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?