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Will Payne at the American Association of Geographers

This spring, we were pleased to offer several grants to help support our students in sharing their research at the premiere conferences in their field. Below, Will Payne reflects on his experience at the American Association of Geographers this April in Boston, MA.

This past month, I used travel grant funding from the Berkeley Center for New Media to support my participation in the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Boston. The paper I presented, “Location-Based Services Avant La Lettre: The Zagat Survey and Quantified Lifestyles in 1980s,” was part of a series entitled “Digital \\ Human \\ Labour”, organized by geographers at Oxford, the Open University, and the University of Washington who helped organize the newly constituted Digital Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG. The paper came out of archival research I conducted, also with BCNM support, on the pre-digital origin of contemporary urban location-based services in the shifting professional world of early 1980s New York City.

PastedGraphic-2In the early 1980s, New York City lawyers Tim and Nina Zagat created a new kind of restaurant guide, the Zagat Survey, aggregating individual preferences based on social scientific methodologies and designed to meet the expanding informational needs of a growing professional services class in a deindustrializing city. In my paper, I trace the contradictions inherent in this new cohort assuming more control over the city’s cultural capital through a guide hailed as a populist rejoinder to the tyranny of elite restaurant reviewers, but only made possible by the spread of microcomputing technology and work practices in white collar workplaces. I use the Survey to trace the pre-history of contemporary digital location-based services like Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Local through their most direct (semi-)analog antecedent, revealing some of the ways in which aggregated reviewing systems have shaped both the experience and form of cities across the Global North.

In addition to presenting my own paper at the conference, I helped to organize a three-session series on “Real Estate Technologies: Genealogies, Frontiers, and Critiques,” which drew together a group of papers from geographers, sociologists, new media scholars, and others to examine how a wide variety of technologies reorder existing exchange practices, spaces, and relationships, capture and create accumulation frontiers, and render property technical, quantifiable, and governable. In both presenting original research and helping to convene these conversations, BCNM support was invaluable in helping me develop as a scholar and collaborator.

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