locative rhetoric in geospatial networks

In the futuristic present of Spook Country, cyberspace is everting, and if anyone is qualified to know what is happening with cyberspace, perhaps it’s William Gibson. Gibson’s latest novel explores a world where the overlapping of informational and physical spaces expands into art, politics, espionage, and so on. It is a shift that is there for anyone to see, though Gibson does an excellent job of making it palpable.

  • There’s the clandestine sneaker-net of iPods serving as encrypted hard drives
  • Overlapping, unprotected wireless networks popping up each time you open your lap top
  • Links between GPS and a geo-tagged web
  • A potential virtual world overlapping the physical world, anchored to GPS coordinates.

It is typical that we think of "cyberspace" as other, as a "second life," despite the now all-too familiar declarations that we mind the materiality of technology. Indeed, we have long conceived mediated experiences as entrances into other worlds–inside the covers of a book, within a picture frame, between the rise and fall of the curtain, etc.

So what happens when that information spills out into the physical world–not only with geo tags but with RFID as well. Drive through a town’s business district and get information on each business. Go into a bookstore and read reviews of books you pick up or additional information about products in grocery stores. In Spook Country, the characters wear special headgear that allows them to see 3-d images projected into RL.

Perhaps such technologies are fanciful. We’ve all had enough of the VR headgear imagery I imagine. On the other hand, I’m interested in seeing where this interplay of the material-physical and symbolic-mediated might take us. Clearly, when one thinks back to the Greek topos or the memory palace of Roman rhetoric, one finds a close connection between these two. Go back further to the caves of Lascaux, and there’s an even stronger connection between place and writing.

Now I’m also thinking about this from the perspective of poetics. Gary Snyder’s excellent essay collection The Practice of the Wild (Amazon) gives great insight into this.

This overlapping opens a new kind of commons. Will we fill the geo-tagged web with billboards? Can we make use of this space to create new communities, new networks? A new appreciation for the natural world and/or the people around us? Gibson’s book suggests the possibilities for artistic expression and political action. However it also points to the dangers of surveillance and commercialism.

Again, there is a need for a new kind of rhetoric, I think.

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