22 Jul

Immersive Planning

Methods of engaging communities in urban planning decisions have remained relatively stagnant. Groups of people are assembled into community centers, school cafeterias, and libraries and are asked to provide input on the professional discourse of architects and planners. They are shown drawings, computer generated renderings, even 3D models and are then “listened to” as a means of informing the process. While these practices are designed to elicit useful, one-time feedback, they are not designed to build real understanding, or to provide the framework from which to build trust between the constituents, designers and stakeholders. Cities, towns, neighborhoods, and blocks are lived spaces. Design facilitates social interaction, individual perceptions and cultural production – but it is not an end in itself.

The strategy of “Immersive Planning,” on the other hand, begins from the assumption that community engagement through shared, collaborative experiences of space provides the necessary framework from which people can meaningfully engage in the urban planning process. Inviting communities to participate in the transformation of their lived spaces is not simply about assisting in the design; but also, and more importantly, it is about creating the trust and understanding necessary for trained professionals to collaborate with the lay public on reaching good decisions. Immersive planning typically implements new media tools to reproduce the qualities of urban space, including:

1) an individual’s co-presence with others (public spaces are typically not solitary)

2) participation (public spaces typically invite some kind of participation from shopping to talking to eating);

3) social experience (public spaces are not experienced out of context – individuals bring financial hardships, fast pace of modern life, and relationships to them).

Immersive planning builds off of some existing experimentation in planning practice: Participatory GIS (PGIS), where groups collaborate on designing and plotting maps, and visualization, where 3D, realistic fly throughs are created to give lay people a sense of cinematic realism.  But these existing methods of engagement are lacking in some important ways.  While PGIS is collaborative, it is largely abstract and cerebral; and while visualization implies immersion, it does so only through cinematic distance.  Immersive planning, on the other hand, is an attempt to correlate the best qualities of these various techniques, providing a platform for collaboration and cooperation, while also providing a premise for presence through narrative and role play.

In short, immersive planning connotes immersion both in a virtual space, but also in issues and social experience.  After all, urban space is nothing, if not immersive.

10 Jul

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

We’ve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for “augmented deliberation,” but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in people’s ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to “inhabit” their avatar “as if” they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they weren’t sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, we’re taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  I’ve partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and we’re using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, “Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments,” they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone else’s digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., “I did poorly on the test because I didn’t sleep well the night before.”).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., “He did poorly on the test because he’s not that bright.”).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what we’re trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say “gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances,” not simply to say “those people don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re missing.”

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game we’re designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes.

14 May

Urban Spectator

Here’s the cover of my book.  It’s finally going to come out, even though it’s still months away.  The book looks at something I call possessive spectatorship in the American city, a way of looking that doubles as a kind of collecting.  I trace this idea from the late 19th century to the early 21st century, culminating in a discussion of what I call the digital possessive, which is manifested in the Database city – a city with no content other than to grant access to content.  The book covers a good span of American urban history, but I’m careful not to characterize the book as an urban history.  It does not  really tell the history of the American city; however, that history is a backdrop to a history of urban spectatorship.

13 May

Paying Attention to the Local

While new mobile technologies are often characterized as distractions from the world around us – just consider the outcry over train operators texting while driving – they are, in fact, technologies of attention.  They get us to pay attention to them.  Actually, that’s not true.  We don’t pay attention to our devices, we pay attention to what our devices mediate.  We pay attention to our girlfriend (as is the case of the Green Line operator in Boston); we pay attention to restaurant reviews; we pay attention to that latest iPhone app.  These little devices have the remarkable capacity to organize our attentional allocation away from the living, breathing world around us and towards miniaturized icons and intermittent text.  It’s remarkable when you consider how critics of modernity lamented the presence of the very large and present in our urban landscapes as defilers of focus.  And crtics of post-modernity (if that’s what we want to call it) lament the presence of the very small and distant as instigators of distraction.

But the truth is – these very small devices don’t only distract us from the world that is in some a priori manner; they focus us on certain things that are equally constructive of our worlds.  I am not saying they can’t take us away from where we are; in fact, that’s very possible, even probable.  But that is just one of their capabilities.  Mobile technologies can also draw our attention to things that matter in the environment.  Consider Wikitude.  They can attach our focus to the world around us, even if that happens by pulling information from the web or connecting to a friend not physically present.   It is all a matter of design.  Mobile technologies should be considered tools for the urban attentional architect.  How can they be used to draw attention to certain things while not precluding experience outside of their mediating power?  How can they make a user aware of the architectural significance of a building, while encouraging an interaction unmediated by the device?  Mobile technologies do not have to dominate any given experience.  Properly designed, urban experience can be a complex interweaving of networked information, face-to-face encounters and the presence of physical structures.  Urban architecture is not just physical.  It is attentional.  What we pay attention to in the urban environment is subject to design well beyond the boundaries of buildings.   But architects and technologists are largely ignoring this aspect of urban experience.  I wonder if there can be a role for attentional architects in the future of urban design.

14 Aug

Mixed Reality Deliberation

The goal of Hub2 is to introduce a deliberative process into community meetings that currently does not exist. Who do this by integrating Second Life into the existing community process. We believe that the affordances of the tool and the specifics of the practice we built around it, we are adding the following:

  • collaboration – allowing a group of people with a shared interest in a space collaborate with one another to create a product (in our case, this is a “virtual sketch” of the proposed park).
  • evaluation – allowing that same group to evaluate their own work, and their own experiences (facilitated by their avatars), instead of simply responding to often confusing plans or architectural diagrams.
  • understanding through experience – by turning abstract concept drawings into “concrete” representations, people have a better chance of making sense of complex spatial dynamics or urban planning principals.

As we continue to conduct these community workshops, and continue to adapt our process to the pecularities of the design process, we are realizing that our main purpose is to help the group most productively realize their role as community informant. The city, the developers and the designers come to the community for input, and unless a deliberative process is put in place, that input gathering can be quite shallow. Currently, communities are forced to respond to a problem or a proposal with limited knowledge and limited information.

We’re watching our every move and assessing whether or not this “mixed-reality deliberation” is in fact working. Based on our current observations, we can say that it is working, even though we are constantly pushed up against the limits of the technology and the political realities of any development project. We hope that by the end of this summer, we can say with confidence that we have designed a process that works, with a technology that’s accessible. And once we do that, we can start to consider the implications of virtual technologies on communities more generally, specifically, how the product of mixed-reality deliberation (the virtual sketches produced) can be meaningful in their own right.

13 Aug

Digital Birmingham

The City of Birmingham, UK is working on a significant transformation in image. As it is described on the Digital Birmingham site, the city seeks to transform its industrial past into a digital future. The initiative seeks to tie together all the digital efforts in the city into one portal. Wi-fi initiatives, coupled with resources on online safety, digital film exhibitions, and conferences, are all aggregated through Digital Birmingham. While much of this effort is directed toward PR and tourism, there are other pieces that are legitimately pushing the envelope of participation and transparency in city government. Even those pieces, ironically, that are directed towards PR and tourism.

The Virtual Birmingham initiative is a good example of this. Spearheaded by the company Daden Limited, this initiative is “leading discussions with partners on how Birmingham can be represented and promoted in a 3D virtual environment such as Second Life that would address specific needs from the visitor economy, attracting inward investment and putting Birmingham ‘on the map’.” The results, thus far, are some incredibly interesting designs in Second Life that integrate Google Maps with the virtual environment. The goal here is to make the map immersive – clicking on places and then walking your avatar through them. Currently, in what’s called a “briefing center,” avatars can walk on the map, bring up wikipedia, BBC or CNN newsfeeds, represented by familiar Google placemarkers. When I spoke with David Daden about the project, he expressed interest in turning it into a planning tool – fleshing out the entire map with virtual models to reflect the city’s various uses.

The possibilities here are quite exciting, although I don’t know in what direction the city intends to take this. One could imagine that the Second Life map could function as a portal into a deep urban database, that includes civic information as well as social information. Using the map as the anchor for virtual designs is exactly the right way to go. However, it will take a lot of convincing to get cities to invest in the virtual technologies for the enhancement of their own citizens, as on the surface it appears that the primary use is as spectacle or immersive representation.

That said, my hat’s off to Birmingham, a city that is taking more of a chance than any other I can think of. Certainly, Boston has a ways to go before it adopts virtual (let alone digital) technologies with such enthusiasm.

25 Jul

Located Publicity

It has been some time since I posted to my blog. This is primarily because I found myself quite busy working on my new book, whose title has changed to “Location Matters,” with some snappy subtitle to bring it all home. What follows is a section from chapter two that describes the concept of located publicity, which is a reversal and adaptation of Raymond Williams well known designation of “mobile privatization.”

Commonly, location aware technologies are associated with mobility or mobile computing. While this association makes good sense, there remains an important distinction. Location aware technologies enable people to be mobile, but mobility, in this sense, is a byproduct of locatedness. Mobility refers to the practice of “computing on the go,” of accessing one’s information regardless of where one is. But this practice is obviously contingent on the ability of a device to be located and connected to a network. Device location is a prerequisite for device mobility; both of which inform the cultural expectation of locatedness. I can only be located if I can locate my data from wherever I am. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is actually quite important. Thinking of contemporary digital culture as mobile culture takes away from the more significant effects of location culture. “Computing on the go” is really “computing on the map.” As Ezra Goldman points out, “people are likely as mobile today as they ever were. What’s different is that we’re more accessible and connected when we do move around” (2007, 13). By studying practices of college students and young professionals, Goldman concluded that people do most of their work in one place – whether home or office, and cafés and parks in some rare circumstances. So while “mobile computing” has not yet resulted in mobile work places, it has resulted in a freedom to choose where one will find a connection. The feeling of being connected, more so than the feeling of being mobile, provides the necessary context from which to be productive, both in terms of work and social life.

But in some respects, connectivity works against the freedom implied by mobility. Connection tethers us to information, tangles us in a web, whereas mobility frees us from stagnation, liberates us from social norms. This is precisely why mobility is the industry’s moniker of choice for describing these trends. Indeed, the promise of mobile computing is social freedom, even though in practical terms it ties us to work, family and social life in inconceivable ways (2007, 69). As Paul Saffo, the director for the Institute of the Future observed in 1993, “Heaven is the anytime office. Hell is the everywhere, everytime office” (qtd. in Goldman 2007, 14). So in Summer 2008, when Apple announced an update to its .mac functionality it is no surprise they chose the name MobileMe. Apple has appropriated the appeal of mobility to describe its back-up and synchronization services. “Your Desktop Anywhere” is the slogan. (Notice they do not say “Your Desktop Everywhere.”) MobileMe pushes everything up to a web cloud to enable the rapid synchronization of all Apple devices, promising absolute seamlessness between computer contexts – or, in marketing terms, absolute mobility.
The cultural power of mobility that we see exercised in Apple’s new product is not isolated to handheld devices or cloud computing. Raymond Williams, writing about television in the 1970s coined the term “mobile privatization” to talk about the troubling aspects of mobility. “At most active social levels,” Williams claimed, “people are increasingly living as private small-family units, or, disrupting even that, as private and deliberately self-enclosed individuals, while at the same time there is a quite unprecedented mobility of such restricted privacies” (1983, 187-189). Williams was responding to what he understood as a new context brought about by media ubiquity. The living room, the automobile, even the street, became privatized bubbles of media engagement. Our constant access to broadcast media enabled and encouraged the sense that we were mobile – physically, psychologically, socially and economically. Of course, as broadcast media has given way to networked media, Williams’ lament has been quite useful in understanding the new context of perpetual connection. But it can also be argued that domesticity and individuality are in fact growing more distant from traditionally held understandings of privacy. Private details must be made public for networks to be robust. So it is no longer the case that we are dealing solely with mobile privatization, but instead, we might describe socialization within digital networks as located publicity. We personally locate data, and are personally located by data, and we make and have made the fruits of that labor public to increase the functionality of the network. Privacy is no longer a matter of filtering what sees in, but filtering what peers out.

15 May

Where is the Where?

I just got back from the O’Reilly Where 2.0 conference in Burlingame, CA this morning. As someone who attends mostly academic conferences, it was both refreshing and disturbing to spend two days with this group. Refreshing because the group was composed mostly of developers, interested in figuring out how to transform the emerging possibility of location aware into a profitable business (and in some cases, productive social activism). This translated into fast-paced presentations and a perhaps constructed sense of commonality in the group – speakers marched on stage, presented their product and marched off. I took vigorous notes (see my del.icio.us links to the right). But with all that incoming information, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed in the lack of dialogue that took place. There was little effort put into backchannels – short of a meebo chatroom that was hardly used – and there was no time devoted to question and answer. The first few talks on the first day had a few questions from the audience, and there were even microphones positioned in the audience, but by the middle of the first day, that pretense had all but dissolved. So, why at a conference devoted to location-based social networking, was the place largely devoid of digitally enabled social networking? It would have been nice for O’Reilly to practice what it was preaching. Sure, we had a robust wi-fi connection throughout the event. But come on, let us talk to one another, the people in the same space, as easily as we can talk to people in the wide open Internet!

While I learned a lot about what some companies are doing in the “location space,” I didn’t hear a lot about why. I didn’t hear a lot about why location-aware computing is necessary, positive, or tranformative. I heard a lot of, “this is uncharted territory,” but not a lot of, “this is important because…” Let’s face it, I don’t need to have a network of computers aware of my location – but as a result of that awareness it just might transform my awareness of x,y and z. Sure, I have some opinions about this subject, but I want to see the developer community engaging with these questions. Software is not just a product, it’s a tool. Constructed needs will decompose eventually unless they are answering something a bit more fundamental. Location aware technology is transforming what we already do – location and place are already important to our personal and political identities. Developers need to act in response to social practices as opposed to acting by constructing social practices to fit a market niche. Ultimately, the market will be more receptive to the former anyway.

28 Apr

Urban Spectator

For the last several months, I’ve primarily been working on revising my book manuscript. And I finally feel as though the introduction is reflective of the text. I’m posting the first few pages here to solicit thoughts or commentary.

On the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, there are dozens of people looking at little screens, typing on little keyboards, with plugs extending from their ears. Each of these people is having a different experience, customized through their personal media. The college student with his iPod selects his music to correspond with the weather and time of day; the businessman types an address into his GPS-enabled phone to find his next meeting; and the tourist stares through her mobile phone camera to capture the Empire State Building in the distance. Mediated by little devices, these people are shaping their experiences of the city. Nicholas Negroponte (1995) famously noted that the world of atoms (our bodies) would no longer need to correspond to the world of bits (data) – that physical proximity would cease to be necessary for public life. But as we can see on that street corner, the world of atoms and the world of bits come together in the city. There is little distinction between the practices of everyday life, and the technologies that enable those practices. The soundtrack, the map, the photograph: these artifacts of the everyday, are constructive of environments. The practices one adopts to navigate and comprehend any space can never be seen as separate from that space.
New communication technologies complicate accepted notions of urban life, including the nature and scope of public interactions and the corresponding design of the built environment. Can one truly be engaged in public space if they are looking through a viewfinder or tapping sweet nothings with their thumbs on tiny keyboards? Can the city, as an entity, continue to matter when digital networks enable public gathering without requiring the public to gather in physical space? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.” The modern American city has never been bereft of these complications – from the hand held camera at the end of the nineteenth century to the mobile phone at the end of the twentieth, the city has always been a mediated construct. The city enters into the cultural imaginary as a hodgepodge of disconnected signifiers, often organized by the technologies that produce them. When Kodak introduced its hand camera in 1888, it provided a tool for people to record and retain experiences through visual reproduction. Photographers produced images and, even more importantly, possessed them and organized them to manage their memories. Likewise, when Google introduced its mapping software in 2004, it enabled people to record and retain experiences by marking places on a map, keeping notes and connecting images. Google Maps has been implemented as both a wayfinding tool and a personal organizing tool; through its simple interface, it serves to manage an individual’s understanding of space. Communication technologies certainly produce new information about the world; but they also have the facility to organize that information through the literal or metaphorical storage capacity of photo albums or archives. They provide the spectator the unique opportunity to at once experience space and possess its traces.

These traces, and their inherent possibilities, have substantially altered the nature of media and urban practices in the twentieth century. I call the spectatorship structured around the desire for possessing these traces, possessive spectatorship – a way of looking that incorporates immediate experience with the desire for subsequent possession. And while this phenomenon has had implications for the modern city in general, in this book I describe how it has been uniquely important for the American city. What’s distinctive about the American context is the timing in which the city becomes central to the cultural imaginary. The American city grew up in parallel to the technologies that enabled its possession. Not until the late nineteenth century, corresponding to the introduction of the handheld camera and the cinematograph, did the American city take on a meaning outside of mere urban concentration. Prior to that time, while cities were of course present in America, they did not present themselves as unique constructs. I argue that emerging media practices transformed urban practices by naturalizing the notion that individual spectators could not only see the city, but also possess it. And most importantly, I argue that this spectatorship altered the material shape of the city as urban plans were drafted to meet the expectations of a spectator eager to take control of the city’s assembly.