Can we get there from here? Teleological red-lining and avoiding the ghetto

by Jim Thatcher, Clark University

If nothing else, the past year removed any doubt as to mobile technology’s role as a potent force for social change.  From the streets of Cairo to Zuccotti Park, people used mobile technology to communicate, coordinate and act.  Dispersed protests live on in augmented reality and mass conference calls.  In this same space, David Meek discussed the increasingly “relational and reciprocally constitutive” nature of physical space and cyberplace, noting that views of online and physical space as dichotomized are increasingly outdated.  While David opened questions concerning the legitimacy of political participation and the shifting terrain of authenticity, I’d like to focus on a different question:  What happens when we allow corporations to control our movements through space?  In other words, what are the social and political ramifications of an increasing reliance upon corporate-developed technology to mediate our lived experience of physical space?

Behind every application – search, navigation, communication, etc. – lies the code necessary for the application to function.  Researchers have noted the inverse relationship between the ubiquity of computing and the conscious consideration of code (Thrift 2004; Dave 2007; Dodge et al. 2009; Kitchin and Dodge 2011; Thatcher et al. 2011).  Software ‘just works’ and thus code and its effects are left unconsidered behind the magic.

Microsoft’s recent patent for a ‘personalized’ GPS technology highlights the need to consider code directly.  The patent contains a host of ‘innovations’, including an ability to avoid extreme temperatures. Here I will focus on two.

First, and already infamous, is the ‘avoid Ghetto’ feature.  Using ‘crime statistics’, the mapping application will automatically route pedestrians away from areas of ‘high’ crime.  The statistics chosen, as well as the definition of ‘high’, are, of course, unknown.  While this feature and its implications have received the lion’s share of public attention, the patent also contains the ability to sell route directions. The application can send end-users down routes that take them through coordinated, and organized in advance, advertising campaigns.

In each case, a private corporation, using private data and algorithms, is able to select what areas of the environment are rendered visible and invisible.  In a recent paper, Daniel Sutko and Adriana de Souza e Silva suggested that reliance upon mobile spatial technologies had shifted social life from “autotelic playfulness to teleological navigation” (2011: 816).  With Microsoft’s recent patent, teleological navigation has become the potential for teleological red-lining wherein applications remove the very possibility of encountering people, places, and events deemed inappropriate.

Consumption and communication patterns across space are now open to red-lining through navigation in the name of private definitions of ‘safe’.  Technologies which avoid ‘unsafe’ neighborhoods are presented as technical, value-neutral solutions to the needs of consumers.  Technology has far outstripped critical consideration as corporations’ End-User-License-Agreements have become the de facto policy addressing the limits of mobile spatial applications.

The virtual and the real, the cyber and the physical, exist on a spectrum with each influencing the other.  At the same time, the very limits of what can be known, by whom, and where are increasingly influenced by code.  In Microsoft’s case, the implications are clear, but these same limitations exist in all code.  The necessary choices and contingent processes that go into the production of code shape the final outcome of applications, for good or ill.  As we rely upon technologies to mediate our socio-political interventions, we must also ask what they preclude from consideration.

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This is the first of what we hope will be many ‘freelance’ contributions. If you have an idea for a piece, please do get in touch.

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Dave B (2007) Space, sociality, and pervasive computing. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 34(3):381-382

Dodge M, Kitchin R and Zook M (2009) How does software make space? Exploring some geographical dimensions of pervasive computing and software studies. Environment and Planning A 41(6):1283-1293

Kitchin R and Dodge M (2011) Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Sutko D and de Souza e Silva A (2011) Location-aware mobile media and urban sociability. New Media and Society 13(5):807-823

Thatcher J, Mulligann C, Luo W, Xu S, Guidero E and Janowicz K (2011) “Hidden ontologies: How mobile computer affects the conceptualization of geographic space.” Paper presented at Workshop on Cognitive Engineering for Mobile GIS 2011 (last accessed 16 February 2012)

Thrift N (2004) Remembering the technological unconscious by foregrounding knowledges of position. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22:175-190


  1. David Sale

    Interesting stuff! GPS and geotagging, etc. are subjects that have come up many times in library school, but mostly with respect to collections…Navigation/way-finding is something we’re still addressing mainly through visual cues, though some larger institutions have created apps to guide patrons through the actual building…Odd to think that it could be used to exclude people from certain areas, i.e “closed stacks/employees only” and also – if I follow your argument – exclude those areas from patrons’ awareness or sense of place. Almost like the library in “The Name of the Rose.” Or “The City and the City” by China Mieville…

  2. Dave Todd

    The technologies that we possess today have been conceived, created and promoted by a corporate consumer system. What would such a highly advanced technosphere be like if developed in a more civil, socially just system? this is what I am trying to imagine…
    I’d like to share this idea and encourage people to develop it further. This idea could lead to a form of mobile network device, used to scan bar codes when shopping. the network accesses a database. the information in the database covers the ethics of the item’s production–it’s environmental impact, labor practices, relationship to financial institutions.
    If the product is harmful to the community, environmentally, nutritionally, it will return a “No Buy” or “skull & crossbones” response. Example: paper towels produced by Georgia Pacific, a company owned by the Koch Bros., would receive a negative rating. Anything produced using unfair labor practices, enviromentally damaging production methods, receives a negative rating.
    Any Apps that make citizen action easier, that can help coordinate any activity, not as unforeseen outcome, but as specific design intention of the device to help engage the social conscience.