MidweSTS 2016 || City-crafting for a Disaggregated Workforce: Defining Development in Terms of Access

by ibull


Introduction: Mediating the Emergence of the Future

For decades, researchers across different disciplines have studied the relationships between infrastructure, geography, and networking technologies, working to articulate moments of  rupture, revolution, and disruption—moments of instability for traditional material and symbolic regimes of power. For scholars like Henri Lefebvre, the practical implications of this research directly related to radical improvements in knowledge and pedagogy around the production and maintenance of social spatial practices that characterize urban life (cf. 1991). Networking technologies inevitably became a focus in contemporary studies of modernity because they allowed for the emergence of societies without conceivable centers, which has had a profound effect on human imagination of how ‘infrastructure’ emerges from the perceived landscape (cf. Katie King, 2012; Scott McQuire, 2008; Manuel Castells, 2004; Arjun Appadurai, 1996).

My overarching framework draws from Latour’s actor network theory and infrastructure studies, which allows for scholars like me to attenuate to the ways in which “time, ideologies, and discourses of modernism have helped define the purposes, goals, and characteristics of those infrastructures [that provide the foundation of modern social worlds]” (Edwards, 2003, pp. 191). An inherent optimism emerges from the situation between actants, as they both play a role in mutually recognizing and feeding back information to the other—of shaping the other. For scholars like Nick Couldry and Anne McCarthy, Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Arjun Appadurai, and many others, the recognition of this co-productive experience is uniquely mediated in networked societies by electronic media technologies.

If there is an agreeable disambiguation between electronic media technologies and analogue media technologies, it is perhaps in the way objects uniquely engender the organizational principles of network design. Networks are flexible, scalable, and resilient (cf. Castells, 2004); to the degree electronic media technologies are capable of expressing those qualities, material objects themselves must be understood as inherently, interdependently connected to other networks. We might readily recognize the character of an Apple iPod or WiFi router in these terms, but why? What makes them flexible, scalable, and resilient doesn’t just relate to the materials with which they are made; what makes them flexible, scalable, and resilient as technologies is related to the ways in which they are ideologically and materially mass marketed, mass produced, and globally distributed. Parks and Starosielski situate the ideological and material aspects of technologies in analyses of media infrastructures, “situated sociotechnical systems that are designed and configured to support the distribution of audiovisual signal traffic” (2015, pp. 5). By foregrounding analysis in processes of distribution, they argue, their work can materialize regimes of power that are otherwise ignored or unseen in studies of production and consumption, encoding and decoding, and textual interpretation (Ibid). Most rewarding about this approach is the way a focus on distribution practices alters visions of empowerment, liberation, and disruption in social spatial practices. If traditional approaches to studying media technologies, design, and urban environments have tended towards the framing of social problems in terms that technology can or cannot ‘solve,’ the outcome has not been a better understanding of the complex relationships between humans, nonhumans, space, and technology. Rather, as Kentaro Toyama has observed, various epistemic communities have threatened to debate ad nauseum over (1) whether or not ‘throwing gadgets at social problems’ improves the human condition, or (2) whether or not technologies can be instrumentalized at all (cf. 2015). Regardless of whether or not debaters might be right about the challenges that characterize information technology development projects (what are sometimes referred to as ITC4D), there is still a persistent demand for guidance on how people in various positions of power should act on their obligations to innovate and maintain sociospatial conditions that underwrite the emergence of everyday urban society because not everyone is equally tasked with the responsibility of mediating that experience for others.


Sites of urban development discourse ultimately evidence the outcomes of these impetuses; although, it is not yet common amongst media infrastructure scholars to politically interrogate how urban development projects are designed to manufacture and maintain certain distribution channels in lieu of others. Nor has there yet been a critical effort put into understanding the production culture practices that uniquely inform the rationalism that guides politicians and city planners to make decisions about how best to serve their communities. In particular I’m interested in the production cultural practices that underwrite this notion that you can measure cities in terms of “job creation, wage gains, and technology trends”—whatever those things are.

A notable exception to this observation is the work of Laura Forlano, whose studies of municipal wireless networks usefully demonstrated the problems of framing the politics of wireless access infrastructures in terms of ‘anywhere, anytime’ marketing discourse (cf. Forlano, 2008a). In many respects, this essay compliments Forlano’s research on wireless networking technologies and disaggregated, mobile workers (cf. 2008a, 2008b, 2013). Where Forlano provides general frameworks from which to think about these sociospatial relationships, I work to explore the ways in which the specificities of place and social context feed into urban development practices. In this way, my study attenuates to the complex, dynamic, and relational aspects of studying scale, a concept for me that negotiates aspects of what Lefebvre referred to as a ‘gap’ between representation and materialism—a gap where scholars traditionally commit a violence upon the complexities of real life (cf. 1991).


My work and residence lies in Bloomington, Indiana, a modestly progressive, Midwestern University city. I moved here two years ago to pursue a doctoral degree at Indiana University, and I have been part of the Maple Heights Neighborhood Association during that time. I was only recently added to the association’s busy Facebook group, however, and so my attention to changes related to the city was only recently dramatized. In some ways, I’m between two subject positions; as a scholar and an artist, I can perceive the landscape in terms of where I have Internet access and where I do not. As a neighborhood association member (and as someone who wants to maintain friendly relationships with my neighbors), I can also perceive the landscape in terms of fragmented, socio-demographic topologies. There are ‘good’ neighborhoods and there are ‘bad’ neighborhoods. There are apartment complexes known for meth consumption, and others characterized as ‘student’ housing. There are economically and racially segregated neighborhoods. There are residential city blocks highly distinguished by social prestige. To the extent that these topologies are stable or fixed requires some attention to the ways in which they are designed and co-produced by different, ‘uncoordinated’ organizations (e.g., local government, state government, neighborhood associations, businesses, non-profit organizations, families, etc.)—organizations that become ‘coordinated’ following the emergence of aggregated bodies over time. …


In 2013, the Bloomington (Indiana) City Council—in collaboration with local organizations such as Indiana University, the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation, and the Small Business Development Center—published a redevelopment plan for the building of a Certified Technology Park in the northern quadrant of the downtown area. Tech parks, much like ‘science parks’ and ‘corporate villages,’ are a kind of networking technology. Existing first as a means of standardizing urban design and development projects for knowledge-economy focused businesses, and second as a tool to attract foreign investment, tech parks serve as a aggregation and distribution mechanism for both business and urban developers. In theory, tech parks aggregate human resources and economic investment, and tech parks distribute information and resources to tech park members, and we can see this theory play out in the way urban developers conceptualize the park in the 2013 ‘Master Plan’ report that outlines the project. The Master Plan makes explicit the City’s desire to convert that land into a concentrated collection of ‘advanced,’ ‘environmentally friendly,’ and attractive buildings and warehouses. If the City is successful in their redevelopment efforts, the State of Indiana will reward up to $5 million in local recapture of state and local tax revenue, and potentially upwards of $4 million in grant funding for use within the tech park itself. These mutual investments in the development of a Tech Park represent what the Environmental Protection Agency have dubbed ‘smart growth’ in urban environments, a phenomenon documented by Knapp and Talen (cf. 2005). ‘Smart growth’ has competing and contradictory definitions, they contend, but it is generally recognizable as a contemporary discourse that villainizes urban sprawl, emphasizes multi-stakeholder investments, and preserves ‘environmental’ areas (Knapp and Talen, 2005, pp. 108). The ‘Master Plan’ report also reflects new urbanist ideals, around which the physical forms of urban infrastructures are seen as vital mediators in the attraction of economic investments to an area; this much is evidenced by the extensive emphasis in the report on how ‘aesthetics’ and ‘culture’ serve as ‘Design Filters’ for unifying elements of the design plan (Office of Economic and Sustainable Development, 2013, pp. 32). Both paradigmatic approaches to citycraft, although not always complimentary in their goals, highlight the idealistically instrumentalist approach urban developers in Bloomington have adopted in contemporary practices of urban planning. This report can be also be utilized as a way of understanding how, through a concerted effort to brand ideas about people, places and things, city planners attenuate modern development projects to the specificities of each city space. In essence, how they instrumentalize the city as a medium for thinking about ‘the future.’


Projects like the Bloomington Tech Park offer media scholars a way of thinking about the situated quality of traditional relationships between ideologies of urban development, brand books/’master plans,’ and enactments of ‘creativity’ and entrepreneurship. Increasingly—if it is not already the case most everywhere—tech parks and urban configurations like them play active roles in the gentrification of communities (Audirac, 2002, pp. 123). From the position of business and urban developers, the power inherent in materializing these spaces depends upon older and idealistic understandings of space in relation to humans whereby power is generated through or in the aggregation of resources. From this point of view, aggregation is a means by which to exercise certain efficiencies for particular distribution networks. However, the basis on which this principle holds true for people connected in a networked society is unclear, or worse, hopelessly ambiguous. It should be considered a priority for urban developers, then, to critically assess the bases on which they predicate their ideas about ‘development’ for local citizen populations. It should be vital to the work of critical media industry and critical media infrastructure theorists to interrogate the logic and lore that informs urban design practices. This is basically where I come in. I conceive of my work here as en exploratory case study that tries to understand how city representatives co-imagine and co-develop the ‘future of work’ in Bloomington, Indiana with burgeoning, tech-affiliated business.


One such business that I hone in on is known as Cowork, a company that has been recently asked to consider relocating to the Tech Park following its completed construction. What I survey in this essay is the extent to which both organizations depend upon the cultivation and popularization of consumer citizens. In my conclusion I argue that by tailoring their efforts to the consumer citizen, both Cowork and Bloomington’s Office of Economic and Sustainable Development fail to manage infrastructures of distribution in ways that would benefit marginalized communities.

Consumer Citizenship

At the scale of ‘citycraft,’ tech parks function discursively to aggregate money, material resources, land values, and human resources for the production of regionally-situated jobs, prestige, and power.  Should the Bloomington Tech Park come about, it will be competing locally with five other tech parks distributed throughout the state; as the report demonstrates in its market survey assessment, each tech park is uniquely situated to accommodate differently configured communities of ‘hi-tech employees’ (Office of Economic and Sustainable Development, 2013, pp. 98). In this regard, Monroe County is a distinct locale for tech park development because of its command of employee populations in industries related to software publishing, biological manufacturing, surgical instrument manufacturing, and medical equipment wholesale trade (Ibid). It must also be pointed out that Monroe County harbors a relatively large population of ‘nonemployee’ businesses—the largest, actually, of the competing Certified Tech Park markets studied (Office of Economic and Sustainable Development, 2013, pp. 100; data is based off of figures from 2010). Nonemployee businesses are essentially self-employed individuals, who might otherwise be characterized as ‘disaggregated, mobile workers,’ ‘contractors,’ ‘freelancers,’ or ‘artists’ (cf. Forlano, 2008b). Although nonemployee businesses and mobile workers have been around for decades, their perceived social and economic utility in the navigation and location of ‘local talent’ has recently captured the attention of businesses like Cowork. If you don’t know anything about coworking places, the TLDR is that they are a particularly branded experience of workplace localization and community aggregation. For businesses who are capable of sustaining a community through membership fees paid by this varied workforce, it is perhaps more pragmatic to think of this workplace population is as an unstable, complex human resource for ambiguous ends and means. For urban developers, Cowork helps represent the material needs of this ‘community of practice’ engendered by visions of the tech park, and it provides developers with access to a fraction of the community stakeholders they hope to attract to other areas of tech park. 

The more practical aspects of the ‘Master Plan’ detail how the design of the Tech Park intends to cater to the perceived needs of these populations because the Tech Park implicitly relies upon local investment in the space following its construction in order to survive. In the report’s discussion of goals for the redevelopment project, the Planning and Design Team for the Office of Economic and Sustainable Development explicitly characterize these redevelopment efforts in terms of ‘nurturing’ the existing workforce and ‘attracting’ investors, employers, and visitors (2013, pp. 9). But to be clear, the practice of ‘attracting’ is not necessarily about the accumulation of successful businesses in the downtown area. As observed by Cumming and Johan, the success of tech parks is interdependent on the productivity and profitability of its internal population; tech parks are not necessarily stable homes for businesses, as they are often assessed on the basis of ‘entrepreneurial exits’ (2013). Tech parks, to some degree, need to be spaces where people flow with some amount of regularity. It is for this reason that the relationship between a tech park and its surrounding neighborhood should be conceived of in uneven, co-productive terms because of the ways in which entrepreneurs are unable to ensure the reciprocate exchange of value in terms of sociospatial practice.

… One of the arguments I’ve had to cut out for this presentation relates to the way ‘culture’ in this report is unavoidably entangled with consumer capitalism, and so the nuance of competing or contradictory regimes of power in cultures is lost in the perceptual calculus of investment of urban developers. I argue that one of the core features of this problem is the notion that the consumption of space ultimately engenders citizenship, and that, while this is a state-sponsored institution, private companies will be managing park use.

Unlike the Monroe County Public Library, the Tech Park is not designed for improving citizen access to commodity goods and services. Instead, market forces mitigate and manage the extent to which citizens are able to exercise their citizenship in this imagined place. As J. Harriss observes, the trouble with organizations of and for the ‘consumer citizen’ is that they do not scaffold ‘empowerment’ equally; instead, such urban design practices sustain and complexify forms of disciplinary control over the urban poor, who ‘struggle over rights to housing, livelihood and protection, and their self-realisation’ (2007, pp. 2722). Without public oversight of building use, and without the co-development of social programs intended to incorporate diverse populations into sociospatial practices, it’s difficult to imagine how the investment of a tech park in the community will positively impact marginalized populations.


As Kentaro Toyama observed in his study of urban development technologies, by themselves, technologies tend to amplify existing social dynamics—not activate potential, nascent, and revolutionary social moments (cf. 2015). As much can be observed in the operative dynamics of community ‘inclusivity’ at the local coworking community. Because sociospatial practices are contingent on market force demands, the relative ‘inclusivity’ of the space is contingent on a member’s ability to pay rent. A similar dynamic exists in residential plans for the Tech Park, wherein developers have accounted for the implementation of building communities that will ‘match market demands.’ The language of ‘matching’ is a strategic means of avoiding questions of segregation and exclusivity; by couching market prices for housing in what can theoretically be matched ‘by the market,’ developers have avoided a much more pressing issue of whether or not the community should incorporate a diversity of economically situtated residents (e.g., through the provision of housing vouchers or Section 8 designations). Similarly, there do not exist countervailing forces or alternative opportunities for people to exist in the coworking community sphere independent of regular monetary contributions.

….The [neoliberal] logic and lore informing this ethos borrows heavily from techno-utopian imaginations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and as Massey et al. explore in their survey of science parks in the UK, the uncritical acceptance of these ideas on the part of politicians, urban developers, and many others is really nothing new (cf. 1992). As with many other techno-utopian and technologically deterministic ideals of technology, the marketing of place as synonymous with innovation, disruption, progress, and development are principally founded on the belief that knowledge production and creative industry practices flow from mere ‘access’ to material forms of technology. And, again, from consumerist understandings of problem-solving and design, both tech parks and coworking communities emerge from the media industries landscape as concerted, cookie-cutter packages of space as community.


Urban developers and politicians might be quick to dismiss my critique on the basis that urban development projects do not need to always prescriptively manage sociospatial practices in order to improve upon or maintain equitable access to public space. What this assumption ignores, however, are the ways in which urban development projects always appropriate and recode sociospatial practices in ways that variably interact with different infrastructures of distribution. Even in practices related to the branding of cities and urban landscapes, urban developers rely on languages and literacies that cannot be easily controlled or predicted. …As urban developers labor to sell the city—specifically, development projects in its internal districts—as a place for outside investment, there should be some recognition paid to the fact that choosing to attract certain forms of investment will invariably seed urban growth with social values that are hostile to the existence of urban poverty. Considering the multifaceted, multidimensional and contentious struggles for the urban poor in places like San Francisco—the ‘heart’ of Silicon Valley—urban developers in Bloomington should be wary of the consequences of what similar developments might mean for the future of the urban poor already here. Frequent the Monroe County Public Library, and you’ll find many of the urban poor variously engaged with each other and the space. Already ‘empowered’ with access to high-end computer hardware and software technologies, trade-skill tutorials, cameras and audio recording equipment, in addition to a healthy catalogue of videos, CDs, and books—urban developers have an opportunity to study and respond to the ways in which residents are uniquely affected by disabled access to various mental and physical health care systems, professional/adult mentoring opportunities, and basic living needs (e.g., food, shelter, hygiene)—infrastructures that demonstrably affect one’s status as a working class citizen.


This notion of disabled access is important in the context of studying distribution infrastructures because it calls attention to the ways in which people are variably included in society based on their ability to exist as consumer citizens. Disabled access, as a design feature of urban infrastructures, does not determine whether or not the poor live or use public goods and services, nor does disabling access reliably function to manage citizens as a human resource within and for the City. Disabling access typically functions as a means of diverting flows ‘elsewhere’—some imagined place where people in positions of power are legally abdicated of the responsibility of responding to the needs of others. Idealistically, this perceived ‘elsewhere’ is the consumer marketplace—a place that, by design, exacerbates the conditions of social inequality.

In navigating how utopian visions of the future might clash with the material conditions of urban poverty, I’ve explored here potential missteps in idealist imaginations of ‘future’ work in Bloomington. In the face of demand for guidance in the development of inclusive, sustainable, and innovative media infrastructures, I suggest that urban developers look to larger urban centers that have meaningfully managed urban poverty by either enabling access to distribution infrastructures, or establishing access to distribution infrastructures that didn’t used to exist. By reframing aspects of ‘development’ in terms of distribution infrastructure access to the poor, urban developers can better incorporate the costs of urban poverty already managed by the city into existing projects designed to improve urban life. Rather than relying on the transference of value through variously imagined means of consumer capitalism, urban developers should take an active role in assessing how their decisions related to development can enable existing access to distribution infrastructures that we already know impact the quality of everyday (working) life.


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