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How urban communication matters

The idea that the nature of social formations shapes patterns of communication is on the surface obvious – simply taken from a common sense perspective one would predict that if a society is exceptionally dispersed then different forms of interaction are likely to arise than if men and women live in closer proximity.  Both complicating and elaborating this idea, Harold Innis argued in the 1950’s that in fact the direction of the causation works both ways, which is to say that the technologies of communication available and dominating at any given time also shape sociality and governance.  The emergence of writing as a technology, which supplemented and also to some extent displaced orality as the principle mode of widespread interaction between sovereign and distant subordinate (that is, the envoy was replaced by the envelope) enabled the rise of far-flung bureaucracies able to follow precise written instructions that could not have been verbally conveyed with any accuracy through word of mouth.

One of the consequences of economic and communicative globalization has been to set in motion emigration flows of historically unprecedented proportion, induced as often by the search for economic opportunities as by the more traditional engines of war and environmental stress.  This has, in turn, accelerated the huge flow of global populations into cities; since 2007 more than half the world’s population has lived in urban areas.  While the great cities of the world (William Robson’s phrase) have always exerted a special influence on intellectual labor, today’s world cities (a phrase Peter Hall made famous with his 1966 book of that title) are often studied because of their dominance of international political and economic power flows (think New York City and London and Tokyo and Cairo and Beijing and Mexico City, among others).  The map above, produced by National Geographic magazine, reflects an attempt to put numbers on the likely urban populations of these cities by 2015, and as one can see these estimates are staggering in their implications for urban governance, resource management, and the infrastructural demands for clean water, abundant food, competently administered educational systems, and more.

In the allied fields centered on understanding human communication, all this raises questions that have in the past decade produced research centered on urban communication and what Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker have called communicative cities.  Their interest in exploring this topic is grounded in their sense that “the nature, function and identity of the city are defined, in large part, by the process of communication and its impact on place.  Communication availability, images, infrastructure, policy and regulation all define a city and population as well.”  In 2007, Gumpert’s Urban Communication Foundation held summer colloquia in Washington and Paris to try to further elaborate these themes, in the process naming perhaps as many as eighty different ways in which communication patterns are uniquely inflected in urban contexts.  Often noted in such work is the intrinsic connection between community and communication, both words rooted in the Latin communitas and both senses reflected in Aristotle’s claim in the Politics that “man is a political animal who gains full exercise of his reason only within the bounds of the city.”

A recent special issue of the International Communication Gazette (vol. 70.3-4) edited by Gumpert and Drucker further explores all this in very intriguing ways.  Often the scholarship connects to what has been termed the spatial turn in social theory; as Gene Burd puts this point (I’m abbreviating the internal references), “’Key cities are (re)produced by what flows through them rather than what is fixed within them’ (Derudder et al., 2007).  This ‘space of flows’ is part of a new urban-regional process of ‘The Informational City’ (Castells, 1989), where national borders and boundaries are changed (Ohmae, 1994) and a ‘new spatial order’ (Marcuse and van Kempen, 2000) bring a ‘new patriotism’ for the global citizen, who is not linked to the traditional political and economic nation-state (Gavrilos, 2003).”

Such cities are seen as paradoxical spaces, where the experiences of material locales are often importantly displaced or supplemented by the virtual spaces in which urbanites play and work, and where the close physical proximity created by urban compression is partly offset by the dominating absence of intimate interpersonal contact (in megacities one may daily brush by thousands but never meet or get to know the neighbors).  In a huge city one is both bombarded by the barrage of sensory overstimulation and can remain easily invisible:  residents are surveilled everywhere but specifically seen by no one.  Historically centralized modes of mass mediation (the local television station, the daily newspaper) shape patterns of urban identification but are also in decline, eclipsed by decentralized modes of address like cell phones and internet news sources less associated with a specific locale.

“The communicative city creates conversation in and about it.  It chatters.  Its signature skyscrapers and signage soar and sing.  Its towers and temples talk and tattle” (Burd, pg. 211).  And yet more than ever has arisen “anxiety over this ‘placeless-ness’ of urban space (Relph, 1976); the ‘geography of nowhere’ (Kunstler, 1993); the rise of the ‘un-walled city’ (Long, 1972); and the ‘withering away of the city’… (Willbern, 1964).”

This sense of irreducible paradox dominates many of the essays in the issue, a tactic that enables the aggregation of a dizzying number of reasonable sounding statements about the city but also complicate the articulation of a clear research agenda – after all, when everything about the urban is characterized by contradiction, counter-evidence will never be available and every fact will confirm something.

In part I think this tendency is driven by the urge to exaggerate the virtual and digital and mass mediated experiences of city life at the expense of the mundane.  Georgiou’s essay, for example, begins by cautioning scholars not to ignore the “banal and ordinary” communication practices of the multiethnic city, but seems to be referring not to talk about development or zoning or water bills or sewage systems or bad schools or transportation gridlock but rather to how neighbors sometimes create their own local media for the purpose of “seeking a voice and citizenship outside the national political framework and [that] reflect attempts to seek horizontal, deterritorialized and global connections.”   Carpentier makes a similar move, promising to examine the “belly of the city” but focusing not on, say, policing or transportation, but on fights over WiFi.  The occupational bias for communication researchers to foreground mass mediated experience over such elements of the physical environment as the corner coffee shop and the high costs of food and housing and fuel, or the problems of homelessness and crime and noise, all side by side with the enticing range of restaurants and theaters and stores, all of which intrude on any effort to float above it all in a cosmopolitan haze only available to wealthier elites or poorer bohemians, thus raises questions of vital concern and obvious interest even while potentially misapprehending the urban experience.

SOURCES:  Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1950; reprinted with introduction by Marshall McLuhan, 1975); Nirmala Rao, Cities in Transition: Growth, Change and Governance in Six Metropolitan Areas (London: Routledge, 2007); Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker, “Communicative Cities,” International Communication Gazette 70.3-4 (2008): 195-208.  The other essays cited here are part of this special issue, including Gene Burd’s “The Mediated Metropolis as Medium and Message” (pgs. 209-222), Myria Georgiou’s “Urban Encounters” (pgs. 223-235), and Nico Carpentier’s “The Belly of the City” (pgs. 237-255).  Cees Hamelink’s (“Urban Conflict and Communication,” pgs. 291-301) attention to the relationship between communication and conflict resolution reflects one promising approach that could, with elaboration, deflect the concern I’ve articulated.


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