26 Feb

The Evolving Concept of Network Locality

Over the last few days, I’ve refined my thoughts on the concept of network locality. Up until this time, I’ve been thinking about how geographical space functions within the connectivity enabled by digital networks. But as I pursued this idea, I began to realize that starting from geography was not the most productive way to approach it. Geography is one component of network locality, but it is not the most powerful, or even the most important. The concept of the local within contemporary culture is a product of two things: access to stuff and mobility. Let me explain:

Access to Stuff is not solely possible via geographical proximity. The local begins from that which is near us. And the sense of nearness begins with that which is accessible. Other people, places, ideas, culture, neighborhood information, if accessible on networks, are near to us. They are what Heidegger called ready-to-hand. Network accessibility makes everything near. We keep our photographs, diaries, correspondences, and work documents on a network, so that they are always accessible, always near. The local emerges from this stuff, both our personal stuff and the stuff of others.

Mobility implies freedom of movement – a freedom made possible by the freedom from the aforementioned stuff. There is a distinct shift that has come with digital artifacts away from ownership and towards possession. Napster 2.0 promises access to everything, without owning any of it. Netflix provides access to millions of DVDs (and now, millions of files), without having to own. Zipcar provides access to automobiles. Google Docs provides access to software. Increasingly, digital networks provide consumers the opportunity to, as Napster’s ad campaign touted, “possess everything and own nothing.” Untethered to stuff, bodies are more free to move around in physical space. Mobility is a product of accessibility. Together, they are rearranging the cultural function of the local.

My argument in this book is that the Internet is being formed by the perpetual manufacturing of local spaces. Access to stuff and the resulting mobility provide the local frameworks through which knowledge, community, and identity get shaped.

11 Feb

Making Money in Virtual Worlds

This IBM commercial seems to poke fun at the whole virtual world phenomenon. Interesting, considering IBM is one of the largest corporate investors in Second Life. Perhaps it’s tongue and cheek, perhaps its ironic – in any case, it’s worth contemplating as a reflection of a cultural moment, where the press, the youth and their parents, are all concerned and excited by the blurring of real and virtual economies.

06 Feb

Mixed Realities Symposium

Imaging Beijing

This Friday, February 8, I will be leading a panel discussion at the Mixed Realities symposium at Emerson College. The panel is titled “Immersion, Presence and Place.” Participants include John (Craig) Freeman, Usman Haque (via Second Life), Pierre Proske (via Second Life), Michael Takeo Magruder, Drew Baker, and David Steele. Each of the artists on the panel will have their work displayed in the Mixed Realities exhibit that opens the night before. With the quality of each of the pieces represented, I’m confident that we will have an interesting discussion. The panel starts at 1pm EST at 216 Tremont Street, Boston, MA and here in Second Life.

Freeman’s piece, entitled “Imaging Beijing,” is an extension of his existing work on the “Imaging Place” project in Second Life. Freeman produces panoramic nodes of the streets of Beijing, where locals describe their personal experiences of that space, and more interestingly, how that space conjures up seemingly unrelated personal experiences. He calls this concept a memory map. The Second Life-based artwork enables avatars to walk in and out of the nodes, capturing and inhabiting the intimate street life of Beijing.

Usman Haque will be talking about the piece “Remote” by Neill Donaldson, Usman Haque, Ai Hasegawa, and Georg Tremmel. This piece produces what he calls a fundamentally “human architecture” by suturing the physical space of a Boston-based gallery with a Second Life space. The human actors in Second Life, combined with the human actors in Boston, have to work together to create a merged space – one that is comprised of the collective efforts of the inhabitants.

Pierre Proske will be discussing his piece called Caterwaul. Essentially, mixed reality wailing wall, is a physical wall built in the Boston gallery that gives people the opportunity to verbally lament the loss of their loved-one’s time in online spaces. The chorus of lamentations will then be transmitted into Second Life, where an identical wall in Second Life will broadcast those voices. By crossing over, it allows mourners to speak to the “dead.”

Finally, Michael Takeo Magruder, David Steele and Drew Baker will be representing the piece “The Vitruvian World.” Stemming from da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Magruder and his collaborators put together an installation where the human intersects with Nature and the built environment. Only now, this is manifested by the intersection of the physical, virtual and the network that connects them.

All of the pieces represented in this panel, while exploring the notion of “mixed reality,” seem to be drawing more significant attention to the “limits of reality.” In other words, where does the physical end? Where does the human end? And, where does the real end? In fact, it is the limits that provide tension in this work. We might be comfortable with a mixed reality, but when we confront the limits of familiar psychological and social categories, we grow anxious. This is what makes the work powerful, and I suspect, this is what will provide some interesting fodder for discussion.

Each of the pieces points to changing notions of place. In geographical terms, place is experienced space. It is meaningful space, enhanced by personal encounter, perpetuated by memories. But when space is “neither here nor there,” but a combination of the two, how does place take shape? Do digital spaces have the same capacity to be experienced as physical spaces? And what’s at stake? We might find answers to this question as we address the concepts of immersion and presence. Do we need to be immersed and present to experience? Consider Heidegger’s notion of dasein, or being there. For Heidegger, being was tied to presence. Human experience was always grounded in da-sein, never just sein. Is dasein possible in a mixed reality?

And finally, we might talk about the problem of attention. Multiple realities, multiple places, would seem to pull our attention in multiple directions. Does this work point to the loss of focus? Is it possible to be present, without paying attention? Or, do we need only to reconsider the current economy of attention? Perhaps, mixed realities points to new structures of attention, where we can distribute our payments for enhanced benefit.

The panel should cover some combination of these topics. If we all pay attention, perhaps we’ll arrive at some conclusions.