Renewing the City

—Digital Networks and the Renewal of Public Space



Scott McQuire




In 1967 Henri Lefebvre published his important essay Le Droit de Ville (‘The Right to the City’, in Lefevbre, Writings, 147-59)­. It was the centenary of the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital, and Lefebvre explicitly situates his tract in this lineage. In ‘The Right to the City’, Lefebvre announces what was becoming a familiar theme in the 1960s—the death of the city. However, this was not merely a lament. He is not interested in trying to save the local neighborhood in the manner of Jane Jacobs (Death), nor in returning to a ‘human scale’ in the manner of Lewis Mumford (City). Rather, he is concerned with the impact of industrialization on the traditional city, and the consequent need for the reinvention of the urban—something which he distinguishes from the city. If the city takes different historical forms, including those which pre-existed industrialization, the urban is something that Lefebvre defines in a manner akin to sociologists such as Georg Simmel (‘Metropolis’) and Louis Wirth (‘Urbanism’)—as a ‘way of life’. The urban, for Lefebvre, is characterized by social complexity, simultaneity, and encounter with difference. Lefebvre’s underlying argument is that industrialization has created a double dynamic of implosion-explosion. The evisceration of the city centre that accelerated following the Second World War has proceeded in tandem with unprecedented expansion of urban boundaries that is still occurring. As the shape and scale of the city mutates, so does the urban way of life.


Lefebvre’s essay has been revisited and taken up anew over the last 10 years (see Mitchell, Right; and Harvey, ‘Right’). What I want to do here is consider three key elements of Lefebvre’s analysis, in order to consider the resources his essay offers for thinking about the right to the city—something David Harvey describes as one of our most precious and yet most neglected rights (‘Right’, 23)—in the context of pervasive digital networks.


First, in response to the implosion-explosion dynamic, Lefebvre insists on the need to reinvent ‘centrality’. In this insistence, he is not suggesting a return to an older urban form, even though the medieval city remains an important touchstone for him (see Lefebvre, Production). What he’s interested in is how we might reinvent the social conditions for the experience of simultaneity, understood in terms of the co-existence of heterogeneous activities and the encounter with difference, as key characteristics of the urban.


Second, Lefebvre argues strongly for the need for some kind of synthesis in thinking about the urban. This is not about establishing a neat totalization, which would amount to the kind of false synthesis he ascribes to technocratic urban planning and neat disciplinary separation and specialization. Rather, it demands recognition that ‘the urban’ has to be thought as the unruly nexus of a multiplicity of forces. In this regard, Lefevbre moves close to the concept of ‘unitary urbanism’ articulated by the Situationist International (Constant, ‘Unitary’). Synthesis becomes a political problem in a broad sense. In Lefebvre’s formulation, it cannot be purely theoretical but demands praxis, and the methodology of transduction, which he describes as ‘an incessant feedback between the conceptual framework used and empirical observations’ (Lefebvre, Writings, 151).


Third, and finally, Lefebvre asks us to consider: who can perform the synthesis? Who can claim the right to the city? This is something I’ll return to later.


Lefebvre’s right to the city is not a formal rights agenda. Rather, it relates to the capacity of inhabitants to ‘appropriate’ the time and space of the city, to live as inhabitants rather than to merely occupy the city as habitat. In this sense, it has something of the tenor of Hannah Arendt’s famous concept of vita activa (see Human)—of properly human life as elaborated primarily in public activity. ‘Appropriation’ as a mode of action is manifest, but also at stake, in the politics of everyday life that Lefevbre did so much to put on the urban agenda.


Renewed interest in Lefebvre’s concept of ‘the right to the city’ has been partly sparked in the US by new controls on urban practices (described in Neil Smith’s concept of the revanchist city; see New Urban) that have intensified in the post-9/11 environment. It has also been sparked by the global wave of urban redevelopment projects that have sought to rejuvenate older central city locales with mixed results (Harvey, ‘Right’). Where I want to steer the debate is towards the context of the contemporary networked city. In other words, how do digital networks intersect and reconfigure the urban dynamics that Lefebvre identified—implosion-explosion, centrality, and citizen-based appropriation of urban time-space?



Ambivalence of the Digital Milieu

What is arguably most striking about contemporary analyses of the digital is the divergence of responses engendered. On the one hand, the digital is positioned as the harbinger of new forms of ‘freedom’, including but not limited to the new forms of content-creation, communication and collaboration enabled by peer-based practices that provide the conditions for what Saskia Sassen has described as ‘open source urbanism’ (‘Open’). On the other hand, the digital is positioned as instituting a new mode of what Gilles Deleuze, in one of his more pessimistic moments, described as ‘control society’ (‘Postscript’). Rather than argue for one over the other, the real challenge is to think both those trajectories as co closely articulated.


One of the more thoughtful elaborations of this tension can be found in the recent writings of Bernard Stiegler. Stiegler begins from Gilbert Simondon’s contention that all human societies exist in relation to a technical system. This relation is not one of cause-effect but of complex and dynamic co-constitution. As Stiegler (2011: 166-7) describes it:


That system is not static but traversed by evolutionary tendencies which may induce changes in the technical system. This in turn necessitates adjustments with other systems constituting society. The process of ‘adjustment’ ‘constitutes a suspension and a re-elaboration of the socio-ethnic programmes which form the unity of the social body. (Decadence, 166-7)


The technical system of the digital is just such an historic ‘suspension’. It involves not just the modification of particular industries such as banking and finance or media, but the transformation of the scales, geographies and temporalities of knowledge, production, and of communication in general. From this perspective, Stiegler associates the digital with the historical reconstitution of industrial capitalism into what he calls hyper-industrialization. What is critical here is not only the convergence of previously distinct operations or media sectors such as interpersonal communication and various program or content industries, but their integration with logistical, finance and marketing systems. Hyper-industrialization is characterized by the profound synchronization of production, consumption and marketing. As Stiegler puts it, the contemporary milieu is characterised by the direct articulation of various communication and content platforms ‘with logistical and production systems (barcodes and credit cards enabling the tracing of products and consumers), all of which constitutes the hyper-industrial epoch strictly speaking, dominated by the categorization of hyper-segmented “targets” (“surgically” precise marketing organizing consumption) and by functioning in real time (production), through lean production [flux tendus] and just in time (logistics)’ (Decadence, 5).


Here Stiegler’s analysis is consistent with the logic of Deleuze’s vision of control society, mapping its extension across contemporary logistics, modes of cultural production and subjectivity, and business models. Where his analysis becomes more interesting is the way that he positions the digital, in the manner of Derrida’s reading of the pharmakon, as both poison and remedy—as symptom of the current crisis but also the necessary way through it. This reading of the digital as ambivalent rather than as the unambiguous extension of capitalism depends on three related arguments: 


  1. While capitalism is creating systemic problems that now threaten the future of planetary life, it cannot simply be brought to an end, since it has not (yet) created the conditions for the emergence of its replacement. It’s from this perspective that Stiegler argues the present is ‘decadent’: the transformative dynamic (of which the digital as technical system is part) that could lead towards the creation of a new epoch has stalled. If capitalism were simply to end now, assuming this were possible, the most likely result would be increased barbarism and war with catastrophic impact on the poorest.


  2. Inasmuch as the digital generates a technical suspension, it offers a strategic opportunity to ‘jumpstart’ a broader transformation. If Stiegler’s understanding of technical suspension is close to what economists call ‘disruptive technology’, he goes well beyond such analyses in his insistence that the digital has to be accompanied by a second suspension, a process of socio-political transformation. It is this double process that might allow the constitution of a new epoch properly speaking.


  3. Finally, for Stiegler a key issue in constituting a new epoch is the capacity to extend forms of solidarity beyond the national forms that dominated the industrial era. It is only by imagining and establishing supranational forms of communication and cooperation that we can begin to develop meaningful action around a range of issues, such as climate change, resource depletion and systemic inequality, that have planetary reach. 


Of course, Stiegler is not alone in identifying large-scale and systemic challenges in the present. What I’m interested in here is his positioning of digital networks as both problem and solution, underlining the extent to which the digital is currently the site of intense contradiction and struggle.



Mediating the City

In her pioneering work on global cities, Saskia Sassen (Global) challenges an all-too-common paradigm, in which ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ space are opposed, as if digital networks inhabit an alternative universe. Insisting that globalization has a specific geography led Sassen to better conceptualise the complex imbrication of the digital and the non-digital (see Territory). If digital networks are irreducibly material and embedded in particular cities and sites they also lend a new ‘liquidity’ to otherwise fixed and solid assets such as land. As I have argued elsewhere (Media), the digital milieu enables the maturation of the media city, in which the social experience of urban space is co-constituted by a media-architecture complex defined by the intersection of media platforms, specific urban terrains and embodied human actors.


Recent developments in digital media underline the growing importance of this nexus of media and place. I want to highlight three trajectories that indicate the transformation of media into geomedia:


  • pervasiveness: the shift from relatively fixed sites of access and consumption to the ‘anywhere’ of embedded and mobile media.

  • location-based: the routine inclusion of GPS data has created a network of location-aware devices and place-sensitive applications as everyday infrastructure.

  • real time: media not only allow new forms of ‘live’ presence, but are no longer primarily ‘representational’. Instead of re-presentation, with all the connotations of belatedness in relation to events, media are now integral to events as they unfold. If this could be said to have been the case since the advent of electronic broadcasting (especially live television), the key difference now is the way the distributed architecture of digital networks opens the potential for ‘real-time’ feedback from many to many.


Geomedia depends on low transaction costs and wide peer-based distribution to support new modes of communication and collaboration. As Mitchell argues: ‘in cities today, electronically propagated narratives flow constantly and increasingly densely. These narratives—superimposed, as they are, on real space in real time—act as feedback loops recursively transforming the very situations that produce them’ (Right, 107). But increasingly these modes of communication are implicated in the wholesale capture of a wide range of previously unregistered dimensions of social life—individual opinions, feelings, actions, appearances, movements. Privately owned social media platforms leverage this collective production, under the meme of ‘sharing’, by turning these singularities into profiles that can be on-sold to advertisers.


This, to me, seems to be the dilemma we face in the present. What kind of media city—smart city, sentient city, networked city—will we inhabit in the future? How can digital infrastructure foster and strengthen the complex forms of cooperation that those Sennett (Together) posits as necessary to urban life in 21st century? How can it help to address the sort of structural imbalances that Stiegler sees having accrued over two centuries of industrialization? Can it foster new forms of transnational communication and solidarity? Or will the networking of the city just become a new dimension of what Lefebvre calls habitat—a techno-habitat, which leaves the epoch, in Stiegler’s sense, stalled, because we have failed to seize the moment to rethink citizenship outside the bounds of the nation-state, or have forgotten what it means to be a citizen outside the narrow parameters of individual consumption?


Of course, it is too simple to reduce the issue to a contest between two neatly opposed forces, or to suggest that it is a process subject to the will of individual choices. The ambivalence of the digital lies precisely in the way that very different outcomes can and do emerge around what are notionally the ‘same’ technologies mobilized by different actors in different contexts. This situation underlines the critical importance of addressing the process of mediation, in the active sense given it by Deleuze (‘Mediators’, 125-34), and taken up in Actor-Network theory and elsewhere. Mediation in this sense is not just a neutral bridging exercise, but a crucial vector in the production of social meaning; a space in which knowledge and social values are produced rather than simply transmitted. In the context of the extension of digital networks into urban space, mediation is less about the process of turning events into media (according to a logic of representation) than about the way that the digital as a new technical system is articulated with other systems or programs which translate technical capacity into social and political outcomes in particular conjunctures. This means that thinking about the future of urban public space now has to include dimensions such as network interfaces and software design alongside more traditional elements such as architecture and urban design, policy settings and institutional frameworks. It also has to include the complex, ephemeral and often informal interactions of people engaged in the process of appropriating urban space—practices that themselves are increasingly articulated with digital media and form part of the contestation and reinvention of cultural protocols surrounding the digital that Sassen dubs ‘cultures of use’ (Territory, 347-8). As digital networks become integral to how we navigate the city, how we organize individually and collectively, and how we communicate with friends and strangers both proximate and far away it is worth recalling that Lefebvre insisted the city was itself a mediation. It is the complex materiality of the city as a site of praxis that places a critical limit on the capacity of technocratic capitalism to reduce it to a purely abstract space.



City as Site/Stake

If what I’ve called the media city is a new type of city emerging partly from the implosion-explosion dynamic that Lefebvre associates with industrialization-urbanization, but also from the extension of digital networks that Stiegler associates with hyper-industrialization, it is a milieu that clearly alters the conditions in which the urban—as centrality, simultaneity and encounter—can be constituted. In other words, the advent of the media city alters the way in which the right to the city can be claimed and exercised.


A key lesson from Richard Sennett’s seminal book The Fall of Public Man (1978) is his demonstration of the historical mutability of public life, and his insistence that public sociability is not natural but learned. Civility, as the modern replacement for feudal bonds built around obligation and deference, is a complex social relation that needs to be actively experimented with, learned, practiced, and nurtured. It’s a theme Sennett returns to in his most recent book Together (2012), where he argues that the sort of complex societies engendered in contemporary cities characterized by high degrees of diversity and mobility require novel forms of social cooperation: ‘a demanding and difficult kind of cooperation [that] tries to join people who have separate or conflicting interests, who do not feel good about each other, who are unequal, or who simply do not understand each other’ (6).


If, as Simmel established a century ago, the existential quandary of the modern city is how to sustain a social relation among strangers, Sennett reposes this in the present as the challenge ‘to respond to others on their own terms’ (ibid.). A critical element of Sennett’s argument­—and one that brings the issue of public space to the fore—is that responding to this challenge is not just a question of ethical attitude, but is something that requires social skill. For Sennett, like Lefebvre, skill ‘emerges from practical activity’ (ibid.). In other words, it is through encountering others in public space that we can learn and develop the range of capacities we need to co-exist. Acting in public demands we negotiate an always unstable balance between autonomy and cooperation, between the need to assert points of difference and the desire to find common ground with others.


Urban public space has a double valence in this process. It is both a site of struggle, and a stake in the struggle. As Judith Butler (‘Bodies’) has argued, part of what we struggle for when we instigate political protest in public space is how we can manifest ‘publicness’; what the limits of the public will be, who will be included, and how exclusion will be manifest and policed. This leads us back to the question of who has the right to the city? For Lefebvre, the right to the city was ultimately rooted in the working class. Such an answer seems vexed today, not least from growing middle-class identification in developed nations, but also in the context of new transnational mobilities, including the extensive offshoring of production and service labour. These developments demand a more genuinely global consideration of class differentiation.


However, Lefebvre also offers an intriguing response to his question when he defines the ambition of the right to the city as recreating urban life as oeuvre. The urban as oeuvre is ‘closer to a work of art than to a simple material product’. Here the right to the city can be seen as an attempt to renew our understanding of civic space and the role of the citizen. As Lefebvre puts it:


For two hundred years the rights of the citizen had hardly changed from that of the right to express an opinion and to vote. However, citizenship should aim to create a different social life, a more direct democracy, and a civil society based not on an abstraction but on space and time as they are lived. (Writings, 33)


The stakes are high. Lefebvre argues that the ‘socialization of society’ cannot be realized except in terms of the urbanization of society (Writings, 124). Urbanization demands ‘the multiplication and complexification of exchanges in the widest sense of the term’ (ibid.). How we deal with digital networks will be critical to this dynamic and to the future social life of our cities. Making the fullest use of these assets won’t be simply about developing new forms of regulation – for instance, by asserting control over the explosion of personal data generated in networked public space, although this is undoubtedly important. It also demands imagining and experimenting with new positive models. The need to revitalize belief in the value of collective action in public has become increasingly precarious under decades of neo-liberal settings that tend to reduce all values to market values.


In a lecture he gave in 2003, Brian Holmes observed a certain convergence between new forms of networked protest and contemporary art. Referring to actions including rolling global protests against the WTO in the late 1990s, Holmes astutely noted:


These kinds of actions are about as far as one could imagine from a museum; yet when you approach them you can feel something distinctly artistic. They bring together the multiplicity of individual expression and the unit of collective will. That is their enigma, which sets up a circulation between singularity and solidarity, cooperation and freedom. (‘Revenge’, 350-51)


Insofar as it opens a space of doubt and ambiguity, art can be particularly productive in generating experimental models for being together in public. Artists working with digital media in public space can play important roles, not only in expanding the debate about the right to the city, but in producing new modes of appropriating public space. As Rancière makes clear, this cannot simply be about placing art in the service of politics. Rather, it is about an aesthetic modality of exploring the tension defining public space in the present. If we learn to treat the city as oeuvre, Lefebvre wonders,


could urban life recover and strengthen its capacities of integration and participation of the city, which are almost entirely lost, and which cannot be stimulated either by authoritarian means or by administrative prescription, or by the intervention of specialists? (Writings, 146)


Today, synthesis, in the open-ended sense that Lefevbre advocated as necessary to renewing urban inhabitation demands even more unruly alliances than in the past. Renewing public space in the context of global digital networks demands urgent exploration of the new modes of presence and presencing that geomedia enable as everyday experience. Today, the local is not only embodied and particular but also open and globally connected. How do we advance this sense of locality, which does not reduce mediation to the abstract global space imagined by the fiction of ‘friction-free capitalism’, but recognizes that emplacement is now produced through the intertwining of embodied and mediated interactions?


A few years ago Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid) argued that current struggles over public space are critical to the future of urban life. I would go further and argue that they are also critical to the way in which we manage to adapt and survive as a planetary species—or fail to do so. At a moment in history when, for the first time, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, the urban has become a laboratory for the experience of encountering others. Renewing public space in the networked city is pivotal to developing the complex social skills—including meaningful forms of transnational communication and cooperation—needed to attempt meaningful solutions to planetary problems such as climate change and resource depletion. As Brian Holmes observes, the choice is not between regressive attempts to ‘fix’ local identity and subservience to global capitalism, but rather demands the development of new solidarities shaped by a concern for human coexistence (‘Revenge’, 357).  




Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.


Baumann, Zygmunt. Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.


Butler, Judith. ‘Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street’ [Lecture]. Transversal, 7 September 2011.


Constant. ‘Unitary Urbanism’, in Constant's New Babylon: The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, ed. Mark Wigley. Rotterdam: Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art, 1998.


Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Mediators’, trans. Martin Joughin, in Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.


Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59 (Winter, 1992): 3-7.


Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.


Harvey, David. ‘The Right to the City’. New Left Review, 53 (2008): 23-40.


Holmes, Brian. 2007. ‘The Revenge of the Concept: Artistic Exchanges, Networked Resistance’, in Art and Social Change, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche. London: Tate Gallery/Afterall, 2007, pp. 350-68


Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991.


Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on Cities, trans. and ed. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996.


Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects. London: Secker and Warburg, 1961.


Mitchell, Don. The Right To The City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Publications, 2003.


McQuire, Scott. The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. London: Theory Culture and Society/Sage, 2008.


Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.


Sassen, Saskia. Territory, Authority, Rights. From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.


Sassen, Saskia. ‘Open Source Urbanism’, Domus (2011): n.p.


Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.


Sennett, Richard. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures And Politics Of Cooperation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.


Simmel, Georg. ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’, in Simmel on Culture, ed. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone. London: Sage., 1997, pp. 174-85.


Smith, Neil. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.


Stiegler, Bernard. The Decadence Of The Industrial Democracies: Disbelief And Discredit, trans. Daniel Ross and Suzanne Arnold. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.


Wirth, Louis. ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’, in Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, ed. Philip Kasinitz. London: Macmillan, 1995, pp.58-82.





Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

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