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

25 Jul

Civic Engagement and Second Life

As city governments explore their role in burgeoning virtual environments, they should see the creation of engaged and active civic groups as primary to their mission. We recently spoke to a reporter from the Boston Globe, who, after getting wind of the proposed project, was hoping to report that the city was moving into Second Life. When we told him that we weren’t interested in getting people to move into virtual space and that we were going to use the tool to help people become more engaged in physical space, he seemed a bit disappointed. I mention this because it demonstrates that virtual environments are still largely powered by their “neat-o” factor. And while this might be an acceptable motivation for business implementation, city governments have to resist this temptation. The role of government in virtual worlds should be to establish public spaces for citizen use. This does not mean that cities should just buy an island in Second Life and let people put stuff there. Good public spaces are not empty spaces; they are structured and programmed to engage individuals and groups without putting extralegal limitations on behaviors and actions. Governments can use virtual worlds to create such spaces.

25 Jul

Hub2

Second Life Emerson islandDespite the fact that the Boston Globe has declared that the city has plans for a full virtual conversion in Second Life, the truth of the matter is its goals are much more modest. Together with my colleage Gene Koo, we are offering two courses at Emerson College with the goal of guiding students and members of the community in the creative re-imagination of the city’s neighborhoods and spaces (using Second Life). From the very beginning of this project, our intention has been to use Second Life as a means of fostering real life civic engagement. We wanted to come up with a methodology that would allow individuals and groups to learn about their everyday spaces from the process of building and inhabiting the virtual environment.

We are calling this the IDEA method. The acronym stands for Imagine, Design, Engage and Activate. The strategy is simple: groups assemble to collectively imagine a particular space, they then design the “virtual equivalent” of that space in Second Life, they then test the space by inviting people to engage it, and finally, they activate that space by figuring out how it translates into real space. This process will unfold over the course of the semester.

We have every expectation that the IDEA method is scalable. During summer 2008, we plan to extend this program to Boston youth. But we understand it as having applications well beyond a single class. We hope that the method can be used by social, planning, neighborhood, or civic organizations who want to engage citizens in decision making beyond the standard yes/no template.

Thus far, we have received very positive feedback on the program. We are still waiting to obtain our first committed funder, and until then, we are riding on the fumes of moral support.

05 Jul

City as Social Network

I recently posted this series of prompts to the iDC discussion list.

Following Google’s acquisition of Feedburner, I want to consider how the threats to privacy that became apparent in that context extend to physical communities (neighborhood, organization, city) that are enabled/bolstered/fortified by social web media.  Many community groups and neighborhood organizations are using digital networking technologies to foster community interaction (http://www.ibrattleboro.com/).  And of course, what is widely known as citizen journalism plays into this as well – placebloggers (http://placebloggers.com) and Community Media organizations tend towards hyperlocal networked content (http://www.cctvcambridge.org/) with an aim towards reinforcing existing geographical connections.  The processes that bind non-geographical communities in networks are similar to those that are binding geographical communities – shared interests, practices, goals, etc.    However, unlike traditional online communities that have a basis in anonymity, digitally annotated physical communities often rely on the full disclosure of identity for their functionality.  For instance, when it comes to neighborhood issues – it is important to know one’s real name and location.

And as city governments are seeking ways to adopt “web 2.0” technologies into their existing “citizen management” projects, the lack of anonymity and the simple traceability of social actions open up new concerns.  Social media tools have the capacity to significantly expand participation in local governance, but they also have the capacity to trace citizen behavior and map social trends.  Cities are interested in this technology for the same reason that corporations are – it offers valuable user data.   Politicians can survey the concerns of their constituency; agencies can identify problems in neighborhoods; and law enforcement…well, there are many scenarios possible.  It can also be turned around: citizens can have greater access to their politicians, and government proceedings can at least have the impression of transparency.

While the conversations on this list have devoted considerable time to corporate surveillance, the question not often asked in this context is what should be made of local surveillance – from the people in one’s neighborhood to city governments?  In the wake of connectivity, discourse and collaboration, there is always documentation, processing and interpretation. From neighborhood chatrooms to local annotated mapping projects to virtual town hall meetings, participation equals surveillance – for better or for worse.

When I consider a digital future in which I want to live – it includes networked access to my neighborhood services, communities, city government and public spaces. However, there is little possibility for that to take place outside of the proliferation of data that would make communities vulnerable to excessive internal and external management. And as citywide wifi and mobile web devices proliferate, the outlets for that recycled data expand.  At the same time, American cities, like corporations, are glomming onto digital media because of its populist resonances.  They are paying attention to online neighborhoods and seeking to aggregate that data into meaningful information.  The ideology of digital media – as evidenced in the phrases “participatory media” and “user-generated content” – is accessibility.  Digital media directly aligns the rhetoric of progress with the rhetoric of populism.  Social web media makes explicit what has only been implied in the recent rhetoric of city governments – that anyone, regardless of social position, can participate in the ordering of city experience and politics.

From cities to towns to neighborhoods, the populist promise of social web media is transforming the nature of public space and civic participation.  I am referring only to the American context, because that’s what I know, but it would be great to engage in comparative dialogue in order to better understand the scope of how these technologies are being officially or unofficially implemented to change perceptions of cities and city life, not to mention public space and community engagement.

I suppose I’ll leave it at that for now.  I look forward to the conversation.

03 Jul

OurVirtualHolland

OurVirtualHolland

OurVirtualHolland (OVH) is one model of civic presence in SL. Sponsored by the financial firm ING, the space is designed to bring together entrepreneurs under the guise of business created community. The question is: what kind of community is actually created in this space? How does national identity play into virtual presence? And, as a business venture (or even PR-quality philanthropy), how successful is the project?

06 Jun

The Symbolic Function of Capitals

Just a quick note about capital cities. According to Friedrich Kittler, from his article “The City is a Medium”: “Under highly technologized conditions, capitals scarcely need to be built; they only need to be assigned addresses.”

There is so much to be said about this statement. If the meaning of a capital city is to symbolically represent a nation through architectural symbol and historical recollection, how can those tasks be reproduced by simply assigning an address? Well, considering the dominance of participatory networks, one might assume that capitals will be built by the people whom identify with the thing represented. In other words, isn’t a capital city just an aggregation of human activity and commemoration? Doesn’t that happen in digital networks all the time? Is it p0ssible to say that a capital is a search string? An aggregation tool? An RSS reader? Will physical capitals soon need to contend with this reality? A built environment without a network address risks impermancy.