Reading the City in a Global Digital Age

Between Topographic Representation and Spatialized Power Projects

by | Dec 8, 2003

When we think about cities, we often think about urban topography—the spaces that cause you to stretch out your map in the car. Many today say that global and digital spaces are supplanting this type of urban space. But this is only partly true. The other half of the story is that many global processes hit the ground at one point or another and digital processes are often deeply embedded in non-digital conditions. It is in this sense that I speak of the spatializing of global processes and digital processes in cities. When these spatializations are complex and produce dense globalized environments in urban space we are probably dealing with global cities, those centers for the command and management of the global economy and the place where people from around the world are likely to meet who would otherwise never do so. It is also in this sense that global cities make possible the emergence of new types of political subjects arising out of conditions of either enormous global power or often acute disadvantage as is typically the case with immigrants and refugees.

I’d like to distinguish, then, between the topographic representation of the city and understanding the city through these spatialized economic, political, and cultural dynamics. This brings a particular type of twist to the discussion on global and digital dynamics since both are associated with dispersal and increased locational options for firms, markets and households with resources/power. If the most powerful global actors are at least partly grounded in cities, then the city is a space where the mot disadvantaged groups can engage this type of power—that does not mean vanquish, but it does mean that the urban poor can become present to power and, very importantly, to themselves. The piqueteros of Argentina and the cacerolazos that we now see all over the region are an instance of this. The space of the city, as opposed to the space of a plantation, let’s say, enables this type of concrete street politics. In cities with strong global powers, this presence assumes new meaning and signals a possibility for a global politics by the disadvantaged—who are typically rather immobile, confined to their localities. This is a politics of the global that starts with local actions, but becomes global in its engagement with localized global power and in its recurrence in city after city in Latin America, and indeed around the world. A key part of this argument is the notion that the city also needs to be read in terms of the spatializing of global forces In urban space. Confining ourselves to a topographic reading is not enabling in this regard: all we would see is “here are the poor neighborhoods and there are the rich neighborhoods”, so to speak. Not all of this is new. Cities have long been key sites for the spatialization of power projects—for instance, in the infrastructures for control of past colonial empires akin to today’s current global firms and markets. Mexico City and São Paulo are the two major centers today for the top level management and coordination functions of global firms and markets in Latin America. They are two places where the most vast and strategic spatializations of global dynamics have concentrated. Buenos Aires was that until the default of 2001-02, and is, in my reading, going to be reinserted in global circuits that are likely to be even more exclusionary of large sectors of the population than they were before the crisis. In a quieter way, but humming all along, there is Santiago. If the global information economy were really placeless, as Is so often said or believed, there would no longer be spatialization of this type of power today: it would supposedly have dispersed geographically and gone partly digital.

Mine is a particular kind of reading of digitization and globalization. It seeks to detect the imbrications of the digital and non-digital domains and thereby to insert the city in mappings of the digital, both actual and rhetorical—mappings from which the city is easily excluded. And it is a reading that seeks to detect under what conditions the global economy localizes in concrete built environments. The risk in this type of effort, it seems to me, lies in generalizing, using metaphors and figurative language—in brief, to hover above it all. We need to go digging. How do we reintroduce place into economic analysis?

How do we construct a new narrative about economic globalization to include the spatial, economic and cultural elements of the global economy as constituted in cities? A topographic reading would introduce place yet, in the end, fail to capture the fact that global dynamics might inhabit localized built environments.

Analytic Borderlands.

For me as a political economist, addressing these issues has meant working in several systems of representation and constructing spaces of intersection. There are analytic moments when two systems of representation intersect. Such analytic moments are easily experienced as spaces of silence, of absence. One challenge is to see what happens in those spaces, what operations (analytic, of power, of meaning) take place there, forming what I have termed analytic borderlands. Why borderlands? Because they are spaces constituted in terms of discontinuities and usually conceived of as mutually exclusive. As analytic borderlands, discontinuities are given a terrain rather than reduced to a dividing line.

Methodologically, I focus on circuits—distribution and installation of economic operations— that cut across institutional orders. These circuits may be internal to a city’s economy or global— one site on a circuit that may contain a few or many other such cities.

Internal circuits allow me to follow economic activities into terrains that escape the increasingly narrow borders of mainstream representations of “the” urban economy and to negotiate the crossing of discontinuous spaces. For instance, it allows me to locate various components of what are considered to be backward economic sectors, including the “informal economy” (whether in New York or Buenos Aires or São Paulo) on circuits that connect it to advanced industries such as finance, design or fashion in those same cities. A topographic representation would capture the enormous discontinuity between the places and built environments of the informal economy and the financial or design district in a city, and fail to capture their complex economic interactions and dependencies. Transnational circuits allow me to detect particular networks connecting specific activities in one city with specific activities in cities in other countries. In my research I unpack the global economy into a variety of often highly specialized cross-border circuits. For instance, if one focuses on futures markets, London and Frankfurt are joined by São Paulo. Los Angeles would appear as located on a variety of global circuits (including bi-national circuits with Mexico) that would be quite different from those of New York or Chicago. Thus, we can think of these urban regions as criss-crossed by these circuits and as partial (only partial!) amalgamations of these various circuits. Topographic representations would fail to capture much of this spatialization of global economic circuits, except, perhaps, for certain aspects of the distribution/transport routes. (See Sassen, Saskia; Global Networks, Linked Cities, Routledge 2002).

Sited Materialities and Global Span.

It seems to me that analysts have had difficulty understanding the impact of digitization on cities because of two analytic flaws. One confines interpretation to a technological reading of the technical capabilities of digital technology. This is fine for engineers. But it inevitably leads one to a place that is a non-place, where we can announce with certainty the neutralizing of many of the configurations marked by physicality and bounded by place, including the urban.

The second flaw, I would argue, is a continuing reliance on analytical categorizations developed before the current digital era. Thus the tendency is to conceive of the digital as simply and exclusively digital and the non-digital as simply and exclusively that, non-digital.

One such alternative categorization captures imbrications. Let me illustrate this using the case of finance. Finance, certainly a highly digitized activity, cannot simply be thought of as exclusively digital. To have electronic financial markets and digitized financial instruments requires enormous amounts of conventional infrastructure such as buildings and airports, as well as human talent. Much of this material is, then, inflected by the digital. Likewise, cyberspace is deeply inflected by the cultures, the material practices, the imaginaries, that take place outside its realm. Digital space and digitization are not exclusive conditions that stand outside the non-digital. Digital space is embedded in the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, imaginary structures of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate. Real estate, often highly liquefied in the digital and hypermobile form offered by financial services firms, remains very physical. However, that which remains physical has been transformed by its representation by highly liquid instruments that can circulate in global markets. It may look the same, it may involve the same bricks and mortar, it may be new or old, but it is a transformed entity.

Much of what we might still experience as “local” (an office building or a house right there in our neighborhood or downtown) actually is something I would rather think of as a “microenvironment with global span,” a deeply internetworked microenvironment. A localized entity can be experienced as local, immediate, proximate and hence captured in topographic representations. It is a sited materiality. But it is also part of global digital networks that give it immediate far-flung span. To continue to think of this as simply local is not very useful or adequate. It illustrates the inadequacy of a purely topographical reading.

It takes capital fixity to produce capital mobility, that is to say, state of the art built-environments, conventional infrastructure—from highways to airports and railways—and well-housed talent. These are all, at least partly place-bound conditions, even though the nature of their place-boundedness is going to be different from what it was 100 years ago, when place-boundedness was much closer to pure immobility. Today both capital fixity and mobility are located in a temporal frame where speed is ascendant and consequential.

A bundle of conditions and dynamics marks the model of the global city. Digitization allows for simultaneous worldwide dispersal of operations (whether factories, offices, or service outlets) and the achievement of system integration. Global cities are strategic sites for the combination of resources necessary for the production of these central functions.

The spatialities of the center.

The complex management of the interaction between capital fixity and hypermobility has given some cities a new competitive advantage. This is clearly the case for São Paulo (see Ramos Schiffer 2002) and Mexico City (Parnreiter 2002) The vast new economic topography in electronic space is one moment, one fragment, of an even vaster economic chain that is in good part embedded in non-electronic spaces. There is today no fully virtualized firm or economic sector. Even finance, the most digitized, dematerialized and globalized of all activities has a topography that weaves back and forth between actual and digital space.

The center still can be the central business district (CBD), although profoundly reconfigured by technological and economic change, as we see with the multinodal CBD in São Paulo and Mexcio City. The enormous rebuilding that took place In Buenos Aires, both in the center and in the immediately surrounding metropolitan region shows us the amount of investment and the creation of whole new built environments that it takes for cities to becme part of the global economy (see Ciccolella and Mignaqui 2002). Also, the center can extend into a metropolitan area as a grid of nodes of intense business activity. Insofar as these various nodes are articulated through digital networks, they represent a new geographic correlate of the most advanced type of “center.” This is a partly deterritorialized space of centrality.

In addition, we are seeing the formation of a transterritorial “center” made up of intense economic transactions in the network of global cities. These transactions take place partly in digital space and partly through conventional transport and travel. The result is a multiplication of often highly specialized circuits connecting sets of cities.

What does contextuality mean in this setting?

These networked sub-economies operating partly in actual space and partly in globe-spanning digital space cannot easily be contextualized in terms of their surroundings. Nor can the individual firms and markets. The orientation of this type of sub-economy is simultaneously towards itself and towards the global. The intensity of internal transactions in a sub-economy such as global finance or cutting edge high-tech sectors overrides all considerations of the urban area within which it exists.

In my research on global cities I’ve found that these subeconomies develop a stronger orientation towards the global markets than to their hinterlands. Thereby they override a key proposition in the urban systems literature that cities and urban systems integrate and articulate national territory. This may have been the case during the period when mass manufacturing and mass consumption spurred developed economies and thrived on national scalings of economic processes. Today, the ascendance of digitized, globalized, dematerialized sectors such as finance, has diluted that articulation with the larger national economy and the immediate hinterland.

The articulation of these sub-economies with other zones and sectors in their immediate socio-spatial surroundings are of a special sort. Highly priced services cater to the workforce, from upscale restaurants to luxury shops and cultural institutions, typically part of the socio-spatial order of these new sub-economies. But there are also various low-priced services that cater to the firms and to the households of the workers and which rarely “look” like part of the advanced corporate economy. The demand by firms and households for these services actually links two worlds that we think of as radically distinct. It is particularly a third instance that concerns me here, the large portions of the urban surrounding that have little connection to these world-market oriented sub-economies, even though physically proximate. It is these that engender a question about context and its meaning when it comes to these sub-economies.

What then is the “context,” the local, here? The new networked subeconomy occupies a strategic geography, partly deterritorialized, that cuts across borders and connects a variety of points on the globe. It occupies only a fraction of its “local” setting, its boundaries are not those of the city where it is partly located, nor those of the “neighborhood.” This subeconomy interfaces the intensity of the vast concentration of very material resources it needs when it hits the ground and the fact of its global span or cross-border geography. Its interlocutor is not the surrounding, the context, but the fact of the global.

New Frontier Zones: The formation of new political actors

A new frontier zone emerges in the global city through an enormous convergence of people. The disadvantaged can gain presence in global cities, presence vis a vis power and presence vis a vis each other. This signals, for me, the possibility of a new type of politics centered in new types of political actors. It is not simply a matter of having or not having power. There are new hybrid bases from which to act. By using the term presence I try to capture some of this.

The fact that topographic representations obscure the existence of underlying interconnections among various fragments of a city takes on a new meaning here. What presents itself as segregated or excluded from the mainstream core of a city may actually be in increasingly complex interactions with other similarly segregated sectors in other cities in Latin America and the world. I see an interesting dynamic where top sectors (the new transnational professional class) and bottom sectors (e.g. immigrant communities or activists in environmental or anti-globalization struggles) inhabit a cross-border space that connects multiple cities.

The space of the city is a far more concrete space for politics than that of the nation. Non-formal political actors can be part of the urban political scene in a way that is much more difficult at the national level. Nationally, politics run through existing formal systems such as the electoral political system or the judiciary. Non-formal political actors are rendered invisible in the space of national politics. The space of the city accommodates a broad range of political activities—squatting, demonstrations against police brutality, fighting for immigrant and homeless rights, the politics of culture and identity, gay and lesbian and queer politics. Much of this becomes visible on the street. Much of urban politics is concrete, enacted by people rather than dependent on massive media technologies. Street level politics makes possible the formation of new types of political subjects that do not have to go through the formal political system. Argentina’s piqueteros and cacerolazos, the pro-and anti-government demonstrations In Caracas, the worlds that come together In Porto Alegre during the World Social Forum meetings, all of these instantiate a type of politics and a type of political subject that cannot be captured in the formal national political system.

Through the Internet local initiatives become part of a global network of activism without losing the focus on specific local struggles, enabling a new type of cross-border political activism. This is in my view one of the key forms of critical politics that the Internet can make possible: A politics of the local with a big difference—localities connected with each other across a region, a country or the world. These counter-geographies are dynamic and changing in their locational features. And they include a very broad range of activities, from emancipatory to criminal.

The large city of today, especially the global city, emerges as a strategic site for these new types of operations. Digital networks are contributing to the production of new kinds of interconnections underlying what appear as fragmented topographies, whether at the global or at the local level. Political activists can use digital networks for global or non-local transactions and they can use them for strengthening local communications and transactions within the city. Today, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro—and so many others — are traversed by these “invisible” circuits. There are many examples of such a new type of cross-border political work. For instance SPARC, organized by Sheela Patel started out organizing slumdwellers in Bombay, centered on women. Now it has a network of such groups throughout Asia, and some cities in Latin America.

This new urban spatiality accounts for only part of what happens in cities and what cities are about. It inhabits only part of what we might think of as the space of the city, whether understood as a city’s formal administrative boundaries or as multiple public imaginaries present among diverse urban populations. If we consider urban space as productive, as enabling new configuration, then these developments signal multiple possibilities.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her latest book is Global Networks, Linked Cities (Routledge, 2002).

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