Broadly, I engage in critical research that interrogates the relationships between digital technologies, media, culture, globalization, environment, and urban mobilities and spatial practices. Specifically, I am interested in how digital technologies and open data are increasingly deployed within the contexts of the public sphere, urban planning, and sustainability. I seek to analyze the (often unequal) power structures that subtend and inflect the “digital,” “cyber,” and “smart” city, particularly as these power relationships connect to the meaning of the contemporary city and mobilize discourses of urban sustainability, digitalized security and safety, and democracy.
In my book, The Digital City and Mediated Urban Ecologies, I examine the digital technological initiatives and programs of three major cities in the U.S. (New York City, Seattle, and San Antonio) and how each city’s government deploys terms such as “digital,” “smart,” and “cyber” to describe its urban digital technological goals. Historically, both cities and digital spaces have held a unique place within the cultural imaginary. As major urban centers and digital spaces are comprised of demographically diverse, pluralized cultures, both have become ideal—and often idealized—spaces for inter-class contact and myriad, though sometimes competing, formulations of community that, at least ideologically, promise autonomy, progress, and social, economic and cultural opportunities and enrichment. In my analysis of these three cities, I argue that many of these programs, in practice, often work to reinforce existing hierarchical power relations.
New York City’s Road Map for the Digital City, for example, outlines its strategies to leverage digital technologies for greater quality of life, a healthier civic society, and stronger democracy. While many of NYC’s digital programs and applications enable more citizen input into the enhancement of government services and impact many policy decisions, the use of these technologies and the data collected also critically complicate or problematize the claims made by NYC that such digital tools support a thriving democracy. Furthermore, many of the city’s digital technological programs, as they serve capitalist interests, raise concerns about distributive justice and equity in political and social discourse.
And in the case of San Antonio, I explore the tension that exists between the city’s claim to open government and enhanced democracy, its intense focus on systems of surveillance and security, which threaten to thwart democratic practices, and its neoliberal agenda to enhance its economic base through the securitization of cyberspace. I argue that San Antonio represents an example of what Stephen Graham refers to as the “new military urbanism,” as the city’s rhetoric around the use of digital technologies narratively shifts the perception of both public and private spaces, as well as civilians, into sources of threats. The city’s regime of securitization and militarization materializes, in part, through premediating what could happen and then offering affects of security through increased digital homogeneity. I therefore argue that for San Antonio, security and the protection of democracy become ideological frameworks that help to justify the use of mass surveillance technologies.
For Seattle, the anti-neoliberal atmosphere of the WTO protest era, I argue, persists as sort of myth. On the one hand, Seattle, leaning heavily on its history of egalitarianism, claims to be working towards greater racial and economic equity for its residents—in this instance, through “smart city” initiatives and the bridging of the digital divide; and yet, many of the city’s programs that are claimed to help bridge the digital divide are attached to competing, private commercial interests. Furthermore, the city’s increasing reliance on digital technologies, particularly as demonstrated through open data collection and crime mapping, appears to often impede, rather than facilitate, equitable digital solutions. Thus, I argue that Seattle’s efforts towards digital inclusion actually reveal an increasing trend towards digital exclusion.
I have been fortunate to receive support for my research, most notably in an effort to expand my focus internationally. In the spring 2014, I was granted two awards to begin developing my next research project: the Applied Urban Communication Research Award, from the Urban Communication Foundation, and a Term Faculty Development Award, from George Mason University. These awards supported fieldwork in the summer of 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I interviewed a number of urban planners working on the city’s current smart city initiatives and documented several ongoing smart city initiatives
In the summer 2012, I also was accepted into and funded to attend a highly competitive professional summer school session entitled, “Spaces of Media,” at Princeton University, in collaboration with the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie, in Weimar, Germany. The Princeton Weimar Summer School for Media Studies offered advanced collaborative learning opportunities in the study of media and mediated cultural techniques. Focusing on one special topic annually, the school accepts a small group of graduate students to work intimately with prominent international scholars from all fields of media studies, providing a platform for participants to engage in dialogue with other doctoral students from around the world working in similar or related fields.
As I move forward, I plan to develop a project on the communicative processes between emerging technologies – or the “Internet of Things” – particularly as they function within urban settings or “smart” cities internationally. As the rapid growth of cities, worldwide, place a tremendous burden on urban infrastructures, both scholars and professionals are either looking to digital and media technologies to provide solutions to a variety of urban problems or are raising concerns about the intersections of urban space and technologies. Through my ongoing research, I hope to continue examining urban digital technological trends on a global level—what ideological frameworks and discursive practices are embedded within existing structural processes, and the (power) relationships that arise between the adoption of new technologies and various social and political transformations. I also am interested in examining how open data and its aggregation subtend and inflect new “smart” urban planning models and urban spatial ecologies. And I hope to further explore the ways in which emerging technologies communicate with each other in urban settings (through the “Internet of Things”) and the implications of the socio-economic architecture of IoT-enabled smart cities. As cities and communities continue to leverage digital technologies and big data for urban sustainability efforts and work towards digital inclusion, I suspect new geographies of exclusion are created and reinforced.
RESEARCH AWARDS AND HONORS
- Top Paper in Communications and Technology Award, Annual ECA Convention in Philadelphia, PA, entitled, “Smart City Seattle and the Geographies of Exclusion.” (2015)
- Applied Urban Communication Research Award, from Urban Communication Foundation to support fieldwork in Copenhagen, Denmark for my research project, “Danish Smart Cities: Mobile Solutions for Urban Sustainability,” which explores the use of mobile technologies in digitally sustainable smart and intelligent cities. (2014)
- Term Faculty Teaching Development Award, from George Mason University to fund travel to perform research in Copenhagen, Denmark on smart city initiatives and support the development of a new course entitled, “Digital Futures.” (2014)
- Distance Education Course Development Award, from George Mason University to support the creation of a distance education senior capstone research class for the Bachelor of Individualized Studies program at Mason. (2013)
- Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies. “Spaces of Media,” Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. and the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie, Weimar, Germany. (2012)
- Letter of commendation, from Associate Provost of Undergraduate Education at George Mason University, for “outstanding performance” and “unusually high student course evaluation ratings.” (2009)
- Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) Institute Scholarship Recipient, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2006)