26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

12 Oct

Reality: To Augment or Mix?

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is the premise that the addition of the virtual onto individual consciousness somehow alters that consciousness such that it cannot integrate the virtual into its horizon. Let me try putting it another way: when we interact with screens, we are simply experiencing reality within some context of mediation. However, when we add the element of the virtual (read: virtual world), the real, as a state capable of assimilating mediation into its fold, becomes something that collapses to the point of having to ‘augment’ itself into something different, or mix (sit alongside) something discreet. Why isn’t a singular reality capable of dealing with “reality representations” (in the form of virtual worlds) without having to compromise its integrity or ability to deal with mediation? I think it is. This might sound mundane, but perhaps we should shy away from using terms like reality to define information-enhanced spaces and/or virtual environments. Digital media, like all media, comprise the perceptual material through which we assemble our individual understandings of reality. They don’t sit along side it, or augment it, in ways different from “traditional” screen media. So, whether a narrative is displayed in an urban square, or an urban square is recreated in a virtual narrative space, we continue to assimilate these representational modes in a reasonably cohesive environmental knowledge. In other words, I understand my neighborhood and my city in a particular way – whether it is influenced by virtual immersion, cinematic representation or information, or simply conversations with neighbors and strangers, it is manifested, in practical terms, into a single understanding, or lifeworld.

While I understand that these terms have rich histories in disciplines of inquiry, from virtual reality to augmented reality to ubiquitous computing, I wonder if it isn’t more productive for the humanistic disciplines to assume an integrated reality rich with varied signals. This redirects the problem from figuring how to assemble fractured notions of the real to figuring how to avoid contradiction and displacement. Technologies, from virtual worlds to tiny screens, can accomodate presence and integration, just as much as they can bisect perceptions of the real into two overlapping or juxtaposed fields.

05 Oct

Hub2 – Entering the Design Phase

SL platforms

For the last four weeks, we’ve been doing some general thinking about how cities, digital networks and virtual worlds might fit together. We’ve talked about the relationship between play and urban spatial practice, and we’ve pondered the general success of the spaces we daily occupy in the city of Boston. Everyone in my class is going to focus on Government Center – the rather unimpressive public space that sits in the city’s center. But, in accordance with program’s methodology, we needed to divide the participants into organic groups. They needed to congeal around certain issues about which they care strongly.

To address this, we created six platforms in Second Life, each with a unique label (play, control, collaboration, dialogue, conflict resolution, and expression). The participants went to the platform that best described their vision for the space. Their avatars assembled and had conversations, and then they went to other platforms to have different conversations. As a means of breaking a large group into smaller groups, I found the process to be absolutely successful. I was impressed with the targeted nature of the dialogue and the spirited debate that ensued. The hour-long exercise resulted in a fairly strong identity for three groups – expression, play, and collaboration.

The discussion will continue in a forum for the next several days, but we hope to have the groups finalized by next week.

01 Oct

Report on Localism

Information Society

Knowledge Politics just released a pamphlet on the topic of “Localism and the Information Society.” This collection of brief essays is motivated by the desire to see better integration of ICTs into neighborhoods and cities. As stated in the introduction:

“new communication tools actually have the ability to strengthen traditional, local relationships. This premise rests on what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that people care about their communities, they feel pride in their home town or village, they want to know the people around them. We may be approaching an era of extra-territoriality, but a community is much more than just a territory.”

This collection provides a wealth of references to local networking organizations in the UK and suggests that there is considerable momentum there on the level of local and regional governments to find positive solutions for the integration of technology into local life. The concept of community networking is distinct from the existing discourse on e-democracy, in that the goal is to orient people locally, not just to enroll them in a-spatial democratic organizations.

As Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, membership in organizations is actually on the rise (i.e. web-based, interest driven communities), but membership in local groups (i.e. neighborhood associations, local clubs, etc.) is on the decline. So, participatory culture does not necessarily equal civic engagement and, as Putnam explains, does not necessarily lead to an increase in social capital. The intention of sites like UpMyStreet.com and Areyoulocal.co.uk are to provide local connections between people – conceived in direct response to the more generalized community groupings of Myspace, et. al. This kind of site is much more pervasive in the UK than it is in the United States. I’m not sure why. But I find this to be an intriguing question. Perhaps Putnam is correct in assuming that Americans are less socially engaged and therefore less interested in local engagement. Or perhaps it comes down to funding mechanisms that are less established in the United States.

In any case, there are questions that remain about these community networking sites. Do they succeed in creating more engaged citizens? Do they succeed in connecting people to location, or do they merely extend location out into the web? And what does the engaged citizen look like? Do they simply attend more neighborhood socials? Or do they organize other neighbors for political action? The big question for me is: what is the measure of success?

This report is a great place to start to answer some of these questions. One of the proposed solutions to the varied applications for community involvement is the Top-Level Domain (TLD) – a domain that is defined by cities and therefore more capable of organizing incentive for involvement. I’d like to explore this idea further: Do city sponsored domains command more participation than private domains?