Analyzing Google Earth provides the opportunity to rethink the question of aesthetics vis-à-vis mapping. In Postmodernism, Jameson seeks to solve the problem posed by postmodernity: the inability to represent. This stems from the diffusion (of culture, of media) in the late stages of capitalism whereby the distance previously required for acts of representation disappears. There is no distance; postmodernity is a state of total immersion. Jameson’s solution is what he terms an aesthetic of cognitive mapping—an aesthetic that emerges out of the intersection of art and cartography. He envisions this project as a means by which to recoup lost political agency:

[T]he new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion (54).

If anything, Google Earth re-introduces the possibility of distantiation but that alone does not qualify it as the “as yet unimaginable new mode of representing” the space of capital.
Harkening back to the question of scale, de Certeau seems to suggest that scale is the condition of possibility for narrative practice. A shift in scale (up to the 110th floor) turns us into “readers.” From that view, the city below becomes a great “texturology” that can be “read” from above. This linkage of scale and narrative—that there is a scale at which narrative becomes possible—is, for de Certeau: “the source of [the] pleasure of ‘seeing the whole’” (92). The “totalizing eye” of the view from above creates a (seemingly) “transparent text” (92). Immersed at the level of the street, it is impossible to have this kind of transparency. For de Certeau, users of the text write a narrative they cannot read. Readability requires an evocation of the “God trick” in order to rise above the “text” itself. In terms of a political aesthetic, Smith notes that this typically manifests itself in recent attempts to “understand the constructed geographies of capitalism” (“Contours of a Spatialized Politics” 61). But if capitalism is the “author” of this spatial text, wouldn’t a “zooming out” provide the occasion for a sustained assessment of these very geographies?

As desires for transparency often arrive hand-in-hand with desires for control, de Certeau is quick to avoid “legibility” and “readability” in favor of the unmappable: that which resists representation. When Baudrillard wrote of the “satellization of the world,” it was to warn us of the threat of a global surveillance system, not to lavish accolades on the technological wonders of launching those one-ton beacons into the stratosphere. And the history of cartography should instantly guard against any naïve belief in the simple liberatory power of the map. Mapping, for de Certeau, replaces “practice” with “trace,” “action” with “legibility” (97). But the persistence of the “unreadable” and the unmappable, spatial practices occurring at the micro-level, below the radar of the “totalizing eye,” remain as anti-disciplinary movements (96). This bodes ill for our entire project as mapping out these unmarked sites might be a counterproductive move. Do we want these sites re-articulated back into the corporate database of Google Earth? Doesn’t their power, as alternative modes of existence, preclude them from grand totalizing gestures, re: any project that seeks to map?

Despite the warnings of de Certeau et al. (including our own paranoia with respect to this project), it would seem that Google Earth’s potential as a political aesthetic rests on its ability to visualize data. Bukatman argues that visualization—of data that would otherwise remain visually inaccessible—is the new aesthetic, and accordingly it has provided us with a “new realm of images” into which we can include the global image of Google Earth (109). Lyotard makes a similar claim for narrative, that it now consists of “arranging…data in a new way…connecting together series of data that were previously held to be independent” (51-52). If data is available, it can be mapped; therein lies Google Earth’s revolutionary potential. As we saw with the “fly over” function, the program visualizes the distances we cannot perceive at 500 miles an hour/32,000 miles in the air. Scholars currently at work documenting the various networks through which finance capital flows: the hands through which it is exchanged, the physical spaces through which it passes, the Ethernet it transverses, the accounts in which it rests, the blockages it encounters—seek to comprehend how this monetary system functions. Once this data set becomes available, its mapped visualization will provide a powerful means of grasping the totality of capital.

If visualization is the new aesthetic then layering, a structural tool key to Google Earth, might prove to be the means by which to create this aesthetic. Google Earth articulates sites through layers of data: roads, traffic flows, weather, historical maps, historical sites, military bases, uTube videos, photographs, crime statistics, etc. that can be added or subtracted over an area, resulting in a kind of virtual geology. Through this process of layering, a locality that is linked to multiple narrative networks emerges. And the compiling of data by the users of space: the numbers, images, models, and notes they post to the community, makes Google Earth an interactive map that functions as a collective political (and aesthetic) project. Our AltDurham is meant to be such a visualization, an attempt to render visible the actions of a vibrant community of artists, educators, farmers, business-owners, and volunteers working at the micro-level of the city.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. NY: Semiotexte, 1983.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Postmodern Subject in Postmodern Science
. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven
Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 91-110.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham:
Duke University Press, 1991.

Lyotard, Jean. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 51-52.



From any perspective native to the world of electronic images, Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulation have perhaps never seemed more like simple description, even to the point of banality. And yet their implications remain uncertain and underdeveloped. Of particular relevance to our project is the new relationship he attributes to map and territory in a hypermediated environment:

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it…it is the map that precedes the territory…it is the map that engenders the territory…It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real.

And later:

For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real. This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer’s made project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation.

In other words, the map form becomes productive of the territory it purports to represent, pushing unmediated reality to the margins. This map is coextensive with the reach of ‘Empire,’ or global political and economic control. The world becomes ‘post-referential.’ Is this the aesthetic — and therefore, if one fully accepts this discourse — the literal function of Google Earth? This interpretation would certainly match the kinds of changes Google Earth makes to the ‘standard’ indexical map of colored lines and place names that we are accustomed to, and which perhaps reached its peak in complexity and functionality with programs like MapQuest and Google Maps. By using genuine satellite photographs, user-generated 3-D models, and user-uploaded photos, Google Earth approaches the simulation rather than the abstract referential marking of real space. The distance between direct experience and the view framed by the digital interface shrinks. Knowledge of the world is not given by this experience, but by information provided by Google, the branding of the planet by a single corporate logo.

But to say that simulation extinguishes ‘ the real,’ that “signs of the real” are substituted for “the real itself,” is either to veer dangerously close to a kind of magical thinking, whereby reality immediately and effortlessly conforms without remainder to social/technological determination, or to argue that previous modes of epistemological justification have been infinitely suspended — that it becomes impossible to “prove the real.” Baudrillard seems to argue the second while flirting with the first. While he presents the regime of simulation as a liberation from all imposed order based on the “divine referent,” this suggests that the process does not need to be reproduced, that it is automatic, privileges no one, and that its particular details are inscrutable. What this odd conclusion reflects is a widespread confusion as to where the emphasis should land in the many definitions of ‘reality’ — is reality primarily the universal (divine?) system of reference? Or is its source direct, personal experience? Is its fundamental determination political-epistemological (a product of competition between empiricism, rationalism, etc.) or phenomenological? Put in these terms, the problem appears to have no solution. Let us try looking elsewhere.

The logic of simulation, especially as manifested in digital technology, is also sometimes referred to as ‘virtual reality.’ In the post-phenomenological tradition of philosophy spearheaded by Henri Bergson and come into its own with Gilles Deleuze, the virtual is something like an effect separated from its cause. Another way of putting it is that it is something that has not yet entered the realm of ordinary cause and effect. For Bergson ‘virtual’ describes the realm of pure memory, a discontinuous collection of images that, through unpredictable routes, work their way back into consciousness, whether by focused recollection or something like Proust’s involuntary memory. The virtual then mediates (as memory) our experience of reality, which in turn suggests that human consciousness is essentially mediated by virtual ‘images’ even prior to all technology.

Theoretically, we said, the part played by consciousness in external perception would be to join together, by the continuous thread of memory, instantaneous visions of the real. But, in fact, there is nothing for us that is instantaneous. In all that goes by that name there is already some work of our memory, and consequently, of our consciousness, which prolongs into each other, so as to grasp them in one relatively simple intuition, an endless number of moments of an endlessly divisible time. (Matter and Memory)

Consciousness is both the ‘work of memory’ and, through concentration, the extension of individual moments within the temporal flow of memory-laden experience, leading to the ‘simple intuition’ that allows the other moments to be organized. From this state of comprehension, the spatialized system that we call ‘knowledge’ can be derived. This picture is complicated further by Bergson’s claim that matter itself is also made of ‘images.’ The difference between mediated consciousness and immediate experience of matter then involves a dual potential of the image, and not a fundamental ontological division between subjective perception and objective existence. What this in turn suggests is that all experience, whether mediated only by memory or also by technology, is equally ‘real,’ and that reality is nothing other than the procession of images. The difficulty is in relating the memory-image to the matter-image without slipping back into the terms of subjective\objective opposition.

Deleuze condenses this relation into an image that is simultaneously virtual and actual (that which unproblematically exists), and contends that this dual image is the ‘nucleus’ of reality, or as he puts it in his second book on cinema, “The indiscernability of the real and the imaginary, or of the present and the past, of the actual and the virtual, is definitely not produced in the head or the mind, it is the objective characteristic of certain existing images which are by nature double” (69). One could argue that it is an experience of the cinema which allows Deleuze, and perhaps Bergson as well, to make such observations. In the cinema every image is at once a bit of matter, a memory inscribed on it, and part of a technological medium. If writing also removes the monopoly on memory by consciousness, cinema captures and objectifies its temporality. The movies at once represent, repeat, and reframe ‘the work of consciousness.’ Immersed in cinematic images, Deleuze is able to say, “Subjectivity is never ours, it is time, that is, the soul or the spirit, the virtual” (82). Time is not internal to the subject, the subject is internal to time. Space, on the other hand, is consumed at a rate of 24 frames per second.

If we follow new media theory in understanding digital representation as a ‘remediation’ or reframing of old media via the computer interface (see Jay David Bolter and David Grusin, also Lev Manovich), then we can understand how the representational strategies of Google Earth are an evolution and/or repurposing of cinema. Where the cinema condensed space into movement and time, the basic vocabulary of the computer image is the graph, the diagram, the map – the visual presentation of already-mediated information. In Google Earth, every satellite image can contain multiple user-generated images, as well as words. Every image is simultaneously a database. Time is not presented indirectly by a sequence of movements in space, since Google Earth’s images are presented as always already available. Only the camera moves. New data — electronic memory, if you like — emerges in virtual space, according only to the actions of anonymous users, of which the present user counts as one. Virtual space is then one of absolute openness to ‘becomings’ in the form of alterations and uploading of information, a space opened up in time, inside the realm of electronic images. Movement is controlled neither by the will of a director/cinematographer nor by the movement of a subject, but by the actions of the user within parameters determined by the interface. This ‘deterritorialized’ cinematic apparatus — functioning via pan, zoom, and tilt — is able to undermine all hierarchies of scale, allowing the user unlimited access to a virtual space. Nothing remains to mediate our control over the aesthetic of mapping Google Earth makes possible; our actual limitations are only those of the program itself.

This brings to mind certain hypothetical statements made by Bergson about the unity of subject and object that would follow if memory were ‘eliminated,’ and Deleuze on the possibilities of cinema opened up by modern European filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, what he calls the ‘time-image,’ as distinct from the ‘movement-image’ or the classical cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and Buster Keaton:

The cinema is going to become an analytic of the image, implying a new conception of cutting, a whole ‘pedagogy’ which will operate in different ways…Even when it is mobile, the camera is no longer content sometimes to follow the characters’ movement, sometimes itself to undertake movements of which they are merely the object, but in every case it subordinates the description of a space to the functions of thought. This is not the simple distinction between the subjective and the objective, the real and the imaginary, it is on the contrary their indiscernability which will endow the camera with a rich array of functions, and entail a new conception of the frame and reframing. Hitchcock’s premonition will come true: a camera consciousness which would no longer be defined by the movements it is able to follow or make, but by the mental connections it is able to enter into. And it becomes questioning, responding, objecting, provoking, theorematizing, hypothesizing, experimenting, in accordance with the open list of logical conjunctions (‘or,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘if,’ ‘because,’ ‘actually,’ ‘although…’) or in accordance with the functions of thought in a cinema-vérité [cinema of truth] which as Rouch says, means rather truth of cinema (23).

In the movement-image, time is subordinate to movement, as the rhythm of an ordered sequence of shots that follow physical movement. In the time-image, movement is subordinate to time, as the interval created by non-sequential, discontinuous camera movement, cutting, and splicing becomes the direct presentation of time (roughly analogous to the effect of the DJ’s free manipulation of the record). In the digital image as framed by a computer, a purely synthetic space-time is subordinate to thought and the commands of the user, whose attention is fully absorbed by it. The camera has grown a brain in the form of the interface, and this is what the user manipulates, the extension not of his or her senses, but of his or her thoughts in relation to the senses; the interface is always already ‘theorizing’ the images it presents. Shifting between layers, marking places, these are all theoretical adjustments, the emphasizing of one data set over another. Finally, anything resembling an ‘interval,’ a gap in presentation, vanishes. Virtual space is itself a gap, a hole in reality from which the impossible can be prepared, and can, as the ‘externalization’ of speculative thought, expand the limits of what is considered possible. With Google Earth, the mapped locations literally consist of an ‘actual image’ and a ‘virtual image,’ though the boundary between them is always porous.

If we think the virtual and the actual as having replaced the old dichotomy between possible and real, then we can no longer say that reality has collapsed into hyperreality, but that the space of the virtual has materialized within the space of the actual. Just as the cinema materialized the virtual, subjective flow of temporality, digital media materializes a virtual space within the flow of images, by means of which they can be broken down and reconstituted. In Google Earth, a location can be digitally mapped, imaged, described, historicized, advertised, criticized, and ignored, by multiple users for multiple reasons. This does not make the place ‘itself’ disappear, but concentrates and externalizes our memory of it to contain an unprecedented amount of information, which we can in turn alter, not only for ourselves but for others. It is just as much a political process as constructing a new housing complex, or passing a zoning ordinance, even though (for the moment) the stakes are not as high. This is what is meant today when we repeat Deleuze’s theory of virtual and actual as “distinct but indiscernible.”

So we must agree with Baudrillard when he argues that the logic of splits, oppositions, and resistances can no longer be considered fundamental. Perhaps they remain fundamental to individual, local experience – but then ‘raw’ experience can no longer be thought of as fundamental. And this is why cannot stop with Baudrillard, whose melodramatic bid for universality only indicates the limited, particular nature of his account. Now requires the use of intensive, sharp-edged analytic concepts, with clearly defined parameters that can be used to traverse and ultimately burst apart the old hierarchies. The proper object for a thought and practice both liberated and constrained by technology is not resistance to various enemies (untruth, corrupt policies, exploitation, inequality, etc.) but the ‘real abstractions,’ liberated and constrained by technology, that provide those enemies with their means of existence.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. NY: Semiotexte, 1983.

Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory, tr., N.M. Paul and W.S. Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1994).

Bolter, David Jay and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media.” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

Shortly after the first photograph of Earth from space entered our collective imaginary in 1946, Sputnik was launched and the process of satellization (to use Baudrillard’s term) began. The fruit of this historical period was a new privileged view—higher than the aerial inaugurated by the airplane. Perhaps the most riveting aspect of using Google Earth is its method of positioning the user at the scale of the global, in a very literal sense of the term. Staring at the digitized planetary representation on screen, we hover for a few seconds in this privileged visual space before “zooming” into our favorite haunts and then “zooming” back out again. It is these exercises in scale that make Google Earth such an interesting object of study. We realize, with this program, that we not only now possess a “global” consciousness and map at the planetary scale, but that the global image itself is interactive—capable of being manipulated for the purposes of both diversion and action. What Google Earth demands from its users is an investigation of how—through these exercises in vision—it complicates issues of scale that have become so central to contemporary cartographic thought.

Google Earth defaults to a setting of 11,001.001 kilometers above earth—enough of a distance to appreciate the curved contours of the blue planet, its edges apparently aglow against the starry darkness of outer space. Provided by NASA, it is a visually pleasing image. We can see where land ends and water begins—all the rest is hidden. This perspective is what cartographers refer to as the “God’s Eye View”; it is a kind of visual objectivity long practiced by those attempting to craft aerial representations of the Earth. One has to assume this positionality in order to create globes, atlases—those cartographic reproductions that we have long been accustomed to consult. But accusations of appropriating the “God’s Eye View” emanate from critical geographers seeking to demystify the objectifying tendencies of the map. Donna Haraway, in her elaboration of the possibilities of a feminist science, warns us against the “God-trick,” against the desire to assume disembodied positions of “objectivity” (a term she ultimately reappropriates for her project). De Certeau, in “Walking the City,” makes a similar theoretical move. Beginning his essay on the 110th floor of the WTC—a God’s Eye view in itself—he rejects this position in favor of the ground and appropriately shifts the entire essay to this level of analysis.

What happens at the 110th floor of the WTC (or at the dizzying altitudes of Google Earth) is an arresting of the complexity below. De Certeau sees what the cartographers and philosophers of geometric space see: “the technological system of coherent and totalizing space that is ‘linked’ and simultaneous” (102). Peering at NASA’s globe is an act that unifies: you hold the entire planet in the space of the computer screen. De Certeau finds this unifying act problematic; it is a capitalist spatial logic that dictates universals in order to facilitate production: Universal Time just as much as unified, universal space. At too high an altitude, we totalize. Or, to take a phenomenological perspective from Bachelard, at high altitudes we also—in a parallel conceptual move—minaturize. Minaturization, for Bachelard, reflects a desire for possession. Those aerial perspectives from the window of an airplane (similarly represented at various altitudes of GoogleEarth) minaturize the landscape: houses, cars, sidewalks, streets: all become rendered as tiny pieces of a large puzzle. Trees in Google Earth look like broccoli. At just under a kilometer, Google Earth turns the world into a plaything, phenomenologically diminishing the terror of such heights.

In a postmodern era of “fragmentation,” it would seem that a bit of unification—anything capable of rendering some sort of picture of the totality (as Jameson desires) would be a welcome analytic. Jameson writes of the fragmented experiences generated by airplane travel: disjointed movements from place to place, the lateral homogeneous space of airport terminals that does nothing to diminish this spatial confusion. Google Earth seems, in its “fly over” mode to reinsert the spaces obliterated by air travel. Moving Google Earth from “Durham” to “Detroit” takes us on the route between those two locales, a route that highlights the continuity of the space. Moving from LA to NY reminds us that the two global cities are actually located on the same continental space—a geographic fact that becomes obscured in high-speed plane (and rocket) travel. By using the idea of “continuity,” we do not mean to suggest a homogenous, unified space; rather, in following critical analysis of “scale” we aim more to understand how Google Earth—with its ability to convey a continuous sense of space—potentially disrupts hierarchical notions of scale.


Many theorists argue that scale emerges with the capitalist organization of space. Neil Smith notes how scale is, despite its seemingly neutral status as a method of representation, socially-produced (62). To that end, scale becomes a way by which “spatial difference ‘takes place’…” so that “the production of geographical scale is the site of potentially intense political struggle” (62). Scale is political. In its temporary “resolution of…[the] contradiction between competition and cooperation,” it marks out boundaries at which exchange can and cannot take place (64). In effect, scale freezes political action at particular sites (i.e. “the local”). The concept of “jumping scales”—a popular tool of scalar transgression—involves the expansion (or leakage) of political acts, concerns, etc. out of their assigned “spheres” and into more higher-order scales (i.e. the nation-state). An example of how scales jump, and one that feminist geographers often make note of, is abortion. Starting at the scale of the body, this issue works its way out of the seemingly limited space of the individual to the level of national legislation. The personal is political, when you jump scale.

To return to Google Earth, the question becomes: does Google Earth facilitate a jumping of scales? If, as Smith et. al contend, scale is socially-produced, does Google Earth provide a visualization of the ease at which scale is jumped? It seems that in its presentation of the continuity of space, Google Earth works, at least to some extent, to magnify how all space—and thus all scales—are interconnected. The ease at which we can move back and forth through scales seems to unhinge the foundation of any rigid hierarchical orderings of space (with the top levels of the hierarchy always exerting influence over those underneath it). Or perhaps another term, “scale bending,” might better encapsulate Google Earth’s manipulation of scale. To bend a scale is not to destroy it but to unfix it, to loosen its conceptual hold. In Google Earth, it is just as easy to zoom in as it is to zoom out. Zooming is one (almost) continuous movement (depending on the available data). As such, in order to experience scale, we have to re-map it ourselves over the terrain.

Granted Google Earth is at present limited by the fact that it cannot accurately represent ground level. When you near the ground, you have the option to switch to the 3-D modeling mode where, if users of Google Earth have created 3-D models of the buildings at ground level, you can navigate this space. Right now, the availability of 3-D models is sketchy so that the best viewing distance remains from above. This seems to be more of a technical limitation and one that could, if Google so desired, be easily adjusted. One can imagine the kinds of scales that Google Earth could potentially represent, one day zooming in on individual human beings in real-time, moving beneath the epidermal layer into the muscles, tissues, cells, nuclei, to end at what? The genetic layer? It, too, is being mapped. Complaints about our contemporary world often point to the condition of the individual, adrift in a sea of finance capitalism that denies spatial orientation. As Scott Bukatman notes in his analysis of cyberspace and representations thereof, “[t]he scale of human perception…no longer operates as an anchor for spatial exploration” (113). Does Google Earth provide a re-anchoring?

The characteristic first move of all Google Earth users is to zoom in on the homespace. From the coldness of outer space to the hub of phenomenological intimacy, Google Earth creates a new cosmology by allowing for a self-positioning within the global totality. We have introduced technologies that enhance perception beyond our natural capacities but nevertheless still seek to articulate these new scales of (outer/inner/cyber) space to our embodied selves. Google Earth has the potential to offer us this articulation. In complicating constructs of scale (for example the local/global divide) by illustrating visually how all sites are continuously interpolated by multiple scales, Google Earth allows for the kind of mapping that would seem to promote alternative cartographic projects. Our mapping of altDurham has been a test of this very possibility.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. NY: Semiotexte, 1983.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Postmodern Subject in Postmodern Science
. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven
Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 91-110.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham:
Duke University Press, 1991.

Smith, Neil. “Contours of a spatialized politics: homeless vehicles and the production of
geographical space.” Social Text 33: 54-81.


What does it mean to see the city with the eye of global capital? The definition of ‘city’ is constantly being reconfigured according to how the needs of capital dictate urban development, as the ongoing explosion of Joel Garreau’s ‘edge cities’ and the commodification of the old urban center both attest. These changes can be experienced firsthand without the aid of a camera or a computer.

For Garreau the development of the city is simultaneously one of expansion and concentration. Sprawl and density are not opposed, but advance together. In an upcoming book, Garreau refers to this as the “Santa Fe-ing of the World,” or “places the entire point of which is face-to-face contact” which he identifies with the influence of the Internet and the unprecedentedly free flow of goods and services on social interaction. The new urban space, he argues, is increasingly organized according to the social and business needs of the world’s middle and upper middle professional classes. Hence a trendy downtown area like New York’s East Village and the middle-of-nowhere upper-class compounds offered by Santa Fe develop according to the same logic: the modern professional’s need for quality ‘face time.’ A consequence of Garreau’s account is that the middle and upper middle classes are placed in the driver’s seat of history — not as the agents of production like the proletarians were for Marx, but as the ‘early adopters’ of telecommunication technology and the careers and lifestyles that go along with it.

This could well be an accurate description of the underlying motive that initially drove our project. As strangers to Durham, our lives organized by the Duke University orbit, we wanted to engage our surroundings, to orient ourselves both spatially and socially to communities maintained outside of Duke and Research Triangle Park, a major center of biotech and medical research and Durham’s other principle economic hub. It would be a great understatement to say that the city’s economic hubs are not necessarily its social hubs. While Duke fosters close camaraderie among its undergraduate student body, Durham tends to be either left out or bought out. Our association with Duke made us feel more like strangers in Durham than we already were, despite the fact that Duke is one of the area’s largest employers. Like many other American cities, Durham’s downtown was a victim of ‘de-industrialization,’ with most urban development since then progressing by unplanned sprawl. Raleigh-Durham ranks 3rd on a national survey conducted by Smart Growth America for negative symptoms of sprawl, including little mixing of residences with businesses and other services, below average residential density, poorly connected street networks, and a dearth of areas that serve as town centers.


And yet, as we found in our brief but ongoing exploration, communities are built in spite of these limitations. Undoubtedly there are more community projects throughout the city, more and less diffuse than the ‘indie’-green-DIY-progressive networks that became our focus. We found only those that were most accessible to us. That is to say, we found only those most compatible with our interests, those people most like us. The choice we made to carry out this project via the Internet was as practical as it was symptomatic of the habits, resources, and educational background we broadly share with our ‘subjects.’ The Internet is a major part of what gives these dispersed communities their strength; it is not a neutral fact that almost every site we mapped has a well-maintained website. Anti-corporate or no, their presence will only enhance (and some are included in the funding of) the major development projects of the city government, nonprofits, and various corporate sponsors in their attempts to revitalize the downtown area. A diverse, young, media-savvy urban culture and an active arts scene are part of what pop theorists like Richard Florida (whose rubric also includes a ‘Gay Index’) deem necessary for the rise of the ‘creative class,’ or ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘cultural creatives’ – buzzwords that essentially refer to the professional class appropriate to an information-driven economy. A certain degree of social and ecological awareness along with basic community-building skills is important for a class that is expected to be increasingly self-reliant.

However, what popular accounts such as these leave out are the very people destituted and excluded by the new arrangements of personnel and capital. Globalization theorist Saskia Sassen has argued against both the idea that telecommunication advances have made concentration (centers of production, state forms) obsolete and that concentration is driven primarily by the taste of the new global elite. On the contrary, the greater the possibility of dispersal, the greater the need for centralized control functions, which tend to be located in urban areas. As she puts it, it is “precisely because of the territorial dispersal facilitated by telecommunication advances that agglomeration of centralizing activities has expanded immensely. This is not a mere continuation of old patterns of agglomeration but, one could posit, a new logic for agglomeration.” A steadily ‘denationalizing’ state apparatus is one of these command centers, financial centers like Wall Street and the Stock Exchange are another type. Specialization of production and services is another centralizing tendency – Durham’s largest employers by an enormous margin are in the education and medical industries. Part of Sassen’s objective is to reveal the actual processes underlying dominant narratives like ‘globalization,’ and so her focus is always on production, necessarily including the ‘supplementary,’ underrepresented labor that makes the macro-developments possible:

“This focus on the work behind command functions, on production in the finance and services complex, and on marketplaces has the effect of incorporating the material facilities underlying globalization and the whole infrastructure of jobs typically not marked as belonging to the corporate sector of the economy: besides the already mentioned work of secretaries and cleaners, there are the truckers who deliver the software, the variety of technicians and repair workers, all the jobs having to do with the maintenance, painting, renovation of the buildings where it all is housed.”

This approach differentiates Sassen from another leading globalization theorist whose overall account is broadly similar, Manuel Castells. Castells narrates this phenomenon from the dominant perspective, as a transition from the space of places, determined by local custom, to the space of flows, determined by the needs of global capital. He defines ‘place’ narrowly as “a locale whose form, function and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity” (423). For Sassen, ‘the global’ is internal to ‘the local’ – globalization always requires the configuration of local places whose ‘form, function, and meaning’ are multiple and contradictory, despite its homogenizing tendencies. In this she takes a more traditionally materialist perspective – social change may be dictated from on high (‘market forces,’ etc.), but it is always built from the ground up.

Along with ‘invisible’ labor as a ‘side effect’ of market-drive concentration come the non-corporate cultures associated with it. “Diversity” is then the second type of concentration for Sassen after the economic, and it includes ethnic and traditional cultures as well as (we might add) the ‘alternative’ cultures of artists and other non-corporate culture producers. Sassen refines the observations of people like Garreau as follows: “Advanced services are mostly producer services; unlike other types of services, they are not dependent on vicinity to the consumers served. Rather, economies occur in such specialized firms when they locate close to others that produce key inputs or whose proximity makes possible joint production of certain service offerings. Moreover, concentration arises out of the needs and expectations of the people likely to be employed in these new high-skill jobs. They are attracted to the amenities and life-styles that large urban centers can offer.”


Sassen refers to the concentration of non-corporate culture as the ‘other’ of dominant, normalizing corporate forms (the urban grid, office buildings, upscale chains such as Starbuck’s) that follow economically driven concentration. But if Durham is any indication, developers are following the advice of the mainstream critics mentioned earlier and attempting to take some of these ‘others’ — or rather, what amounts to a certain aura of ‘otherness’ — into account, as a potential investment in the city’s future. They are recognizing that their desired professional workforce approaches potential living spaces as lifestyle consumers, and that ‘diversity,’ in the form of things like well-funded independent arts organizations, thriving small businesses, historical preservation, tolerance of alternative lifestyles and sexualities, and authentic ethnic cuisine, is in demand. And if they don’t, they can be pressured by groups who represent these interests, such as ABCD Durham, a community listserv that in 2004 successfully influenced the city government to reduce the size of a proposed Clear Channel-managed events center to be built next to the American Tobacco development. They became an acknowledged force within city planning discussions and provide mutual assistance to members. ABCD Durham is one local example among many of how the Internet can enable disparate communities, uniting an amorphous (sometimes self-proclaimed) “creative class” around development issues. Perhaps even more fundamentally, a network of bloggers keeps them informed and connected despite (though nevertheless preserving) occupational, neighborhood, and cultural differences. Our project is an example of both these phenomena.

What we may be witnessing (and participating in) is a cultural shift among a certain expanding but still relatively small class of managers and tastemakers. It is a shift in preference, perhaps generational in nature, away from the homogenizing effects of what Sassen calls the corporate grid form that grew to dominate the 20th century, and toward particularity, difference, sustainable living, and the cultivation of local authenticity. Whether or not these changes take hold, real estate prices will have nowhere else to go but up. Is it possible to reconcile emerging methods of diversity-minded development with adequate accommodation for all forms of diversity?


At any rate, the possibilities offered by the Internet to include and connect previously alienated groups of people are not without real limits. Returning to Castells, he points out that “the real social domination stems from the fact that cultural codes are embedded in the social structure in such a way that possession of these codes opens the access to the power structure without the elite needing to conspire to bar access to its networks” (416). Technological access is only one barrier to participation in the communities encountered through our project. Language, education, to some extent race, and the shared background of class are others. As Sassen puts it in an interview, “there is a poor man’s email and there is a rich man’s email.” Indeed, electronic/digital telecommunications media are quite literally a type of cultural code. As such, they are embedded in a whole range of other codes — there is no separate ‘digital realm’ (another older article by Sassen on this subject can be found here and here). The shift partially documented here would be a one not primarily in the modes of production but in the modes — and hopefully also the severity — of exploitation, exclusion, and eviction.

Books referenced:

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Our engagement with Google Earth has been an exercise in digital urbanism. We switched back and forth between physical spaces and virtual tags, aiming through our mapping to mark out an “Alternative Durham” spread across physical locations and digital homepages. Durham fits perfectly into the type of city prepped for the digital urbanism described by Jeff Rice. It is a post-industrial town; the legacy of the infamous tobacco days—a history inscribed into its architecture: warehouses, smokestacks, railroad tressels, etc. While Durham is experiencing a renovation of its spaces through selected renewal projects: converting the tobacco warehouses into lofts, restaurants, and office space, creating a new center for the arts, gobbling up remaining fields to make way for subdivisions, we wanted to highlight layers of life in Durham operating on a different socio-economic model. The way we understand these ‘layers,’ and how we hope we managed to visually represent them in Google Earth, is analogous to what Fredric Jameson refers to as ‘levels,’ or semi-autonomous mediations between the aesthetic and the economic: “a differentiated social function, a realm or zone within the social that has developed to the point at which it is governed internally by its own intrinsic laws and dynamics”. They are both within the space dominated by multinational capital and distinct from it, in that they are free of direct financial control and operate according to different, sometimes conflicting imperatives. What we have mapped can be thought of as a single socio-economic layer divided into ‘sub-layers’ determined by use and/or cultural differences.In seeking to achieve a visualization of an ‘altDurham’ we selected approximately fifty sites (by no means exhaustive) to mark on Google Earth with place locators, site descriptors, web hyperlinks, and digital photographs. All together, you can “Play” “AltDurham” on Google Earth, a feature that virtually transports you to all of the marked sites, highlighting in relief the newly visualized cityscape.The first “layer” of AltDurham we refer to as “Community.” While there are many communities in Durham (and our list is by no means exhaustive), our focus was on what might be called ‘indie,’ DIY, and green/sustainable culture, all of which are largely decentered from any single community hub (such as a church, a particular business, or a downtown strip). The two places we mapped act co-operatively to provide resources for their members and ‘constituents.’ Bull City Headquarters, a drug and alcohol free space, runs a Queer youth drop-in night, hosts performances (artistic and visual), and houses the Durham Bike Co-Op, an on-site non-profit spot at which to build and repair bicycles. El Kilombo is an activist collective comprised of members of the African-American and Latino communities and students that offers a variety of services (ESL and computer classes, homework support, seminars, etc.) geared toward people of color and working class residents. Our second “layer,” “Food” is meant to illustrate the alternative methods (aside from frequenting the nationalized chains) of procuring food in the Durham area. The Durham Food Co-Op is a non-profit grocery space dedicated to cultivating sustainability through local and organic food. While anyone can shop at the Co-Op, becoming a member (and volunteering) will reduce the cost of your food. The Durham Farmer’s Market, open on Saturdays, provides a site for local farmers to sell their produce as well as the Mobile Market option of partnering up with a local farm and receiving, via automobile, a weekly portion of their crop.

For our “Education” layer, we selected sites offering educational programs alternative to those provided by the public school system. We included the eight charter schools presently operating in the city (and open to all residents) along with El Kilombo and the Durham Literacy Center. The Schoolhouse of Wonder, run in collaboration with Eno River State Park, promotes the study and conservation of natural ecologies through day and summer youth camps. The Music Explorium conducts roving drum circle classes, either in its space or in other community locales. “Art” comprises the highly active and diversified local artists utilizing various city spaces. The Transom is an art space that houses multiple studios; The Bull City Arts Collaborative is an “artist-run creative alliance” that provides workspace for local talent. Liberty Arts, a sculpture studio and casting facility, offers workshops to the public. SeeSaw Studio runs an apprenticeship program for teens in the field of textile printing and graphic design. And the Carolina Theatre, the independent theater in Durham, showcases two film festivals: the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.The “Business” layer of the project, proving a bit more difficult to easily categorize, consists of businesses utilizing re-use, small-scale, and non-profit methods of production and exchange. Included in this layer are thrift stores (Grannie’s Panties, Trosa’s, Once and Again) including the non-profit Pennies for Change, which uses proceeds to fund the Durham Rescue Mission; independent and used bookstores (The Know, The Book Exchange, The Regulator, etc.); handicraft goods (the Durham Craft Market); and post-use recyclables (The Scrap Exchange, The Durham Bike Co-Op). The final layer, “green space,” is meant to mark out areas in Durham reserved for gardening, recreation, and contemplation, away from the hustle of city life. Seeds, Inc. is a non-profit community garden located in inner city Durham. Worked mostly by Durham teens, it provides education in sustainability, harvests locally grown produce, and acts as sanctuary for neighborhood residents. El Kilombo is also in the process of creating a community garden, the fruit of which will be available free of cost to the community. Lastly, we indicated various entrances to Eno River State Park, the predominant green space in Durham.References:Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham:Duke University Press, 1991.


The aim of Google Earth appears to be referentiality: to collectively upload the “territory” onto the map in order to achieve as perfect a correspondence as possible. But Google Earth already supersedes the territory: the planetary scale, the historical levels, the user-generated content—it is a new spatiality developing out of the intersection of physical and cyber-space. Usage of this virtual map provides a fitting example of the kind of digital urbanism theorized in studies of New Media. De Certeau already recognized that simple acts of elevation change the grounded cityscape into “[t]he panorama-city…a ‘theoretical’ (that is, visual) simulation” (93). Passing from the “real” into the “virtual” in this theorization occurs at particular altitudinal perspectives. The city is always already on the verge of virtualization; it just requires a deific transmogrification (up stairs, up elevators, up rocket ships) to crystallize this potentiality.

For many, the implosion of urban space in the 20th century has manifested itself in a parallel implosion of these physical spaces into cyberspace (Bukatman). Jeff Rice’s essay “21st Century Graffiti: Detroit Tagging” is an attempt to carve out such a spatial shift (urbanism to digital urbanism) in post-industrial Detroit. Rice proposes that the logic of digital culture is at the heart of contemporary urbanity with new media providing the means of escaping the late millennial malaise of a dilapidated urban infrastructure. In order to articulate Detroit as a digital city, Rice first re-works the notion of city from a fixed spatial location to—borrow from theories of new media—a network in what he categorizes as a “mixing [of] physical space with imagination.” Reminding us of McLuhan’s analysis of the city—that it co-evolved with writing—Rice, in effect, justifies de Certeau’s reading of the city as analogous to speech act, i.e. interpreting the WTC as “the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production” (910). But what Rice seeks is a digitized de Certeau. He points to practices of digital writing on the Internet: digital tagging (the cyber-equivalent of physical graffiti?) as a means of marking and re-using space. This “tagging” is what happens on Google Earth as users re-appropriate physical spaces in new ways, marking sites with uTube videos of couples, parents, children, pets—all interacting with the tagged locale.

The new media logic of the city, for Rice, is that of assemblage. The mixing of spaces both physical and virtual hails the beginning of a new spatial practice, admittedly hybrid in form. Rice posits that “when writing becomes tagging, associative combinations become rhetorical principles. These associations form digital networks, and thus digital urban spaces.” Digital tagging becomes a means by which to achieve a “digital sense of connectedness” (Rice); it also shifts articulation of the city from univocal to multivocal. Throughout the course of its development, the City emerged as an entity onto itself with its proper name obscuring all of the participants continually maintaining its—social and physical—structure (de Certeau). It is a spatial alienation that arises out of the congealed labor-time present in a city that has lost its referential which—as theorists of the city argue—was capital. Thus the utopian city has often been envisioned as multivocal (de Certeau 94). In mapping altDurham, we have attempted to uncover this multivocality, driving from site to site to hear the users of these spaces speak about their experiences.


Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Postmodern Subject in Postmodern Science
. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven
Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 91-110.

Rice, Jeff. “21st Century Graffiti: Detroit Tagging.” 1000 Days of Theory. [7 Jun 2005]
[28 Dec 2006]