Rhetorical Spaces

A blog about writing, space, and technology

Who Owns Augmented Space?


Earlier this month, Snapchat launched an art-based component to its popular augmented reality platform. The project, known as "Snapchat ART," places geo-located art all over the world, allowing users to find and view digital artworks through the Snapchat camera. As of now, Snapchat is in control of the artworks that are generated at each location and individual artists can submit proposed locations and artworks through the platform. For one of its first ART installations, Snapchat partnered with artist Jeff Koons to install a large AR balloon dog in Central Park. Within a few weeks, however, Koons' project had been "vandalized" by local NY artists, who claimed that Snapchat's project raises a number of troubling questions about space, corporate art, and digital publics that need to be addressed as AR technologies become more widespread.

As graffiti artist Sebastian Errazuriz put it in describing his counter-augmentation: "Should corporations be allowed to place what ever content they choose over our digital public spaces? Central Belongs to the City of N.Y. Why should corporations get to geo-tag its GPS coordinates for free?" The Snapchat incident highlights a central question that we will have to wrestle with in the years to come as AR technologies become more ubiquitous: who owns augmented space?

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.

However, Facebook's PR flop might have just been ahead of its time. Fast forward several decades into the future and digital avatars reporting from disaster areas might be a much more normal sight on social media. Thus, in a sense, the question "who owns augmented space?" has a much simpler, and much more banal, answer than we would like to admit: the usual suspects. Nearly every major tech company is currently vying to become the "lens" through which we view our augmented future, and although AR content will certainly be participatory and user-generated, similar to the way it is on existing social media platforms, we also know that it will be highly surveilled, infested with misogyny and racism, and, ultimately, "owned" and controlled by those who stand to reap the most benefits from it.

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.