The transformation of public space : mobile technology practices and urban liminalities

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Since the mid-twentieth century, various architectural, urban, cultural, and computer science discourses have advanced the rhetoric that contemporary information and communications technologies (ICTs) will fundamentally transform the built and urban environment. More recently, communications and media studies, as well as computer science allied fields such as human computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design have directed significant attention to the urban contexts in which mobile information and communications technologies (mICT) are used, and on the so-called transformative practices of mobile ‘location-awareness’. These diverse fields, that simultaneously attend to the topics of urbanism, space, and technology, bring alternate perspectives, methods, and theories to bear on the notion of urban transformation. Yet equally, they also contribute to a growing body of discourse that situates mobile technology practices as a force of radical and positive urban transformation. This thesis argues that understanding and representing the impacts of mobile technology practices on the aesthetic, symbolic, and lived experience of urban public space is a contestable territory subject to a range of technical, socio-economic, and cultural variables that are difficult to account for from any singular disciplinary perspective. Accordingly, this thesis adopts an interdisciplinary method that examines the selected discourse through the lens of liminal theory initially developed by anthropologist Victor Turner from observations of tribal ritual (1967, 1974a, 1974b, 1977a, 1977b, 1982, 1985)—a theory that has much to say on the concepts and processes of transformation. This constructs a unique critique of claims that mobile technology practices have transformed urban public space by unpacking and examining a number of underlying assumptions and ideals that connect to key conceptual frameworks as well as disciplinary biases. From this perspective, this thesis argues that while mobile technology practices have influenced urban conditions—in both a positive and negative sense—from social practices, and workplace organisation, to ways of moving, they can be alternately conceptualised as liminal triggers that invoke ambivalent representations of urban public space over its radical transformation. The discourse examined in this thesis points to a significant investment in research that attends to the interrelationships between emerging digital technologies and the built environment in the social, cultural, and computer sciences, whereas limited engagement from the architectural discipline. As a contribution to interdisciplinary thinking the value of this thesis to the architectural discipline lies in its presentation and critique of these alternate disciplinary perspectives that have ‘made visible’ the often-abstract impacts of mobile technology practices on and within urban public space. With an eye to the current technourban imaginary and policy vehicle of the smart city, this thesis contends that from this more informed position the architectural discipline can offer much-needed critique on the relationships between emerging technologies and the built environment. The corollary of engaging and adapting a liminal theoretical gaze here is the problematisation of liminal space itself, and a further contribution to its history and methodological range.
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