Self in the City: Cybernetic Auto-ethnography

In her article, Beginning to explore City Spaces, Roanna Heller recalls a summer spent in Berlin: ‘There I had lain on my back in Maur Park, on short, dry grass absorbing the city through my limbs’ (Heller: 2005, 133). She goes on to explain how unappealing her hometown of Sheffield felt upon her return, and that compared to Berlin, Sheffield left her feeling disconnected and disengaged (ibid). Drawing upon the work of Dr Allan Latham, a geographer at University College, London, Heller argues that some spaces are simply unengaging and lack opportunities for engaging (ibid).

As Such, I aimed to discover if the extent to which we engage with cities is not simply attributable to how the city presents itself, but also dependent on our own actions (Heller: 200, 133).

If the city is a system, can we examine ourselves as performative agents?

Using Heller as inspiration, can I examine my place in my hometown of Glasgow using an auto-ethnographic approach?

Auto-ethnography is a research method that describes and analyses personal experiences to understand broader cultural experiences, recognising the researchers influence on the research process, rather than attempting to ignore it.

My method was to situate myself at the centre of an anthropological investigation of my city’s landscape. The intention was to focus on my surroundings in new and different ways, creating a system for observing, and feeding back observed information to create a visual based analysis based on cybernetics.

My goal has been to create a data based analysis of my life for exactly one year by taking a photograph from my exact location, at mid-day facing precisely north each day.

A sample of 3 weeks of photographs

Using observer-as-participator research methodology (Bryman: 2004, 304) and self authored software, statistical sampling was used over sixteen equidistant points in each photograph to obtain accurate colour information as it was distributed about the photograph. The system dictated that the colour information for each of the sixteen points should be converted to a red (R), green (G) and blue (B) hex value. Each value had a numerical attribution between 0 and 255. Once the data was collected and stored, the values were converted to points on an XYZ axis: R became X, G became Y, and B became Z. The resulting shape is a visualisation of the colour contained in the photograph, or a graphical representation of a north facing direction from my position at 12 pm.

3D vector shapes made from the photographs colour data

The triangular form of many of the 3D vector shapes that were made in Processing, a computer programming environment for artists and designers, motivated a sculptural approach to the continuing research process. Representing each day of the study, 365 interlocking wooden triangles were cut from white birch. Each time the triangles are assembled a new and unique form is generated.

Untitled System Self Assembly

Holm (2008) notes the increasing prevalence of data-visualisation as a methodological approach to interpretation. The results of this project shows that by using visual interpretation methods of analysis, the data is open to multiple interpretations and perspectives. Upon reflection, I would disagree with Heller (2005) and argue that all spaces present the opportunity for engagement based on human agency and subjectivity. The requirement to take a photograph each day at a specific time stimulated a spatial awareness and provided a purpose for observing and recording my surroundings. The use of Cybernetics theory in ethnographic research provided a visual interpretation of the social world using a system of data analysis. This produced unique visual artefacts, which represent a subjective and active engagement with the city landscape.

The work is included in the British Computer society’s journal and can be found here.


BRYMAN A, Social Research Methods, 2004, UK, Oxford University Press Inc.

(Ed) GRIMSHAW A & RAVETZ A, Visualising Anthropology, 2005, UK, Intellect Books

HOLM G, ‘Visual Research Methods’, 2008. In HESSE-BIBER S. N. & LEAVEY P (Eds), Handbook of Emergent Methods, pp. 325-342, New York, Guilford Press.

LEAVEY P, Method Meets Art, 2009, New York, The Guilford Press.

THOMPSON A, Landscape and Ethnography, 16/04/2012

WEINER N, Cybernetics: Control and the Animal and the Machine, 1948, USA, MIT Press

WEINER N, Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1954/1986, UK, Avon

Appendix: The following code was used to generate the vector shapes from each days photographs.

PImage ethno;

import processing.pdf.*;

boolean record;

void setup() {

size(640,478, P3D);

ethno = loadImage(“your_image.JPG”);


void draw() {

if (record) {

beginRaw(PDF, “image.pdf”);


background (255);





camera(mouseX, mouseY, 220.0,

0.0, 0.0, 0.0,

0.0, 1.0, 0.0);


for (int i =80; i<width; i+=160) {

for(int j= 60; j<height; j+= 120) {

color c = ethno.get (i,j);

float valueR = red(c);

float valueG = green(c);

float valueB = blue(c);

vertex(valueR, valueG, valueB)




if (record) {


record = false;



void keyPressed() {

if (key == ‘r’) {

record = true;



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