30 Aug

More Thoughts on Net-Locality

Allen Smith, who works for WHERE, contacted me about my last post with an interesting corrective:

“I always thought about recent phone technology as allowing the
internet to come out into the world and overlay it with information, I
never thought of it the other way around, “extending the idea and
functionality of location into the network.”

I agree that “net-locality” is about the internet coming out into the world; however, it is equally true that social norms and meanings of physical location are constructing the norms and meanings of networked interaction. In other words, people are compelled to use the tools to assist with the sorts of social interactions they would like to experience in physical space – sharing ideas, sharing places, making plans, and benefitting from the wisdom (or madness) of the crowd. Perhaps it’s like the difference between a manual and electric screwdriver – each can get the job done, but one can do it more efficiently. Net-locality, in some respects, is more efficient location.

My question for Allen, and my question in general is: what’s the relationship between face-to-screen and face-to-face?

If, in fact, net-locality is about more efficient location, how can we keep the technology from displacing us from location? Manuel Castells predicted that the space of flows was to overtake the space of places. But I’m convinced that the space of places continues to influence the meaning of social life – as an idea in the network as much as a physical location. But how is this engineered? It gets back to the above question: if we’re really interested in enhancing human connections and place identification through computer augmentation, how do we negotiate the user’s focus? How do we use the technology to build meaningful places and relationships, and not just meaningful networks?

29 Aug

Location widgets

Location is the next frontier in computing. The company uLocate has announced a competition for developers to make location-based widgets. uLocate’s new location-widget feature, called simply Where, is essentially a collection of little programs that mash-up data from the Internet with a user’s location. And this competition is intended to facilitate the rapid expansion of these widgets within the Where platform. But, what’s the point of these applications besides being clever or cute? What is the social function of location? In other words, what’s the life of these applications in the larger context of mobile computing. Is location truly the holy grail?

Where.com

Location aware software is net-locality. It is extending the idea and functionality of location into the network. Net-locality can either serve to colonize places into systems (in Habermasian terms), or invigorate places through communication. It depends on context. What is intriguing about the commercial fervor over mobile computing is that the result of net-locality is not considered. The goal is to locate. But the reason for locating is neither here nor there.

Constant access to information is convenient and potentially useful, but when we consider mobile computing, we have to consider how that computation enters into the existing practices of space. For instance, how are people using phones to gather information when in public spaces? Are they looking down and disengaging from their surroundings or are they integrating the tool into the environment? In short, does net-locality hinder engagement with location? If the answer to this question is yes, how can we design spaces or tools that might minimize that result?

There is another interesting tension that I’ve yet to fully explore – and that’s the distinction between business rhetoric and user rhetoric. On one hand, computing has gone mobile. On the other, mobility has extended the functionality of computing. There is a distinction here that I will tease out in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that location is a product – and it is being heavily marketed to unsuspecting consumers.

28 Aug

Putting Theory into Action

Everything is going full speed ahead. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has agreed to fund the first phase of the Hub2 program. They’re going to pay for student tuition, evaluation, TA support and design. It’s great news and we’re thrilled that they’ve taken a chance on this experimental program. Now that the money is in place, we actually have to contend with the realities of starting and managing a successful program. This is the “oh shit” moment. Gene Koo and I have spent countless hours thinking about the theory behind the Hub2 initiative – we have written an article entitled “Placeworlds” that lays out the general theory behind what we’re trying to do, and we have developed a curriculum that will deploy the theory. Now all there is left to do is implement.

This is where all those uncontrollable factors come into play. For instance, there will be sixteen students in the class, all with divergent agendas, there will be snags in the technology, and we will find ourselves in the position of having to compromise the theory for practical application. I know this is all part of the process – and there is much to learn about how people learn and engage with new technologies – but this all becomes more difficult when the theory or methodology is so clear at the beginning. We have to be willing to adapt to unforeseen conditions and more importantly, we have to be willing to acknowledge inaccuracies in our theoretical agenda.

As Labor Day approaches and school begins, we are at the precipice of that exhilirating and horrifiying collision point between theory and practice. I just hope I have to time to process the exhilarating part as I’m sure I’ll be spending much of my time gazing at “the horror, the horror.”

03 Aug

Placeworlds

As we consider our theoretical justification for using Second Life to facilitate civic engagement, we’ve come up with the notion of placeworlds. Below is a sketch of the concept:

Place is experienced space. It is what happens when geographic space takes on meaning of any sort – as an object of memory, or desire, or fear. Place can be produced through happenstance (the space of a first kiss), through narrative (the space of childhood that is persistently articulated with story), through familiarity (the space one lives each day), or through representation (the space of art or advertising). Places can be fleeting or lasting. Just as quickly as spaces are marked with meaning, they can be unmarked, forgotten or replaced with something else. This can be the product of literal transformation (an apartment building torn down and replaced by a parking lot) or personal preference (a park shared with an old friend who is no longer a friend).

The identification with place is an important method of organizing personal experience and social actions. While it may seem like a nebulous construct, place is arguably the most concrete marker of lived experience. Meaningful encounters with the built or natural landscape are necessarily a part of every life; yet, these encounters, when not cultivated through social processes are fleeting – either through gradual fading or aggressive erasure. Place is how people make sense of their social lives; yet there is little built into our civic organization that acknowledges this. American civic life tends to focus more on what Habermas calls systems –economic, social, political or cultural logics that determine and organize patterns and flows of social existence. Communication and transportation infrastructures, markets, political processes – all of these systems, according to Habermas, are in the process of colonizing what he calls “lifeworlds.”

The concept of lifeworld has a long history. It has phenomenological roots in Schutz and Husserl as an individually recognized form of “being in the world” or a kind of pre-interpreted reality that can be subjectively grasped at any moment. Husserl suggests that every experiencing subject operates within a horizon that is constantly altered as perspectives change. What is natural and familiar within an individual’s horizon at any given time is the lifeworld. Habermas takes issue with the phenomenological definition of this concept: “In the frame of the philosophy of consciousness,” he argues, “the ‘experiencing subject’ remains the court of last appeal for analysis” (1987, 130). Habermas’ intervention repositions lifeworld away from the experiencing subject and towards the social situation. But situations are not sharply delimited. They come into relief by “themes and articulated goals and plans of action” (1987, 122-123). In other words, a lifeworld comes into being when a group of people can come to a mutual understanding of something. A lifeworld is the ability for groups to share and build upon a common understanding of “who we are” (Friedland, 2001) through the cultivation of a sense of common goals and purpose.

That common goal or purpose is often place. Most lifeworlds exist in space (with the possible exclusion of network spaces, which we will address in the next section). Therefore, most situations produce place. Whether this is a street corner, a favorite hang-out, a neighborhood, or a playground, places are particularly well-suited for establishing common purpose among groups of people. When places are manufactured through communicative action, we can refer to them as placeworlds. Put another way, places become worlds when they are established and reinforced through deliberative dialogue. Placeworlds are more persistent than places alone – while place is simply experienced space (individually or collectively), a placeworld is formed when a group brings a place into shared relevance through communication. When a community organizes around a park that the city has earmarked to transform into a parking lot, they gather and deliberate over a given space and form shared understandings of themselves in relation to that space. This is a placeworld. When youth gather downtown to see and be seen, they create a shared understanding of that space’s function. Even if not consciously, the social actors in that situation all contributed to defining the rules and norms of the space, and have arrived at a common understanding of its meaning. This is a placeworld. Placeworlds matter for a group’s sense of purpose, social status and ability to organize as a political subject. But as we stated in the introduction, in areas with heavy poverty that are in most need of services, interventions are focused almost exclusively on repairing systems – economic, social or political organizations that have fallen into disrepair. The function of placeworlds are rationalized into the function of systems, and as a consequence, put into the service of systems. In Habermas’ language, they are colonized.

While this don’t address the use of Second Life, we believe that our intended use of the application is capable of producing the kind of group identity around place described above.

This will be tested and put into action this Fall. There will be two courses offered at Emerson College. Download the flyer here: Hub2 Flyer