|Vandalized version of Koons' Snapchat ART|
According to Lev Manovich, "every point in physical space can be said to contain some information that can be retrieved" ("The Poetics of Augmented Space, 228). When we walk through a space like Central Park, it is already littered with potentially augmentable objects and spaces rife with personal and historical information, from a bridge where a couple got engaged to a sidewalk where a person lost their life. As many spatial theorists have pointed out, the meaning of a space is determined by the actions, ideas, feelings, and desires of those who inter-act within and through it. Thus, when we ask who "owns" an augmented space, we are really asking who (e.g. a tech company, the general public, a group of people, etc.) has imposed the dominant lens, either officially or de facto, through which this augmented space can be accessed.
Mark Zuckerberg received an appropriate amount of public backlash when he chose to bring his AR "toon" to the flooded streets of Puerto Rico. In what was clearly a marketing move to promote Facebook's new mixed reality platform, Zuckerberg's gaff highlighted how merely "being" (or, in Zuckerberg's case, "not-being") in a space is itself a rhetorical act. By transposing a virtual avatar onto a space whose inhabitants are in immediate physical danger, Zuckerberg (whether intentionally or not) exposes the anesthetized rhetoric through which we experience environmental disaster as a mediated phenomenon. In other words, the AR technology Zuckerberg demonstrated in his promotional video merely magnifies a rhetorical process that occurs when we scroll through our news feed: Much like Zuckerberg's avatar, many of Facebook's 2 billion users were able to be virtually present for Puerto Rico's disaster and yet remain shielded from its material effects.
|Mark Zuckerberg demonstrating Facebook's cartoon avatars|
When we say that a space is "owned" we often conceptualize it through a discourse of commodity exchange. In the same way that a physical property can be purchased, an augmented property (i.e. a set of GPS coordinates) might be purchased so that a company can claim exclusive rights to augmenting it. Indeed, as Errazuriz laments: "We know they [tech companies] will make money renting gps spots to brands and bombard us with advertisements." Imagine walking through central park with your friends, only to be stopped every five seconds by digital Coke cans and dancing cereal mascots. In fact, this is often the kind of nightmare capitalistic scenario imagined by AR futurists. In his novel Rainbow's End, for instance, Vernor Vinge imagines a techno-dystopian future in which physical space is covered with so much augmented content that the protagonist is forced to drive miles into the countryside before he can escape it.
When it comes to AR then, maybe the concept of spatial "ownership" is the wrong way of thinking about it; rather, maybe augmented space is less about ownership and more about negotiation. As Errazuriz's AR "vandalism" demonstrates, creative (mis)uses of AR platforms is exactly the kind of thing that will shape AR's future as a platform for digital and location-based writing. As Susan Delgrange points out in her book Technologies of Wonder, "digital media are shaped by rhetorical exigency and cultural imperatives" (11). Certainly, artists and digital activists should continue critiquing corporate takeovers of digital space and exposing the inequitable power structures that foster hegemonic mediations of physical space. However, as Madison Jones and I point out in our recent webtext for Kairos, we should also pay attention to how these platforms can be leveraged as technologies for engaging with alternative or undisclosed rheorics of a space, rhetorics that may be operative in our cultural subconscious but need to be brought into more explicit view.