The Matter of ‘Virtual’ Geographies

Sam Kinsley’s ahead-of-print article entitled “The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies” (subs. required) is online at Progress in Human Geography now. Like all Progress articles are meant to be, Sam’s is a ‘state of play’-type piece built around the problematic notion of ‘the virtual’. Although he is right to note that most geographers have ceased to write explicitly about ‘cyberspace’, ‘cyber-geographies’ and the like, the spectre of the virtual still haunts much digital work in the discipline.

He proceeds in three sections, detailing the three main ‘camps’ that geographers have operated in to understand the digital, notably through:

  • The automatic production of space (Thift, Graham, Marvin etc.)
  • Spaces of calculation (Adey, Amoore, Barnes, Cowen etc.)
  • Transductions (Kitchin, Dodge, Wilson, Ash etc.)

His constructive criticism of work under the first banner is that there are (relatively) few empirical studies of how automatic productions of space do work in the world. Under the second, there have been far fewer studies of non-state actors involved in the calculative dynamics of spatial control, with an overwhelming emphasis on state actors. For the third, Kinsley simply suggests – pace Kitchin and Dodge – that continued work in geography needs to focus on the ‘increasing transductive agency of the digital in everyday life’ in order to negotiate the ‘ongoing reformulation of what it is to be human’ (p.7).

In the final chapter Kinsley suggests a future research focus that can help develop deeper thinking on the materiality of the digital. He does this through an appeal to the notion of ‘technicity’ (a term popularized by Stiegler), as well as building upon the previously introduced term ‘transduction’ (brought into geography by Kitchin and Dodge via Adrian Mackenzie). Towards the end of this section, in order to provide readers with a helping empirical hand, Kinsley then considers the ‘transduction that takes place in the sending of a text message’ (p. 12) to ground the more theoretical discussion thus far:

[R]ather than being an ‘immaterial’ process, there is a significant network of matter and energy upon which this ‘virtual’ activity is predicated. A device, usually a phone, is used to input the message. The physical functions of that device are contingent upon a wealth of highly processed materials, often with complicated origins, enmeshed into complex chemical arrangements and interdependent components. For example, a capacitative touch screen, made from glass and electrically conductive materials, uses the body’s electrical capacitance to sense the point of touch (Greenstein, 1997: 1318). This is often processed via one of many Application-Specific Integrated Circuit chip in the device, feeding data to other components that process software, which in turn changes the electrical charge within different areas of the screen (pixels) to display images. To ‘send’, the software engages the modem of the device to communicate with the network, translating data into modulated pulses in particular frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. (p. 12)

Further, that the phone network infrastructure; of transceiver towers, copper cables, exchange points, device protocols and server centres all take a central part in the sending of a simple text message. Although we might not be able to comprehend that this vast, disparate infrastructure is required for the transmission of such an everyday thing, as geographers we must be attentive to the ongoing rematerializations that take hold of our apparently ‘virtual’ worlds.

Whilst Kinsley is essentially making a very modest suggestion – “we need to pay attention to the inseparability of technology and humanity” – it is a suggestion that many have yet to take seriously at a predominantly empirical level within the field of human geography.