Do Cartographic-Cyborgs Dream of Surfing the City?

“We are all cyborgs now”. So declared Donna Harraway (1991) in her post-humanist intervention into feminist theory when its thinking threatened to stagnate into a rigid identity politics. The claiming of the image of the cyborg from the future, for the present, aids in our thinking-through of a timeless fact: that the human animal is constituted by relations – relations with others, with the material world and ‘immaterial’ ideas, with tools and technologies – as well as the emergent fact of a hyper-technologised present characterised by a pace of change that far exceeds the adaptability of social theory. The Anthropology of Infrastructure is quite at home in this theoretical base-camp, where it is occupied with understanding these complex inter-relationships by taking the material, the object, or the infrastructure as its starting point. ‘Affect’ is one area of contribution to the anthropology of infrastructure that seeks to approach the embodied experience of this distributed subjectivity; the emotional and pre-representational qualities of inhabiting a fleshy node in a complex network of mediations. The incorporation of ‘location’ technologies into consumer devices like smartphones has added a new dimension to our cyborg-natures: we are all cartographic-cyborgs now: “so thoroughly intertwined with mapping technologies that it is impossible to say, in terms of knowledge practices, where embodied knowledge ends and technological knowledge begins” (Piper 2002). So what are the affective dimensions of being a navigationally-empowered modern urbanite?

A critical discourse, both public and academic, that has accompanied the proliferation of technologies for personal use has focused on their propensity to individuate and to atomise . The affordances of a technology like Google Maps or CityMapper could be guilty in this respect: amongst all the freedoms they afford, one is the dubious ‘freedom’ from dependence on relationships or inter-subjective ties for knowledge of urban areas and the access such knowledge affords. The disappearance of the interaction-ritual of asking a local for directions is symptomatic of a ‘democratisation’ of epistemological access to the dynamics of differentiated urban spaces. The often unexamined ‘advantage’ to these processes is the increased mobility characteristic of modernity, and its intersection with other political factors like class, gender and race. The dominant message of the advertising for these technologies is an enabling one: youthful, spontaneous, unproblematic, apolitical, inclusive experience is available to you, by a fluid and creative adoption of mapping apps.

The birds-eye-view perspective afforded by these apps, their erasure of multiple dimensions of the urban environment in the highlighting of just one: the network of light-coloured grooves that await the input of a point A and a point B to magically reveal a series of infrastructure-enabled movements to traverse the space-as-inhibitor between intention and goal. Equipped with such powerful out-sourced-cum-re-embodied cognition, we cartographic-cyborgs further embody an aesthetic/ideology of mobility, transparency, fluidity, and a kind of unblemished efficiency that seeks to minimise the messy, contingent, unpredictable heterogeneity of urban space in parallel with its tendency toward a digitised disembodiment.  This is perfectly captured in the metaphorical way we describe our internet activities: surfing the web; what better testament to the affective attachment to “unimpeded flow” (Houser, 2014) of the cartographic cyborg as he/she syphons the city through a smartphone?


Heather Houser (2014) The Aesthetics of Environmental Visualizations: More than Information Ecstasy? Public Culture 26 (2)

Haraway, Donna Jeanne (1991). “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge

Piper, Karen (2002) Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press


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