Psychogeography can be sort of explained as the geography of emotion, the relation between place and feeling.

The first attempt to formalise it was in the 50’s by various Lettritsts and while they were concentrating firmly on the urban (and architecture in particular) the idea was something that continued and was further worked on by Guy Debord in Critique of Urban Geography.

I’ve long been of the opinion that the social web, the blog especially was an ideal canvas for this sort of activity — allowing as it does fast and free publication of thoughts and also, increasingly, opportunities to “tag” the locations easily. Recently though I’ve been thinking more and more about just how perfect our internet of feelings and thoughts was for the study of emotion and location. As I had re-iterated to me at the recent Cultural Mappings Symposium — place is the great unifier and connector of all sorts of data, mapping allows juxtaposition of otherwise unrelated items, and that reveals the questions we should be answering.

A problem with psychogeography as defined by Debourd and the Situtationists is that in order to prepare reports on areas the pyschogeographer (as opposed to the wandering flâneur) must submit themselves to the dérive — a kind of deliberately directionless route with attempts to let emotion act as the guide.

“the dérive, or drift, was defined by the situationists as the ‘technique of locomotion without a goal’, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. The dérive acted as something of a model for the ‘playful creation’ of all human relationships.” (‘The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age’ by Sadie Plant)

The dérive attempts to mirror the movement of the residents or users of the area — and to disorientate the pyschogeographer to document emotion rather than topography. It is doomed in this attempt as the observer by his/her very nature is not experiencing the emotion of the inhabitant. This is analogous perhaps to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (there some pairs of properties on a sub-atomic level that cannot both be know — by measuring one you alter the other), as by becoming a supposedly dispassionate observer you cannot experience the emotions as they are commonly felt.

Psychogeography has stumbled in and out of fashion, and become sidelined as a worthwhile pursuit, referenced more often as a thread in fictions than as a pure study — where in fact the relation between emotion and place is one of the most important pieces of information going.

It’s what I’m calling Conversational Psychogeography — the applying of psychogeographical method to the conversations that take place online.

There are two strands to this:

One is that the social web is the ideal place for contemporary pyschogeographers to work; the ease and speed of publishing in may media and the defined ability to place those reports discretely in geographical space — by geotagging. This is self publishing, as has long been a psychogeographical tradition,  but allowing collaboration on a scale never before allowed — and many and different ways of directly connecting information to maps. This can be cultural mappings, deliberately collected memories and emotion, or projects more related to art (such as my own 11 bus project) — the advantage of the social web is the connectivity and the collaboration.

The second is perhaps more technology-driven and hence only now becoming possible — that is to scrape the social web for emotion as it relates to place.

As a very basic exercise in this is the @birminghamuk emotional wellbeing indicator I constructed just over a year ago. It’s a very simple script that attempts to read news stories published online, blog posts tagged “birminghamuk” and tweets that are located within “Birmingham, UK”. It then analyses this against a static, but unscientific set of “emotion words” each with a rating — an emotion ‘score’ for birmingham is then produced hour by hour. It seems to work, mostly following the weather (despite the words rated but containing weather descriptions):

“Last Saturday, a weekend day of almost unremembered sunshine, the rating hit “superb” and by Sunday tea time (perhaps Villa not in Europe, Blues relegated, that dull ache of an impending Monday morning, Antiques Roadshow) it had dropped to an “average”. I’m not claiming anything scientific here, but a proper study could produce an accepted list of emotions and also factor in other measures. I’ve left the program recording the data, and at some point I’ll get round to graphing it. Overlay temperature, sports results, news items, even the price of a lager in The Spotted Dog and we might have what we need to work out what makes our city chirpy.” (About the project in the Birmingham Post)

This is a trivial example of a powerful idea — imagine all blog posts analysed both for emotion and location, imagine all social web content analysed for both. Using the textual processing used in part on the Mapping the Lakes project, with a more detailed concentration on both place and emotion — many web services already offer location extraction (Yahoo Pipes will do it on the fly for a feed) — a psycogeographical report of areas could be built automatically.

Much content is already geotagged, and with the proliferation of geo-sensitive mobile technology it’s a trend that is steadily on the increase. While more difficult, the processing of speech to extract data from services such as AudioBoo (geotagged audio content) is teetering on the brink of possibility.

In this context conversational pyschogeography allows a slicing of the internet to research almost any part of that relation between emotion and location. The sheer glut of data being created means that there are real conclusions to be drawn.

There are techniques to be drawn from the data mashing culture, and also the GIS research being done — as well as more tangentally related disciplines such as natural language processing or speech to text conversion — but in essence the ability to do this is already available.

It’s so exciting.

6 thoughts on “Conversational Psychogeography — mapping real life with the social web

  1. “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” sounds like a perfect description of web surfing, as anyone who has ever lost an hour (or more! ) on Wikipedia will recognise.

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