Lev Manovich on “The Poetics of Augmented Space”

I’ve recently been auditing a course with Jason Farman on “Space, Place, and Identity in the Digital Age” and he assigned a piece that was so profoundly relevant to this blog that I had to post about it immediately.

Lev Manovich’s 2006 article “The poetics of augmented space” published in Visual Communication (which he had apparently been working on since 2002) is the earliest that I am aware of anyone using the term “augmented reality” in the broader sociological context of social interaction that flows between digital and physical (as opposed to the more limited computer science definition that describes it as merely the overlaying of digital information on the physical environment).

Manovich used the concept in much the same way we have developed it here on the blog. Arguably, augmented reality has been the defining topic of conversation. Here are a few sample posts:

The Hole in Our Thinking about Augmented Reality” by Whitney Erin Boesel (this has the best summary of the discussion)

Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality” by Nathan Jurgenson (this is the most cited and most important because it coined “digital dualism as the opposite of augmented reality)

Virtual, Mediated, and Augmented Reality” by PJ Rey

Breaking Bread, Breaking Digital Dualism” by Zeynep Tufekci (on her own blog)

Towards theorizing an augmented reality” by Nathan Jugenson (written prior to the start of Cyborgology)

Defending and Clarifying the Term Augmented Reality” by Nathan Jugenson

Cyborgs and the Augmented Reality they Inhabit” by PJ Rey

Augmented Reality: Cyborgology” by Bruce Sterling (for Wired)

Facebook – Homepage for a Cyborg Planet” by Nathan Jurgenson & PJ Rey (the Cyborgology Blog’s kickoff post)

As far as I can tell, none of us were aware of Manovich’s article. So, I’ll summarize his main theoretical points. He’s engaging in a phenomenology of augmented reality and, thus, exploring how we experience it. Seeing the implosion of physical and digital, Manovich asks:

do we end up with a new experience in which the spatial and information layers are equally important? In this case, do these layers add up to a single phenomenological gestalt or are they processed as separate layers?

Basically, do we experience the social world as singular or as a duality? Manovich makes an important observation–one that we may have been too quick to gloss over in our previous work: Augmentation always occurs in space, and space isn’t uniform. We experience augmentation differently under different circumstances: “we may add new information to our experience – or we may add an altogether different experience.” (I think he is missing something here, but more on that later).

For this reason, Manovich focuses less on “augmented reality” and more on “augmented space,” which he describes as

overlaying the physical space with the dynamic data. I will use the term ‘augmented space’ to refer to this new kind of physical space. As I have already mentioned, this overlaying is often made possible by the tracking and monitoring of users. In other words, the delivery of information to users in space and the extraction of information about those users are closely connected. Thus, augmented space is also monitored space.

Like Foucault, Manovich sees space as inseparable from power, thus he sees augmentation as inseparable from power. Going on and off of the “grid” of augmented space means moving in and out of zones of surveillance and control.

This is where I find Manovich’s framework to be flawed: Manovich sees augmented reality as something external to us–as something we just sort of stumble into. For Manovich, the subject is prior to augmented reality. In Haraway’s language, Manovich sees us as goddesses, not cyborgs. We are not of augmented reality, it is just a space we enter. This is all wrong. My Facebook profile doesn’t disappear when I go off the grid. It waits patiently for my return. The way I conceive of and interact with the world is shaped by the existence of Facebook and the entire environment of digital documentation and digitally-mediated communication, regardless of whether I am on the grid at a given moment. As Pierre Bordieu might say, I have developed a pattern of habits, behaviors, and beliefs (a habitus) that are appropriate to augmented reality. Whether or not my environment is inconsistent, my cyborg subjectivity stays intact throughout.

Manovich is too wedded Foucault, who saw disciplinary power confined to institutions–to the “carceral archipelago” and it’s “theaters of punishment.” Yet, we know that even when we leave school, work, or prison, these institutions leave an indelible mark upon us (why else would we need re-integration programs for prisoners?). We internalize these institutions–the contours of their spaces–and carry them with us. As Nathan Jurgenson put it, we come to view the world through “the Facebook eye.”

Moreover, the Panopticon is no longer the proper metaphor for surveillance. One does not simply escape augmented reality by going off the grid, because everyone else we meet will still be carrying the Facebook eye with them. Our interactions will always be viewed as potential future posts for Facebook no matter the space. Being out of cell range does not make us forget social media exists nor does it make us forget our previous interactions with it. Surveillance is not top-down; it is between the many. Even when we are outside the space that an institution occupies, we are still surrounded by the subjects it creates.

As I have said previously, “you can log off but you can’t opt out.”

​Follow @pjrey on Twitter.

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