Friday, October 9, 2009


Since I’m off on a long distance flight on Sunday I thought I’d give a plug to the Aeromobilities book edited by Saulo Cwerner, Sven Kesselring and John Urry (Routledge, 2009). It brings together a collection of essays that explore the modern airport and air travel in general from a broad social sciences perspective.

Myself and Martin Dodge contributed a chapter on the role of software in governing and regulating how airports operate and in particular how contemporary airports consist of a set of interlinked code/spaces – that is spaces that are dependent on software to function as intended (to check people in, to pass through security, to move baggage from one place to another, to let people into a country, and so on). Our argument is that the transduction of code/space is not deterministic (i.e., software determines in absolute, non-negotiable means everyday practices) or universal (i.e., such determinations occur in all places and at all times in a simple cause-and-effect manner), but rather that the work that software does in the world is emergent, relational, contingent and embodied in nature. Code/space is never consistently created and experienced the same, but rather it is always (collectively) produced by people and code; it is always in a state of becoming, emerging through individual performances and social interactions that are mediated, consciously or unconsciously, in relation to the mutual constitution of code/space.

In other words, software’s ability to do work in the world is always mediated by people – either through a direct interface between passenger or worker, or through gatekeepers who take the outputs of a program, interpret the results, and negotiates with a passenger(s) or fellow worker(s). What this means is that how travelers engage with software and its gatekeepers (the travel agent, check-in, security, immigration staff, and so on) and react through embodied practice varies between people and is contingent on their abilities, experiences, knowledges, and the context in which interactions occur. It is a social and cultural event, not a simple, deterministic exchange or an act of naked governmentality, and it unfolds in multifarious, ever-changing ways.

In this sense, the code/spaces of air travel are of-the-moment and performative. The airport is never repeated exactly twice and never fully predictable or ordered (though that is what systems of management and regulation aspire). If there is a seeming orderly pattern at a broad-level it is because the various parts of the airport assemblage are citationally performed and people and systems are employed to make air travel work in particular ways. The airport is remade as the airport continuously – cleaners clean; security guards patrol; food is prepared, served, cleaned away; planes land, taxi, disgorge passengers and luggage, are cleaned, re-fuelled, serviced, re-boarded and leave; passengers and luggage flow through the various circuits and are helped on their in various ways (by signs and flight information display screens, by printed boarding cards, by audible announcements, by customer service agents). If one spends time in the airport observing what is happening its diverse realities become all to clear. And much of this work in citationally reproduced through people and code doing work together. This becomes very apparent if a software system fails and the space fails to be produced as intended (e.g., the check-in area becomes a waiting room) and passenger flows rupture into flux.

In order to illustrate our arguments we detailed observant participant research that focused on three key sites and practices – checking-in, security screening, and immigration - in a number of airports to illustrate how code/spaces are diversely transduced, contested and negotiated.

What this all means is that every trip through an airport turns into a research expedition and I’ll have my notebook at hand to capture observations and useful nuggets of information! It'll be no different this Sunday.

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