaps prescient given the decline of the American empire, but this conception, as well as the presentation as a whole, didn’t really take into account North American city models, with their sprawling suburbs and individualistic design.

Overall, the conclusions at the end of the seminar seemed to be that in the short term, the relationship between telecommunications systems and the city is one of service provision and regulation. But this leaves open some important questions. Regulation: by whom? Service: for what? And furthermore, even leaving beside the questions of prospectives for the next 25 years, what do these questions of service and regulation, cross-considered with questions of local innovation, reveal about the role of technology as a cultural vector in local places? Christophe’s talk turned (once again) around the myth of the Bay area as a unique incubator for technical innovation. But is this myth really one of locality? The prospective I propose is that locality is entwined into development, into regulation, and even into service. But all localities are not created, or perceived, as equal. Which territories win? And what role does the increasing power of the “cyber” play in all of this?

Compte rendu, UPFING

At last, finally, a high-tech conference that made sense to me. Mutations of public space, where a Habermasian public space is giving way to a public space marked not only by Goffman’s marking of space, forestage and backstage, but also all of the “entre” of the so-called “entrenet” — the cooperation and competition, the “coopetition”, the social forms emerging at the same time as the economic ones. The pyramid and the net, the rhysome and the elm tree.

The Internet is no longer, in this formation, some kind of great unknown or some kind of gigantic destabilizer. It is a part of an everday mediascape (to borrow Appuradai’s term, elegantly used in the thesis defence I watched this morning), and has, along with, and by producing, other kinds of social and economic formations, created a site of tension between private and public, between action and regulation, between Microsoft and the startup, between accessibility and hierarchization.

With this in mind, I feel like there are a couple of useful things to integrate into my work over the summer and beyond:

1.Questions of governance (in a general sense) are more important than ever, as the interpenetration of practices and media forms continues to expand and as Web 2.0 practices get integrated into enterprises. How do you manage the spaces in between? How can we reflect on the connections between practice, between bottom-up development, and the hierarchization of technology, power, and influence?
2.Whither democracy? This question seethed throughout the weekend and never got resolved. We can begin to talk about participatory democracy based on tools and practices that we see emerging (blogging, social networking, radical reformations of hierarchical meetings like WSIS and the World Social Forum) but democracy is still built on an idea of an individual – historically a privileged, knowledgeable one – and community efforts at reconfiguring democracy are met with fear, misunderstanding, or panic.
3.Localism, and local culture are more and more important. So is use, user innovation, experimentation that takes international standards and makes them local. WiFi might actually be a local technology, maybe even a micro-local technology. But the perception of the internet is still global . . . back to Sassen and Castells for help with this one.


Unconferences seem a lot like conferences. Guys at a table talking with big ol slides behind them. But this one is in Provence, and out the back door there is an amazing blue sky and a forest full of singing birds. The conference is held in a villa. I am stunned, and more stunned by the fact that I know people here — it’s as if I have been absorbed into another kind of identity.

There has been a lot of discususion here about the slipperyness between public and private, the creation of tribes, (what my economist friends call closed networks) and persistent networks of friends and “communities” — which seem to be a new form that companies have identified as a market. There was a very interesting presentation on the spontaneous organization and innovation that produced Bittorrent, and a lot of sociological analysis by theoretical French academics about the shifts in public and private space.

But what I am getting, and what I am working on in my research project, is the instability of this format, of this space between the organized, regulated, and top-down, and the individual in the world. It feels like the individual is disappearing as a social actor, in favour of some kind of perpetual gang of folks with weak ties to one another. What is the significance of this intermediary space between mass culture and the individual? If the marketers (and the economists) are already sure that this exists, how do we understand the social consequences? Does capitalism get reorganized? How do we make policy? And, most importantly, is there any indication about how to manage this shift (if it is really one) for the benefit of others beside the telecom and computer companies.

UP! To Provence

I am off next weekend to a hilariously titled conference: the UPFING! Actually, it’s subtitled the EntreNet, and is a one of these “UN-conferences” where everyone is thoretically a participant. But the thematic looks interesting — what happens in between the dynamics of “bottom up” and “top-down” and how do associative technologies play an ambivalent role in mediating these dynamics. Also, it’s in Provence, which will get me out of the city.

In the rest of my life, I see a daily opposition between the rigidly bureaucratic structures imposed by the last vestiges of a French aristocracy, and the inclusive, chaotic “mani”res de faire” of people forced to live with a public service that is not interested in providing service but in providing stable jobs. With an unemployment rate of 12% there is enormous pressure to get in to the bureaucracy, and enormous stress for the rest of the people on the margins. So the tension between “top-down” and “bottom-up” is really lived, everywhere from the swimming pool the the post office. More on this later.


Yes, Paris for the summer. Everyone said it would be wonderful, and it is. But not exactly in the way I expected. I am working on a research contract for the summer at the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Telecom where I work with some economists who are trying to convince me that the new left uses statistics. I run into culture shocks everywhere, but especially intellectually. In France, serious thematics of race and gender in the social sciences are viewed with confusion. After all, the Republic is based on equality, so why look at difference?

Like working as a qualitative researcher in a quantiative department, and as a “sociologist” (closest approximation of my work) among economists, this disjuncture between my surroundings and my own practice is very productive. It makes me rethink where I am coming from, what the implications are of my politics and my practice.

Oh, and I am working on a historically-informed study of telecommunications as public and private — looking at the telephone, the radio, and WiFi. How do people negotiate public and private practices? What is the role of policy making? Of local culture? Of regulation? I have a little side project about ad-hoc WiFi devices, too. Fun stuff — and probably the last time I get to work on side projects before writing my thesis.