Keeping up with space

This post comes as a sort of consolidation of things I am trying to write up, things I am reading and things that happened to me recently. These are mostly reflections on cities and affect but also a new framework (and body of literature) I chanced upon that helped me describe how cities mean different things to different people. By extension, technology use and implementation become local and unique because of the spatial experiences, references and needs of their users. In the case of multiple “users” like passengers and drivers, tech design pays more attention to the needs and experiences of one over another.

Last summer as an intern at Xerox, I was researching Facebook groups popularly used in Bangalore and some broadly in India. I was invited to the research project because of my founding and moderating roles in Put Me in Touch (a 100k+ member Fb group) but then I was sent to observe and interview a popular moms’ group. A running thread through these groups that we struggled to articulate was the sort of, instinctive geographical limit – these groups weren’t explicitly meant for Bangalore, they were started when their founders lived in Bangalore. But me, I had soon moved on. The mom group founder was a recent migrant to Bangalore. Both of us, through our communicative, information gathering and sharing work had become peculiar experts on Bangalore things. It’s also very interesting because tensions about who really belongs to Bangalore or knows the original stuff, how newcomers discover the city on need basis – all these still regularly play out in all Bangalore anchored Facebook groups. As a side, the paper didn’t get published and it matters because personally I think we were just not able to articulate how these Facebook groups are rooted in place (via Lefebvre, Vertesi, Dourish, Harrison) but also crucial tools for mapping Bangalore as immigrants, young professionals, women, mothers away from their support networks. The trouble was, at least for one group, that it had grown way beyond Bangalore and has a significant population from other cities too. But given Facebook’s restrictive policies, it’s hard (even if you resolved ethics) to mine the information that we all collaboratively produced. In that sense it was self-reinforcing: more Bangalore members came through Bangalore friends in the group who had spent time collecting information on Bangalore. Some said it’s also because Bangaloreans have historically produced more city related resources for online consumption, in turn making the group more useful for those attuned to online spaces in India for local information.

Coming back to Bangalore – it’s been an interesting seven years in and out of the city. This summer I finally, actually lived on Vittal Mallya road, meaning I stayed where those born in old money, silver spoon types live. It’s also fading as the center of Bangalore, the recent startup boom has been shifting young night life and socializing activities to Koramangla and Indiranagar for a while. But to say that I live near U.B City (a luxury mall) automatically tells someone who you are in the city (happened on a bus ride where a gentleman couldn’t process why I needed to alight near this road because he never thought I could live there). For context and humor, I started out in Taverekere/Koramangla, went to Indiranagar, then Marathahalli and eventually Queens/Lavelle road interspersed with exits to Delhi and California. If you can read these roads as experience against the work I do, they mean solid upward mobility (albeit temporary).

A sort of favorite pastime among urban Indian types is to ask “which city do you prefer?”, most answers include two or three big cities and some small. Mine were Bangalore and Delhi. Until and especially because of last summer spent in Marathahalli, I had a bittersweet relationship with Bangalore. I lived broke as a student here, it brought the sinusitis out, the festivals never matched, it was harder to find decent north Indian food in parts and the linguistic hostility. Plus Bangalore to Gujarat is 30+ hours by train. Delhi is greener in the South, it has distinct seasons, the language, the hustling, I had full time jobs and stipends. It’s a night train away from Gujarat.

Cutting to spatiality per se, as Brewer and Dourish via Urry suggest, mobility might be the key animating metaphor rather than society [in 21st c sociology], it’s a fascinating provocation. Questions of navigation choices, passenger expectations within ridesharing, time and place related driving strategies – it’s not enough to say that the urban form of Bangalore plays a role. It’s not just space then. It’s space animated, traversed and occupied by certain groups of users, their leisure and work needs juxtaposed against poor infrastructure, frustrating traffic, combined with driver motivations and self-preservation within kind of unprotected work that makes mobility choices and behaviors so complex. Talking about historical and social meanings of place as well, drivers and passengers have utterly different landmarks, making the collaborative work of meeting each other and completing a ride laborious.

Hopefully some of this will be published so I will stop here. But, in both the Facebook study and the recent stuff, as Brewer and Dourish say: “Both mobility and technology are deeply embedded in particular ways of thinking and imagining the world and ourselves”. In my current writing also, I am trying to think through how passengers and drivers reimagine the taxi space post-ridesharing, choose one company over another etc.