The Intersections of Urban Geography & Technology: What Progress Can Look Like

Inspired by my experience at #TechIntersections Conference

Technology has changed the landscape of the city, in more ways than one, and thus the demographics. This is exceptionally true of Oakland, California from where I write this piece. But the intersections of urban geography and technology go beyond the consequences of the northward expansion of Silicon Valley and high salaries of young people moving into the San Francisco Bay Area from exotic places like Washington, Minnesota, and Colorado. Gentrification, although exacerbated and perpetuated by the technology sector, is one of these intersections that is not new. Technology is not neutral and neither are urban systems, so exploring these intersections in a more holistic way is necessary for nuanced understanding leading to veritable progress.

The way people use technology while moving through the city is now being explored more, especially since the onset of Pokemon Go. Once that app was released we heard stories about people getting hit by cars while walking through their streets with their heads down looking for Pokemon, or hackers creating fake Pokemon using them to lure people to certain parts of the city. We also heard and saw more positive stories about Pokemon Go encouraging people to explore parts of the city they normally would not in search of Pokemon. In fact, one of my good friends said I would like the app for exactly that reason. I never downloaded it. However, when I was living in Copenhagen in 2016 and doing my masters our professors took us to a garden in the back of a library brimming with kids and teenagers standing around with their heads down looking for Pokemon. What was most interesting about this phenomena, besides the erosion of the grass from all the activity that had suddenly ensued, was that this garden and library was previously a quiet and lightly inhabited space for students and other intellectuals who may want to ready, study, and contemplate flâneur. Pokemon Go changed this public space for a period of time.

It seems to me that some of us use technology to mimic and even enhance our physical geographies. We use the digital sphere as an ideal space for what we want our physical geographies to be. Instagram, snapchat and the influx of posting photo/video is one way this is clear. Technology allows us to curate and dictate our movements through space (whether digital or physical) in a way that the city may not — or so we believe. With technology and on the internet it feels like there is more autonomy and opportunities until we realize that AI has racial bias and algorithms pretty much reproduce our patterns whether they are positive or negative. In some ways there is more freedom in the digital sphere, but we have to be honest and accurate about the perception of freedom versus actual liberation.

In some cases having this same sense of freedom, agency, and opportunities to create feels impossible in the city for reasons of safety, especially for Black and Brown people and activists, as well as physical barriers. Although, technology can also create a threat to freedom for marginalized populations because of surveillance, data collection, and privacy. It is now common knowledge that the NSA and police departments use Twitter, Facebook and other digital platforms to monitor and target activists and community organizers. Alas, in both the urban and technological space we need to protect ourselves while still trying to move with a sense of freedom, opportunities for creativity and collaboration. Because we also know how important the internet is for helping to foster transnational solidarity, resource innovation and international networked movements.

The way many technological recommendation systems work is to use your past preferences and behaviour to make recommendations on how and who you should engage with in the digital sphere. In a similar way, city planning and urban development is in many cases based on past behaviours, habits, and preferences of certain people who make up the city. Thus, while sometimes Netflix and Pandora get it right by recommending something you like, these algorithms still reproduce bias, maintain a person’s (sometimes) limited perspective, and don’t necessarily encourage people to explore new things. Similarly while good city planning and urbanism creates structures for what people already do, these structures usually privilege certain communities and ignore, discard, or displace others. It is often hard for urban planning processes and traditional city planning actors to create new possibilities in a city that are not biased to a certain population and encourage people to move beyond old patterns of how they traverse through the city and who they interact with in their urban environment.

The opportunity in both urbanism/urban geography and technology/the internet is to create new, more inclusive and nuanced opportunities for engagement, collective creativity, and collaboration. Technology and the internet, just like the making of the city, is a collective socio-cultural process and should be treated as such. Issues of access, security & safety, as well as diversity and inclusion are just as prevalent in urbanism as they are in the technology sector. It is not enough to rebrand old values as new best practices or appropriate methods of resourcefulness that people in “third world” nations, people of color, and indigenous communities have been doing for decades and call it innovation without including them in the story or development.

Full and ease of access, open/public ownership, credibility, decentralization are pathways to progress that both the urbanism and technology sectors need to embrace to create new structures and definitions of creation, inclusion and innovation. We cannot change the exclusionary geographies within the city or the bias of artificial intelligence if communities that are continually excluded and marginalized are not recognized for our work, included in the production process, and given equitable access to resources and opportunities. Technology and urban geography are more intertwined now than ever. This opens up possibilities for who and how we make the city, as well as who and how lives in the city, and how and who advances technology. Obviously, who and how are the operative words.

For technology-apartheid, urban-apartheid, eco-apartheid or any other form of apartheid will surely destroy us even faster than we are already destroying ourselves. We were fully human before technological advancement and we will be afterwards (should there be some kind of sci-fi themed apocalypse that somehow renders modern technology obsolete). We were always human whether we developed urban centers or not. There is no separate survival; we are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution — so try to act evolved and see the intersections.