Some research notes for the conference “The Publishing Sphere – Ecosystems of Contemporary Literatures” that will take place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin on June 13th and 14th. Many thanks to Lionel Ruffel for inviting me!
Here are some notes by François Bon for the same event.
The main hypothesis of my theoretical research is the following: we are now living in a digital world where writing is the absolute priority. Our identity is constructed through writing (personal profiles, databases, lines of code), our actions are all based in some way on writing, from clicking a link to buying a book or planning a trip, and the objects that surround us result from a writing process. Writing is thus the very material of the digital space. Yet, how can we maintain the public nature of this space? How can we prevent this space from being owned and structured by private companies?
In response to these and other questions, I have developed a theory based on the concept of editorialization.
To explain the meaning of this concept and to describe how literature contributes to the production of our public space, I propose here a case study: the Trans-Canada Highway editorialization project.
Space in the digital era
In the last several years, our way of understanding and inhabiting space has undergone important transformations. The appearance in our daily lives of immersive cartographic tools, combined with photographic or satellite imagery, guarantees us (in appearance at least) a greater mastery over the world than ever before. On the one hand, a generalization of the geolocation process gives us the illusion that it has become impossible to get lost, while, on the other hand, the same process entails extremes of surveillance and control over individual lives. In this context, the influence of digital tools (Google tools in particular, including Street View, Google Maps, etc.) on both the space and our way of living within it has become a major point of reflection on the digital world. As has been discussed (Morozov, 2013), we run the risk of remaining passive before these new tools and of being subjected to a spatial reorganization imposed upon us. How can we avoid this dangerous situation? Is it possible, in the digital age, to remain primary protagonists in producing the space within which we live? To answer these questions, the Canada Research Chair for Digital Textualities, headed by myself, undertook in 2016 an action-research project focused on the space that is the Trans-Canada Highway. This mythic road that crosses Canada from one ocean to another has indeed inspired a wide range of media productions, including images, videos, maps, historical texts, digital data, and literary works. In this way, the “real” infrastructure (the road, its motels, its rest stops) mixes with literary discourse to create its own imaginary. In order to study this hybrid space, and to measure the influence exercised upon it by our digital culture and tools, our team embarked on a crossing of the Trans-Canada Highway itself. We documented this contemporary road trip in real time by producing and geolocating our travel accounts through a series of platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Tumblr, TripAdvisor, OpenStreetMap, etc.). Our objective was to show that literature participates in the editorialization of the Trans-Canada – with editorialization referring to the process through which interactions of individual and collective actions in relation to digital environments produce and structure the space in which we live.
During the second half of the 20th century, highways offered renewed possibilities for producing space and assigning meaning. The Trans-Canada – officially opened in 1962 – thus illustrates the desire to produce a crossable space, where goods and people can efficiently pass through. If our space today remains structured in part by these highways and by their implicit values, it increasingly endures new digital infrastructures, of which Google Maps is but one example among many others. On the one hand a space for speed – highways allow for efficiency and productivity according to the values of capitalism – we now also find the almost entirely controlled, managed, and visible space of Google Maps, where values of traceability and knowledge are based on “row data” and are symptomatic of Silicon Valley culture. In fact, it is not the highway infrastructure that should today be called into questioned, but rather the digital infrastructure that marks a new turn in the production of space. In the 1990s, computerized technologies and infrastructure were often discussed as if they produced a distinct space, separate from physical space. The notions of “virtual” and “virtual reality” have been cited as proof of a progressive loss of materiality in the connection with space. More recently, following technological and practical advances, researchers tend to no longer consider digital space as disconnected from an ostensibly “non-digital” space. We therefore now live in a hybrid space, one that computerized infrastructures participate in constructing and organizing. More specifically, digital space is the space of our society in the digital age, it is the space we inhabit and in which we live. Based on this definition, we propose the following: Digital space, as the sum of the relationships between objects, is the organization of our entire reality through writing.
The Editorialization of space.
The Trans-Canada was presented to us as a digital space, as it is clearly a real and hybrid architectural space, constructed by the sum of the relationships between maps (digital and non-digital), narratives (literary, historical, private, touristic…), images (photos, videos…), writings (on various platforms), the road (and its infrastructure), the individuals that travel through, the motels, and the restaurants. The main focus of our research consists in measuring the ways in which we are able to exact agency within these relationships, in order to remain architects of our own space. The concept of editorialization has therefore become the theoretical pivot of our work. Editorialization refers to the production and circulation of content in the digital environment. More specifically, it designates all the dynamics – the interactions of individual and collective actions with a particular digital environment – that produce and structure digital space. This definition is based on the hybridization invoked between digital and non-digital space. Structuring digital space therefore means structuring space in general. This is a fundamental characteristic of editorialization: it does not actually refer to the structuring of specific information, it is instead concerned with the structuring of the space that this specific thing occupies in the world. We editorialize things and not information about things. Furthermore, the editorialization of the world is more relevant than the editorialization of content. This is what we have sought to demonstrate through this project, by editorializing the Trans-Canada Highway.
The diversion of digital tools
If editorialization means structuring the space in which we live, editorialization can therefore be conceived as a spatial narrative: it creates relationships between objects. In this sense, a highway is simply a form of editorialization. The infrastructure is part of the editorialization device; it is defined as roads, urban developments, and means of transportation, as well as digital platforms. During our trip, we tested this hypothesis by trying to produce space through a series of editorialization strategies. Our project expanded on a principle of diverting digital tools, particularly those produced by the web’s large multinationals. This “resistance” to rules that are imposed by large platforms echoes what Geert Lovink calls the tactical media, or the daily practices through which we short-circuit the functioning and structure of dominant platforms that have, little by little, asserted themselves as authorities. Along our trip, we have put these devices to the test by using digital tools to write the space ourselves, in order to become agents of its organization. Our experience also involved establishing a series of dynamic reading collectives and other readings on several digital or non-digital platforms. Editorializing the Trans-Canada Highway has meant for us crossing it by car, stopping to sleep in hotels and eating in restaurants, planning our itinerary with the help of Google Maps, tweeting the progression of our trip, reading literary works about the spaces that we crossed, and producing new narratives. A glimpse of this literary cartography is currently available online.
Designing for loss of control
With regards to our trip, three elements were of particular interest: the major role played by literature in constructing the land, the capacity of digital tools to lend themselves to diversion, and, finally, the decisiveness of the web surfing community in the eventual success of the editorializational undertaking. Our web publications allowed us to gather a community of subscribers that accompanied us along our course, helping and even sometimes participating in writing it. In this way, editorialization appears like a form of what we refer to as “designing for loss of control”, meaning that it consists of setting up a device that would soon no longer be under our control. It exceeds its creators and gains autonomy; it functions on a principal of implication – other ideas, other people, other desires. We could even say that editorialization occurs from the instant it gives rise to the unexpected, when the process is assumed by others. We therefore finally asked ourselves the following question: In what way has our project allowed for external appropriation, unmanageable by those who initiated the original idea? Only others besides us can respond to this question, those that will undertake the trip after us, to do yet other things, allowing our hashtag to live on, diverted, disfigured, reinterpreted…