Wits City Institute Special Lecture

WhatsApp, Airbnb, Uber, Netflix and other virtual CTZs in the Networked City

Wits City Institute Honorary Research Fellow Melissa Tandiwe Myambo argues that for some physical cultural time zones that are frequented by the global middle classes and situated in the digitally networked global(ising) city, there is no easy distinction between real life and the digital.

23 May 2018 / Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

In my first lecture earlier this year on cultural time zones (CTZs), I explained that the concept of the CTZ is a theory of micro-spaces. CTZs can be defined as neighbourhoods or townships or, depending on the theorist’s scale/focus of analysis, an even smaller space like the spaza/tuck shop, the cappuccino-serving café, the fancy mall or the gated residential community (http://witscityinstitute.com/wits-city-institute-home/class-xenophobia-and-xenophilia/).

My discussion revolved around physical spaces that can be pinpointed on a map, but my true objective is cultural cartography, or drawing a map that charts distance in terms of cultural kilometers, not geographical ones. To draw such a map, we need to rethink our ideas about cultural proximity and distance, and one of the forces changing these notions is the internet.

Thus, in my second discussion about CTZs, I am concentrating on virtual CTZs; for example, you can think about your Twitter/Instagram followers, WhatsApp contacts or Facebook wall with your friends as forming a cyberspace or virtual CTZ, or the website of a restaurant as its virtual CTZ. However, I don’t think it’s possible now to delineate a clear division between the physical and the virtual.

Older people and non-digital natives sometimes distinguish between IRL (in real life) and online communications/relations as if they are distinct spheres, as if IRL happens in ‘real’, tangible places on the map and as if digital interactions happen in an ‘un-real’ non-place. My point of departure in this discussion is that for some physical CTZs that are frequented by the global middle classes and situated in the digitally networked global(ising) city, there is no easy distinction between IRL and the digital. In other words, the digital and physical are mutually imbricated, intricately entangled, and co-constituted.  Many such physical CTZs have what I call a digital aura and once they have successfully branded themselves online, boast what I call a virtual halo. In turn, physical CTZs can be enhanced by this form of ‘virtual imagineering’ (Ruggeri 2007) and vice versa.

  • Digital aura (social media postings, website, marketing materials about a place).
  • Virtual halo (combination of all online/offline marketing resulting in ‘brand identity’ and/or ‘brand equity’).
  • Virtual Imagineering (borrowing the idea of ‘imagineering’ from Laura Ruggeri, a combination of imagining and engineering, because of the prevalence of online images, for example, certain styles/aesthetics/designs can be easily replicated in geographically disparate CTZs, such as the hipster café can be found everywhere with the exact same Edison bulbs, hanging plants and other décor features).

These notions can be differentially applied to various types of CTZs:

Types of CTZs

  • Transnational
  • Subnational
  • Networked
  • Delinked, linked, semi-linked
  • Nested
  • Mobile
  • Virtual

With these analytic terms in mind, I went on to try and understand if the experience of entering a new city as a tourist or a migrant has been completely transformed by technology. Google Maps, Google Earth, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Zomato and others help us navigate a city through looking at maps, images and reviews but how different are these from old-style guidebooks like the Baedeker popular in the early 20th century? The Baedeker guidebook was practically a central character in the E.M. Forster novel and subsequent film, A Room with a View, but imagine how a film or novel today would present our travels considering that many of us are more attached to our phones than our lungs?

What are the costs and benefits of moving between ‘virtually imagineered’ CTZs created by apps like Airbnb, which also manage to recreate the same look/style/aesthetic in places around the world and steer us to those particular CTZs as well. Kyle Chayka writes that, ‘technology is also shaping the physical world, influencing the places we go and how we behave in areas of our lives that didn’t heretofore seem so digital’ (2016).

Is the experience of moving between and through cities enhanced or transformed by (virtual) ride-sharing apps that enable mobile (physical) CTZs like Uber, Taxify, Lyft and Ola?  How does the omnipresence of Netflix, YouTube and social media networks on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat change the migrant/tourist’s interaction with the new place?

There are many questions to ask about this rapidly changing, globalising world but before beginning to answer these questions, we have to understand that digital apartheid, or the digital divide, means that different socio-economic classes have more or less internet access which in turn relates to the physical and virtual CTZs they occupy. In South Africa, for instance, the unevenness of internet access (as determined by actual infrastructure and price) means that 48% of the country is without access. That is about half the country and there is a difference between having access to the internet and having meaningful access.

When mapping a city’s CTZs, therefore, we discover that privilege and disenfranchisement extend to the increasingly cyber-centric world. In the world at large, about 4,2 billion people have internet access but the world population is about 7,6 billion.  The types of apps one uses, indeed if one has a smartphone and uses apps at all, is dependent on one’s socio-economic class and the type of physical (and thus virtual) CTZs one occupies. So, when drawing a cultural map of a networked city (digitally, socially, culturally interlinked) in a world of interconnected cities, it is clearly a delimited map that is at best reflective of only part of the world population, determined by socio-economic class. So, as we practice a form of cultural cartography, we must also account for the CTZs that are partially delinked from these networks in order to see the fuller picture.

References:

Kyle Chayka. 2016. Same old, same old. How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/06/hipster-aesthetic-taking-over-world

Laura Ruggeri. 2007. ‘Palm Springs’: Imagineering California in Hong Kong. In Davis & Monk (eds) Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. New York: The New Press.