Since 2015, I’ve been doing work around the ways that digital technologies shape how we document, experience and understand the city. This has included staging events with my colleagues Michael Gallagher and Jeremy Knox, which includes excursions and seminars in Amsterdam, Bremen and London. Last week I travelled to Braunschweig in northern Germany, where I presented a paper, ‘The Augmented reality of the postdigital city’. This was part of Participation and the Postdigital: Contemporary technologies and practices in education and urban life.
One of the points I made during my presentation was that, in the earlier excursions in Amsterdam, Bremen and London, there was something novel about the way that Michael, Jeremy and I had used digital technologies (variously including mobile phones, the Telegram messaging app and other resources) as a way of documenting or helping to navigate the city. However, in the reasonably short time since our earliest activities, these and other digital technologies have become so commonplace in our everyday surroundings and actions to no longer be remarkable. Or to put it another way, we occupy a postdigital city.
As I discussed in my paper, when we nowadays cut a path through the city, we readily and seamlessly augment our aural, visual and wider sensorial and emotional relationship with the city through digital materials and practices. Within the postdigital urban condition we use QR codes to access information. Streamed playlists and podcasts provide an alternative soundtrack to our surroundings. We purchase goods through contact-less connections. And at the same these interactions enable the tracking of our movements and the documenting of our habits and preferences.
The idea that most seemed to resonate with the conference audience, though, was the suggestion that digital technologies enable us to rehearse the city even before we step out into the street. Using Google Streetview, we can select a hotel in what seems to be a picturesque and safe setting. The same platform enables us to pre-walk a route from the station to the hotel (as I had done in the case of Braunschweig). When purchasing tickets for major sporting or cultural events, we can first look at the view from a specific seat before deciding whether to purchase. We can also check the availability of in-store items when choosing where to shop. What this can mean is that when we finally arrive in the city, there can be a feeling of the uncanny. Even when we have never previously visited that physical location, our surroundings are familiar, albeit not quite the same as when we experienced them online.
One of the questions I asked during my presentation is whether this represents a kind of trade-off. As we rehearse the city in an effort to structure in a safe and satisfying experience, do we potentially lose some of serendipity and surprise that can enliven our urban experiences when we arrive there anew? But on the other hand, when the city is performed through a multitude of different actors (people, traffic, weather, disruption…) perhaps it will inevitably retain its unpredictability in spite of what we might have seen and planned in advance?
I am a Lecturer in Digital Education (Education Futures), within the Centre for Research in Digital Education at The University of Edinburgh.