Data and the Culture of Real Estate, from Atlanta to Zillow

I live on the Eastside of Atlanta, Georgia, where I cannot go a single block without seeing a “for sale” sign. Many of the single-family bungalows on the market in this area are gut rehabs, bought on the cheap and flipped for a profit by independent speculators or major investment firms on Wall Street. These homes are practically new—all but for the most foundational elements, a footprint or facade, which are required to preserve generous zoning laws concerning the size and placement of the house. On abundant empty lots or at the site of teardowns, newly constructed houses (o en two or more times the size of surrounding dwellings) are springing up, out tted and priced to sell to a new affluent population flooding the “Intown” neighborhoods of the city.

An excerpt from the new book published by MIT Press

Frequently, like me, these newcomers hail from outside the state. Meanwhile, traces of former communities linger in view. At the main intersection near my house is an abandoned bodega with a sign that reads “IFFY GROCERY”; the “J” is missing. An Ailanthus altissima—the “feral tree” from chapter 2, often characterized as a symbol of a neighborhood in distress—grows at the edge of the store’s parking lot. One block away, a yard is spotted with the personal effects of an evicted family that I never met: a laminate wood dresser, box spring, pair of jeans, and grade school activity sheet. But such sights are fleeting; the emptied-out house does not go unoccupied for long.

This latest housing shift, a rebound from the 2007 crisis, is made possible by many things: the changing lifestyles of well-heeled professionals who now put a premium on urban living, increasing economic inequality, subprime lending practices, and as I will focus on here, a “culture of real estate” enabled by the recent widespread availability of data on property values. Communication scholar Joshua Hanan explains this emergent culture as one that combines nostalgic desires for domestic comfort with aspirations for profit and social ascendance.

Like many others purchasing a home in the area, my partner and I used a traditional real estate agent, but also the digital listings of available homes on platforms such as Zillow.com, which offers prices and inviting depictions of interiors, yet little indication as to the history of neighborhoods, or the implications of buying a house in the current cultural and economic climate. As in many urban centers across the United States, home prices within Intown Atlanta have fluctuated wildly over the past few years. In 2011, the median home value in Atlanta was $205,000. It dropped to $152,500 in 2012. By 2016, it had risen again to $250,000. But the cost of homeownership is not the only story. Between 2012 and 2014, 95 percent of rental units constructed in Atlanta were luxury apartments. At the same time, affordable rentals are being demolished systematically to make room for units with a higher return for developers and landlords.

When seen simply as a stream of incoming sales data, Atlanta can look like a city rising up or population left behind, depending on your point of view. Either way, the future of Atlanta is increasingly viewed through data. Consumers most often encounter these data through what experimental humanities scholar Ed Finn writes about as an “interface layer,” formed by tightly curated user experiences meant to shield audiences from the messy sociotechnical conditions of data collection as well as the implications of their use. If data can be considered as texts, interfaces are contexts: the settings in which data are meant to be fully understood.

This brings me to the fifth principle that supports this book’s overarching claim: interfaces recontextualize data. Running counter to the lessons of previous chapters, today’s interfaces often manifest the aspirations of digital universalism, introduced at the beginning of this book. Universalizing interfaces to data seek to further the ideology of placelessness by integrating data from anywhere and aiming to work equally well everywhere. In order to create and maintain this illusion, such interfaces first delocalize existing data sets, removing all traces of the places in which they are made, managed, and otherwise put to use. Then they present uprooted data within new contexts: unimpeded by the details of data production, unburdened by ethical quandaries that might accompany their use, and free from concerns about their unintended consequences. Such interfaces are known by user experience designers as being “frictionless.”

Whether you are looking for somewhere to live, a good meal, information about events in your area, or a ride to work, a new economy of interfaces stands ready to serve you through a series of transactions with data that can be carried out on any net- worked personal computing device.10 The data that enable these services are created at the local level, collected by civic institutions or crowdsourced from the users them- selves. They are rapidly mobilized by data brokers, who build and maintain national- or international-scale data infrastructures for pro t.11 The boosters of this new “smart” lifestyle are ushering in a new kind of individualism tailored for a uent and tech-savvy urban dwellers.

Consider their tag lines: Yelp, an online directory of restaurants, shopping, and other services, can make sure you “connect with great local businesses.” Nextdoor, a place-based social media platform, invites you to “discover your neighborhood.” Uber, a networked car service, equates “getting there” with personal freedom: “your day belongs to you.” Zillow, the real estate website, will help you “find your way home.” These interfaces promise not only access to data but also the operational context to easily act on them.

By operational context, I mean an interface that is procedurally generated from computer code, and composed of visual, discursive, and algorithmic processes that connect existing data to concepts as well as resources that can support their use. Indeed, interfaces are not places per se. Rather, as media theorist Alexander Galloway notes, interfaces are best understood as processes. Visual processes, such as mapping or graphing, help users see patterns in data. Discursive processes offer ready-made narratives through which to frame those patterns as reality. Algorithmic processes enrich data by generating new value from existing inputs. These interface elements are more than representational because they transform data on the city—for instance, in terms of prices, distances, and rankings—into drivers for local and highly personalized behavior. As in the example of the arboretum in chapter 2, data don’t just describe contemporary places; they are a functional part of the way that those places work.

Yanni Alexander Loukissas is Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of Co-Designers: Cultures of Computer Simulation in Architecture.

This excerpt from Yanni Alexander Loukissas, All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019) is used by permission of the author and MIT Press.

Author: Tropics of Meta

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