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McLean on Remaking Digital Geographies

By the author of Changing Digital Geographies

You might be reading this on a digital device while sitting, standing or lying somewhere IRL (in real life). On the train, while watching your child play in the park, in between revisions of your nearly rejected journal article, first thing in the morning or last thing at night, situated somewhere IRL. But that acronym creates a cumbersome binary. ‘IRL’ came from its opposite – the digital – yet it implies that digital spaces are not quite real. It sharply differentiates between face-to-face interactions in so-called meatspace and that which happens via the Internet. Using IRL reflects some of the ways we think about, and engage with, digital technologies; the digital is, by inference, not-real or, at the very least, less than real.

Thinking of the digital as other than real can be problematic. We might think of the digital as intangible or immaterial and sideline the environmental impacts that our digital lives have if they are deemed to be less than real. Or the power of digital social interactions can be underestimated and the generative and destructive potential of these can be dismissed. The weight of the accumulated small interactions that accumulate in digital communications can be sidelined or diminished.

If we consider the digital as more-than-real, we may counter this not-realing. The more-than-real idea can help to explain diverse human-digital technology interactions that range from the beneficial to the costly. The more-than-real builds on more-than-human thinking that has changed how we think about human and nonhuman relations. The more-than-human idea emphasises how humans were never better than nonhumans, but always subject to relationships with more-than-humans. The growing body of more-than-human research shows that these relations can be productive or corrosive, and emphasises the agency of nonhumans. As an anti-binary idea, the more-than-human also helps break down the exceptional thinking that sets humans as above, or other than, animals and nature more broadly. Humans are not better than, or separate to, more-than-humans in this form of thinking but are a part of different ways of being. Humans are always in connection to plants, animals, and the elements rather than separate to them.

Similarly, the more-than-real idea can help us understand how the digital spaces we have made are changing us, and how we are able to change them. The digital is never intrinsically good or bad as it is formed by technologies that vary across time and space. On any given day, Facebook may be a source of solidarity for people who are challenging the patriarchy and can’t find justice or comfort through other avenues, while also facilitating misogynistic attacks on social media. Our digital technologies can help build community and reduce isolation while also enabling savage pile-ons and ratioing. The data centres that store and recover our data can provide invaluable repository services but also contribute to our carbon footprint on the same scale as the global aviation industry.

Different individuals and communities use the digital for diverse goals. For instance, Indigenous activists, academics and writers are already challenging colonial hegemonies in and through digital spaces. While there is important research emerging on how to decolonise digital geographies, questions remain about whether this is feasible, desirable or practical. Alternatives to corporate control of the digital suggests government intervention as a solution in many instances. But if governments are to take over from corporate control of digital technologies, then the histories and presences of colonial hegemonic control that these governments also carry need to be simultaneously changed. Meanwhile, the digital enables connections to Country, assertions of Indigenous presence and excellence and resistance to racist behaviours. Indigenous people are using these flawed digital technologies to strengthen communities and counter aggressive political attacks in settler colonial states. Recent research on how Indigenous people use digital technologies to participate in social media shows that these avenues of communication are highly valued and frequently used (Carlson and Frazer 2018).

Digital geographies are fluid, amorphous spaces made of contradictory possibilities. In ‘Changing Digital Geographies’, I offer stories of constructive interventions and corrosive trajectories to show the mixed qualities of digital spaces. This book offers a partial perspective on the ways in which technologies, environments and people are affected by, and co-produce, digital geographies that suggests many individuals, communities and organisations are trying to build more ethical digital spaces.

Wide-reaching structural changes are needed, however, to realise more just digital geographies. Governments and corporations need to refigure how digital geographies work and individuals might need to rethink assumptions about appropriate digital engagements. Thinking about the vast digital ecosystems – the data centres, the satellites, the wires, the energy producers – that contribute to our digital lives is another important step. Grounding everyday digital lives in this broader context might help avoid not-realing, too, as we can’t help but take seriously the substantive environmental and social consequences of our growing digital footprints. The more-than-real is increasingly a part of our everyday lives and how we manage that presence, and its impacts, will shape diverging digital futures.

Jessica McLean is a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University, Australia. Her research focuses on two areas: digital geographies and water cultures. Both research areas call for critical, engaged and situated research praxis, building on partnership approaches with community groups and individuals who are working in Indigenous, feminist and digital rights contexts. Jessica has published in a range of academic and accessible publications on topics relating to environmental justice, digital lives and the Anthropocene.