“Si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couverts de gloire” – Thoughts on 200 Posts


So WordPress told me today that I’d made 200 posts on The Semaphore Line. I had no idea! So I thought I’d throw a few thoughts out on this obviously momentous occasion.

I set this blog up in April 2012, 5 months before I started my PhD. I wanted it to be a space where I could develop my own thinking in a relatively public way. I wanted to link to things I’d read online that I liked and felt like sharing. With my starting of the PhD it gave me an opportunity to write on various topics that – although not knowing whether they would comprise my final thesis interests – would at least allow me to explore the terrain in some way.

I named it The Semaphore Line after the Chappe Brothers’ communication system. The title of this post references the first message that was sent between the two signal towers in 1791 (“if you succeed you will bask in glory”). I wrote about it in my first post, going back to say a little more on it in November 2013. As I said in April 2012:

As a historical example of the nexus of military needs, political and revolutionary events, and visual informational devices, the Semaphore Line acts as a grounding for thinking through the dynamics of geospatial technology, interactive media and the digital frontier. This blog will collate some of the work done at the intersection of these fields.

I’d like to think I’ve stuck to these interests over the last 3 ½ years – and as the sub-title of my blog hints at, I like to think I’ve appropriately covered ‘technology, space and politics’. Even if I may have gone a little off-topic sometimes.

Of course, the stats are important to a degree. 11,933 total views. 95 followers. 57 comments. 4 thematic categories. 560 unique tags. And of course: 200 posts. Hardly earth-shattering – but for a personal research blog I’d say not bad. Although, I’m hardly going to be topping my other (now long retired) blogging site for hits anytime soon (69, 253!). And nothing is going to top being linked to on a Guardian live football blog.

During 2012 and 2013 I blogged more prolifically. I think this is a fairly common experience. The first year of a PhD has a certain freedom to it. You can get away with saying ‘I’m still thinking about it’ and not be challenged on your output. Blogging, it seems, was the output itself rather than a means to an end. This year (2015) as primary research, journal article drafts, collaborative book editing, conference session organizing, fieldcourse game design and *actual* thesis chapter writing (!!!) have ‘got in the way’ I’ve been restricted to a whole lot more re-blogging and ‘signposting’. That’s to say, trumpeting (for better or for worse…) my work in other spaces (journals, websites) than using the blog to throw ideas down.

The top 3 posts in terms of hits (ignoring the home page and ‘about’ page), however, do somewhat sum up my evolving, shifting priorities over the years. In 3rd place: a muse on ‘Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre’ from December 2012, in light of a first-year presentation we had to give on our thesis topic. In 2nd: a dissection of ‘The Abercrombie Plans’ from May 2013; stimulated in part by coming across the Utopia London (2010) film. In 1st place: ‘A Night in Balfron Tower’ from July 2013 – a photo-led article on gentrification in London spurred on by – yep, you guessed it – spending a night in the (in)famous Balfron Tower. Each of these seem to have cross-cut the blog’s general themes quite well, intersecting with spatial theory, the city and architecture along the way.

This like many of my posts has been written in transit on the CrossCountry train (a typical view is above!) back from Warwick (where I study) to Manchester (where I live). It’s provided me with both the space and the rhythm to write some more explorative and provisional things. And whilst sometimes it’s certainly been easier to sit back, mindlessly flick through twitter or just fall asleep, I’ve often found my most lucid moments on such journeys – and when I have I’ve tried my best to share them on here. 200 posts later and that hasn’t changed much. Writing can be tough but not writing is tougher. Blogging – however frequently, lucidly, expansively, briefly, or rambling-ly – has given me space to discover that.

A re-design

I slowly grew out of love with the Chunk theme I’ve had since I started this blog, so last night decided to go for a new look.

The new theme is called Zoren, and I think it’s a little less abrasive than Chunk. As it’s only been available since the summer it’s low down the WordPress popular themes list – which should be good for carving out a new identity for the blog. I came across many other ‘Chunks’ whilst surfing the web (it’s the 46th most popular).

Detail-wise I much prefer the header font, as well as the sizing and format. The mottled grey background seems to work better, although I’ve been playing with other colours,  and Jasper Johns’ Map (1961) gives it a little bit of vibrancy across the front of the site.

On the sidebar to the right I’ve added widgets for my Twitter account, content tags, a search function, blog themes and recent posts. Again, I might play around with these but for now I think there’s a good selection that allow you to sift through the site’s content.

Hope you like it.

A Possible Driving Future? Assisted Parking Lots, Active Floor Footage Databases and Agency.

The week before last was the International Cartography Conference in Dresden, Germany. I participated in a pre-conference workshop ‘Maps and Games’ where alongside Manchester PhD student Clancy Wilmott I tentatively put forward an idea for an island-based exploration game designed for undergraduate Geography students.

I also presented a joint paper in the full conference with Utrecht PhD student Alex Gekker. This was in the ‘Playing with Maps’ session on the Monday morning and centered on the implications of a social navigation application called Waze (the paper is downloadable here) for maps, mapping practices, driving and the nature of play in a technologically-saturated world.

One of the keynotes that resonated more so than any other – ESRI’s Jack Dangermond gave a regurgitated, run-of-the-mill view of the future of mapping, for instance – was given early on the Friday, admittedly as the conference was drawing to a close and the majority of attendees had left. But despite this graveyard slot, Martin Haueis of German automobile corporation Daimler AG (owner of Mercedes-Benz), gave the most illuminating speech of the week. I was initially drawn to it based on the advertised title ‘Digital Maps for Highly Automated Driving’, and its relevance to my own work alongside Alex on the interface between mapping, technology and driving.

Haueis’ talk spoke to the technological difficulties lying ahead for automobile companies as they seek to develop automated systems for new vehicles. Two in particular were presented by Haueis alongside glossy promotional videos. The first was an Assisted Parking Lot System designed to completely automate the multi-story parking procedure from drop-off to park to pick-up. In the demonstration, users need only send and call their vehicle using, naturally, their smartphone. An algorithmic parking system does the rest. In the second example, Haueis showcased a Highway Automation System that allowed drivers to enter onto a designated highway and relinquish control to the vehicle itself. Navigation between lanes, around slower-moving vehicles as well as speeding up and down would then rest with the System itself. The latter was a kind of cruise control 2.0 for the long-distance driver. The former, an urban fix for that ever-canny problem of where and how to park in the city.








Out of these two ambitious but wholly imaginable glimpses into the future the Assisted Parking Lot System took my greater interest. I had a casual, speculative discussion on the technology with Alex later that day and got round to the nature of agency by way of a rather far-fetched example. So let me explain via the medium of a short story – a narrative perhaps routed in the speculative nature of sci-fi titles; so think J.G. Ballard. If Ballard had cared enough about automated parking systems to write about them.


THE protagonist drops their vehicle off at one of Daimler’s / NCP’s / Other Private Car Park Operator’s new, multi-story Automated Parking Lot. The charge, naturally, is even greater than other non-automated car parks. Even greater than, say – shock horror – parking by the side of the road. Convenience and speed being the enticing factors for time-conscious (and stressed out!) vehicle owners and suburban commuters. As per the now-routinized commands, drivers are expected to drive into the vehicle drop-off zone, and whilst leaving the car running close the door, exit to safety, and activate the parking of their vehicle via the recently-downloaded Assisted Parking Lot Application on their smartphone. Once the touch gesture is executed, the application secures a data connection with the Central Assisted Parking Lot Server, which in turn calls the Assisted Parking Lot Vehicle Receiver in the linked vehicle (a Mercedes-Benz, natch) setting it off on a slow but steady drive into the parking lot. Upon entry, the vehicle is directed to a parking space of appropriate size, shape and clearance for its type; equal dimension lots being a thing of the past thanks to the prevalence of these algorithmically-sorted parking systems.

This is a normal day in the city. But like any normal day in the city the software on the desktop computers, tablets, smartphones in the homes and hands of tech-savvy inhabitants, or in the IT departments of major service firms, global universities and governmental branches needs updating. As ever, such updates are routine, perhaps weekly or more frequently, and often occur in the background without users ever knowing they are now operating version 1.1.23 of their favourite online auction application. Only, they now see that yes, in fact, they can now scan and sync photographs of the latest styles spotted on strangers in the street with their favourite online auction application; making that lunch hour purchase that fractionally quicker but all the more satisfying for it!

Except, today there is an issue. The software firm responsible for managing Daimler’s / NCP’s / Other Private Car Park Operator’s latest Automated Parking Lot has been experiencing some problems. In particular, updates to its Lot Database have stalled, as well as corrections to what is known as the Active Floor Footage Database. Routinely, such updates are carried out at night when no vehicles enter nor exit the car park, and are checked either remotely or on-site by management operators early the following day. On this occasion the due-in on-site operative has called in sick, so the updates are checked rather hastily by an overworked (and underslept!) employee at the head office of the Private Car Park Operator. Except, she has overlooked a rather crucial element: the software update has failed to take into account another non-digital maintenance event taking place. Two workmen have arrived to re-surface a corner of the multi-story car park and have marked out their area with a still-ubiquitous set of maintenance objects: a set of orange, reflective, weighted traffic cones, reels of billowing ‘warning’ tape, and a miss-spelt, soggy and poorly-placed apology sign (for the inconvenience). Due to the noise of their re-surfacing equipment both operatives are ear-muffled and deaf to their surroundings, leaving others to note their existence. But due to the catalogue of small, perhaps commonly inconsequential happenings there is no one to do so. No on-site employee is overseeing the Assisted Parking Lot, and no remote operative is monitoring the automated parking. But more critically, no software update has re-calculated the number of ‘active’ and ‘open’ parking spaces in the Lot Database on this particular morning, nor re-calibrated the total ‘live’ drive-space in the Active Floor Footage Database either. As such, both workmen are exposed to the whim of the algorithm.

Death by Assisted Parking Lot System may sound like the sophomore album of a American, post-Kraftwerk electronic band, but is also the possible post-mortem of a maintenance duo coded out of, made invisible by, and ultimately sacrificed to, an urban driving innovation.”


Apologies if this story may seem alarmist! It wasn’t meant to be a luddite’s view of the future. What I was intending to show from this short narrative of the Assisted Parking Lot was actually something slightly less hyperbolic. One simple question can be posed in relation to this story: “who is responsible for the deaths of the workmen?”, presuming that the reader has been able to read between the lines in this quasi-sci-fi narrative and conclude that due to the failed software update this fateful morning, one of the vehicles entering the parking lot has recognized a different extant space than is usable (due to the workmen’s presence) and attempts to drive into the area occupied by the road re-surfacers and tragically kills them in the process. A speculative story, maybe, but one that nonetheless provokes us to think about the nature of agency, culpability and intention in a technologically-mediated world. In this narrative I have attempted to bring into sight a ‘possible future’. A proposed worse case scenario should such technology become commonplace.

So who is responsible for the deaths of the workmen? The Private Car Park Operators? The on-site employee for his absence? The remote worker for his incomplete software update checks? The vehicle owner, perhaps somewhat vicariously, for their complicity in buying into the latest driving experience? The software coder for an incomplete and ‘buggy’ update? The software itself? The vehicle manufacturer for failing to build-in a more comprehensive safety mechanism for such instances? The driving standards agency for failing to address the potential risks of automated parking systems? Or the workmen themselves for their inadequate site assessments?

How we proceed in understanding such assemblages is dependent on a new set of methods to interrogate life itself. How can we begin to piece together the intertwining bodies and technologies present in such an event? Especially when it potentially concerns the death of a human being or beings. In some senses we already rely on these kinds of mechanisms The classic example being of the modern airport; a code-space reliant upon the intertwining of code and coded objects for bodies (human/non-human) to move seamlessly. But with the modern airport being understood as coded, securitized and routine, what becomes a profitable theoretical avenue? One interrogating the hefty baggage (pardon the pun) of the airport? Or one challenging a new – as yet unsecured – technological assemblage? Unless there is a significant rupture to unsettle the first – in the way 9/11 did –  I’d suggest interrogating the second. At this point it becomes even more critical to invest time and energy into understanding a world where the interaction between human and digital object is becoming deeply naturalized.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you have may guessed I’ve spent the last week or so reading on agency and causality. But in light of last week’s presentation by Martin Haueis I thought it worthwhile to develop an hypothetical but still practically possible narrative to open up a debate surrounding new driving technologies, spatial practices, mapping and agency.

Designs on Signs / Myth and Meaning in Maps (1986)

“Never mind drought, Autumn, and acid rain, and never mind the cubic miles of eroded silt that choke our rivers. In the map, our forests glow with the robust verdure of a perpetual Spring afternoon and even the Mississippi shines with a pristine Caribbean blue.”

A great quote I had to share from Denis Wood and John Fels’ ‘Designs on Signs / Myths and Meaning in Maps’ in Cartographica from way back in 1986. You haven’t read about maps if you haven’t read Denis’ work. This is a typically engrossing article that begins with a look at the ‘North Carolina Official Highway Map / 1978-79’ and ends with a discussion of the ‘intrasignificant’ codes of maps (iconic, linguistic, tectonic, temporal, presentational) as well as ‘sign functions’ (the relationships maps’ create). You might have guessed from the terminology (icons, codes, signs etc.) as well as the title (‘myth and meaning’), that it is heavily indebted to Roland Barthes.  You can download the paper from Wood’s website here.

A recent reflective piece by Wood and Fels on that paper was printed in the Martin Dodge edited book Classics in Cartography (2011). Again, you can download it from Wood’s homepage here.

Marres and Participatory Relevance

As an addition to this post Marres has a new ahead-of-print article in Social Studies of Science building on her concept of ‘experimental political ontology’. It is available (subs. only) here.

This last week I have delved into two books. First up was John Law’s (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, second was Noortje Marres’s recent title Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics (2013). Both authors I’m relatively familiar with already and I’ve been dipping into Material Participation on and off for a while but have reserved a complete read of it until now. Law’s I read across two sittings without having touched it previously. What is perhaps obvious from scanning each title is both books have different objectives. Nonetheless there are similar aims in both; to re-define a concept. Put somewhat pithily, Law wants to open a dialogue on the concept of method, although it is far from a traditional methods textbook. Marres on the other hand, wants to start a discussion on the material nature of political participation. Both come from an STS background. Law has worked with the likes of Annemarie Mol and Michel Callon, whilst Marres was a student of Bruno Latour so their respective titles can be said to overlap if academic association is our only multiplier of interest.

The aim of this post is actually to tease out some of the greater passages of Marres’ book and place them in relation to my own work. Law’s will be positioned as an ambitious attempt to reconstruct the nature of method in the social sciences that tallies and overlaps with Marres’ desire to re-mould the nature of political participation. For my own work, the former affects how I can handle the latter.

Because I want to keep this relatively sweet I’m actually going to restrict myself to a discussion of Marre’s final chapter (‘Re-distributing Problems of Participation’) rather than wade through every single one. It is in this section that Marres expands on her notion of ‘device-centred’ political participation and engages with some cartographic metaphors employed by sociologist Alfred Schutz back in the 1960s. Whilst the first, perhaps needless to say, is a driving force of Material Participation, the second is a more cursory point to introduce a discussion of relationalism which I think can be fed back into digital mapping theory.


When Marres talks of ‘devices’ she means tools, technological apparatus’, gadgets and nothing else. Devices like energy calculators, monitors and everyday interfaces. The type touted by utility companies to calculate water, gas and electricity prices ‘more accurately’, or for consumers to reduce energy consumption and cost or for educators to involve young people in environmental narratives of social responsibility. What Marres wants to use Schutz for is to ‘call[…] into question the wisdom of assuming a fixed geometry of [political] relevance’ (143). He borrowed the term ‘isohypse’ from cartography to further this notion of relevance. Schutz’s use of the term was designed to draw attention to lines of equal significance, contours of interest, or isohypses of political relevance. Marres’ greater point of reference is the notion of the ‘community of the affected’ as she discussed in chapter 2 – that swirling abstract mass of people in some way embroiled in a matter or issue. The world of GIS and digital mapping hasn’t escaped (in fact, readily embraced) the more instrumentalist appropriations of the phrase in the way of cost-benefit analyses of planning decisions and wind-farm construction, for example. Marres’ cases also readily spin on environmental narratives.

In both her talk of devices and political relevance, however, Marres wants to foreground immanence and emergence rather than background and projection. Everyday devices allow a material form of participation to bubble up. Schutz’s cartographic metaphors point to a kind of ‘topological’ political community built not on typological categorization but on agential capacity. Both deny that only strict geometric arenas for participation can exist (parliament, judicial inquiry, courtroom). Both understand the rabid nature of political formation and de-formation.

Marres’ debate in Material Participation has particular implications for how we can think through digital mapping practices. If we take this double assault (device-politics and topological politics) into the world of digital mapping we can say two things. Firstly, that digital maps as deployed on devices can be political in their use (and not simply in their institutional origin) and secondly, that digital maps operate on the basis of relevance or theme rather than geometric distance per se. Far more actors can be brought into the arena if we follow these two methodological pillars. This is why Law’s After Method teams up nicely with Material Participation. Both are attempts to reconstitute the nature of a concept (method and politics) and shift its boundaries – shift the debate. Both prove useful if we want to (perhaps ambitiously!) re-conceive the practice of digital mapping. Use of a digital map can problematize political action irregardless of whether it is a military map of enemy territory, an automobile sat-nav for everyday commuting, or a mobile urban zombie game. These ‘heterogeneous assemblies’ as Callon and others have called them, implicate humans in everyday politics, the kinds of isohypses of relevance that Marres seeks to tease out in Material Participation.