16 Apr

Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.  When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided.  In other words, we have the capacity to participate in local affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus, but instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc.  Just because focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed.  So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory chinatown project.  We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting.  It is intended to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience.  It is clear how the game can create a deep experience – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context.  However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.

The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking.  It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention.  Through the creation of a deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere.  We have devised many, less time consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again.  Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game.  Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking.  The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking.  In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment.  The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life.  Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.

22 Aug

Relationship model of e-government

I’ve been thinking about how we might begin to think about relationship model versus transaction model when it comes to digitally augmented government.  In most configuations of e-government there is a choice between open dialog and collective decision making.  This leaves two options: unstructured talk and structured input.  It would seem that there is something in between.   Consider something like YouTube as a platform for relationships.  If the real value in video sharing is building personal and / or intellectual connections, then the platform plays the role not of content provider, but arbiter of relationships.  Shouldn’t the government characterize its role similarly?  Shouldn’t the government be tasked with the responsibility of providing the framework for relationships, person to person, person to group, group to group, person to institution, etc.?  And not just the framework for individual transactions, but a framework that transforms transactions into a relationship investment.  For instance, one doesn’t post to YouTube simply to add to a database of videos.  The single transaction is a building block on which relationships can be built.  In other words, engagement doesn’t end with the transaction, that’s where it begins.

The most prominent examples in the States include Minnesota e-democracy or iBrattelboro, or even some of the attempts by various states, most notably Virginia, to provide web access to senate hearings.  These are all premised on the notion that the transaction itself is the act of participation (civic engagement measured by voter turnout, for instance).  Outside of the United States, there are some more interesting examples like Digital Birmingham, which has a complex big picture idea of digital democracy, and a bunch of examples in Sweden where the public is invited in to design and or participate.  Interestingly, a project in Stockholm to invite the public into the design of a new airport forced the government to pull the plug on the project because they couldn’t control the overwhelming resistance that built up against it.  But, in these participatory processes, or as one person put it, design by committee situations, problems arise when participation is limited to individual input.  The role of government is obfuscated by very specific features of the technology.

What is promising about the model of digital government as relationship platform is the possibility of turning priorities away from civic management and towards civic engagement.  Sure, efficiency and economy are important, but I think there are interesting opportunities to expand the role of government to include these more nuanced aspects of relationships.  This is what requires a change in culture.  Can digital media change the attitude that government is in place only to control or manage?  Can it instead be in place to foster opportunities for connections?

I wonder if this proposition is too heavily steeped in neoliberal discourse, or if its just the opposite?  Perhaps it succeeds in taking the emphasis away from the individual and away from established institutions by placing it on this yet-to-be-defined third space?

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.

10 Dec

Situated Technologies

Situated TechnolgiesThe reception for the new Situated Technologies pamphlet series is taking place this Friday at the Urban Center in New York City. I really wish I could be there, but with the end of the semester fast approaching, I won’t be able to get away. This looks to be an amazing pamphlet series that will surely spark some necessary connections between urbanists, architects, technologists and media producers/critics.

BTW, the first release by Adam Greenfield and Mark Shepard, entitled Urban Computing and Its Discontents is available here as a free download.

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.

28 Sep

Digital Lyceum

My colleague, John Craig Freeman, and I recently received funding from the NEH (as part of their digital humanities start-up program) to work on a project entitled “The Digital Lyceum.” This project explores the virtual architecture of the live humanities event. In other words, we’re interested in identifying how back-channels (from virtual worlds to information streams) can enhance the learning and experiential capacity of a live lecture or performance. The project started from a sense of personal angst and excitement about the use of back-channels at conferences. All too often, back-channels digress into little more than a gimmicky distraction. We began to wonder what of these technologies add to the experience and what does not. We began to talk about how events need to be choreographed, orchestrated, and designed to produce a user experience that is in fact more interesting, more productive than the unmediated version. What information streams are appropriate for what events? And how can we design experiences where the technology (however novel) does not interfere with the intended outcome of the event? Ultimately, we hope to produce software that is configurable enough to accommodate the choreographing of mixed reality events.

In the short term, we have promised the NEH that we will research how this work is currently taking place and produce a website that includes best practices and ideas. We hope to communicate with those who are building tools and those who are implementing those tools in innovative ways. We hope to provide a resource for anyone interested in staging mixed reality events. In addition to that resource, we will continue experimenting with set-up and implementation during live events including UpGrade Boston and a Mixed Reality symposium to take place at Emerson College in February. As part of this work, we will begin to identify directions for future production and study.

In choreographing technology into live events, we hope to produce more than virtual bling. We see this work as an intervention into existing cultural trends where users are consistently multi-tasking with their phones, laptops, PDAs, etc. Walking down the street, sitting in a classroom, attending a lecture – these are currently contexts for talking on the phone, IMing with friends, and browsing Facebook. So how are these streams channeled into productive activity for the specific purposes? And how can these streams function as the raw material for cultural memory? Now thoughts, in the form of chat, can be connected to events, as part of the historical record. That alone holds tremendous potential.

We just set up a separate blog for this project. While I’ll continue to post some thoughts here that are directly relevant to the subject of this blog, the day-to-day research will be documented at http://augumentedplace.org.