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.

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.

31 Mar

Metageography of the Internet

MediengeographieAn article of mine, entitled “The Metageography of the Internet: Mapping from Web 1.0 to 2.0” was just published in Mediengeographie: Theorie – Analyse – Diskussion.  It’s an amazing collection, with articles from Bruno Latour, Paul Virilio, Lev Manovich, Saskia Sassen, and many more.  Of course, for all of you who don’t speak German, only a few of the articles are actually in English.  Sadly, my ability to converse on a 3rd grade level in German doesn’t allow me to read (or understand) what appear to be fascinating articles.

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.

06 Mar

Industrialization of Information

This recent article in Wired lays out the fascinating phenomenon of the information industry. It describes the massive new server farms cropping up in Oregon to house the petabytes of information for Google (and others) to keep up with the task of copying the rapidly expanding Internet. The article points out that the main problem facing companies like Google that depend on their ability to centralize the Network is not computing speeds or storage, but rather energy consumption. These server farms require so much energy to run that they are likely first to run out of electricity than storage space.

The simple problem of energy consumption leads to a fascinating repetition of industrial growth patterns. Big industry is going to seek out growth areas that supply cheap and easy access to energy. Just as industrial waterfronts are giving way to luxury condominiums, they might soon revert back to industrial warehouses filled with thousands of interlinked CPUs. Perhaps we can expect a new industrial revolution in the near future, with an equally powerful potential to spew noxious fumes and deplete natural resources.

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.

16 Jan

The Geography of Virtual Worlds

I’m editing a special issue of the journal Space and Culture on the “Geography of Virtual Worlds.” Here’s a draft of the introduction. It’s still in process, but it might give some sense of what I think will be a very interesting issue.

This evening I am home in front of the fireplace, chatting with friends and looking out the window onto a wide expanse of ocean. Not far from my beach house, there are dance clubs, art spaces, snowy mountain peaks, and classrooms. I am only seconds from London, Berlin, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And without much effort I can summon my friends from around the world to join me in my spa. You’re probably wondering how, on a professor’s salary, I can afford all this. The answer: log onto Second Life.
Second Life is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). But it’s not a game. Unlike other virtual environments like World of Warcraft or even The Sims Online, there is no built-in objective to the Second Life world. And yet, millions of users have “moved in” and participated in creating it – from building homes like the one described above, to building natural landscapes, and even entire cities. At the time of this writing, the world is composed of nearly 900 square kilometers of virtual landscape (Linden, 2008) used for everything from simple chat to collaborative work, performance, education, commerce and of course, sex. Corporations such as Nike, Toyota, and IBM have created presences there. The Center for Disease Control and the Red Cross have set up services. Universities are teaching classes. Entrepreneurs are selling everything from virtual real estate to physical paintings. And pornography abounds.

So while Second Life is not a game, it does seem to have a dominant objective – commerce. Real money is traded in the form of “Linden Dollars” – an online token that exchanges at 270 per US dollar. And unlike other virtual environments with less formal economies, Second Life users don’t need to rely on third party trading sites like eBay. All currency transfers take place on the company’s website. Second Life has enjoyed rapid growth since its launch in 2003 largely because the motivation of market exchange is built into the business model. It is for this reason that some commentators have characterized it as a three dimensional extension of the Web (Kirkpatrick, 2006). But these views seem to ignore the rather important peculiarities of the three dimensional platform. While MUVEs like Second Life, There.com and Metaverse are direct descendants of text-based multi-user domains (MUDs) and their graphical counterparts (MOOs), the 3D immersive qualities of these contemporary spaces suggest a significant divergence from traditional chat rooms and message boards. MUVEs provide a level of engagement that is quite different from the 2D Web. It is for this reason that a number of commercial spaces in Second Life remain empty. Many of the companies and services that initially rushed to build virtual stores and offices have failed to bring people to their sites. For these companies, the strategy was simply to reproduce their web presence in three dimensions –building flat product panels dispersed in space and not considering the specificity of user experience in the virtual environment. What was ill considered in these ventures was the centrality of the spatially located avatar in all interactions. In other words, instead of searching for a product, clicking on it, reading reviews and then purchasing, my avatar has to first walk through a space and find the product. Or instead of a chat room, where communication is represented as words in a browser window, avatars in a MUVE have to organize themselves in a pattern conducive to conversation. They have to stand next to each other, sit on a park bench, or fly to a far-flung corner of the sky. In short, MUVEs re-introduce space into digitally mediated communication.

The way bodies are organized in space is determined by multiple factors, including gender, design (street, church, club, etc.), event (art installation, class, wedding, etc.), ownership, and many other vertices of spatial organization. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2007) refer to this as infrastructure. While they write specifically about pervasive computing, or computing in physical environments, their thesis applies quite well to MUVEs. They argue that spatial organization, including distance and presence, informs the meaning of individual spaces and, in turn, informs the nature of communication within those spaces. This general concept is well supported by research that has investigated the nature of communication in virtual environments. In a particularly interesting study about spatial infrastructure in MUVEs, Yee et al. concluded that offline personal space norms applied to avatar interactions in Second Life (2007). By measuring avatar movement, they learned that female avatars tend to stand closer together than their male counterparts. In addition, they concluded that males tend to stand farther away from each other outside than they do inside. These conventions are parallel to real-world, physical behaviors. Beyond Second Life, extensive research has been conducted in various other MUVEs. Martey and Stromer-Galley (2007), in their study of the The Sims Online, conclude that the metaphor of the “house” is primary in shaping a player’s sense of “appropriate behavior.” And Taylor, in her study of Everquest, points to the centrality of the body metaphor: “Bodies,” she writes, “act not only as a conduit through which we participate in society but as a mechanism through which communities themselves are performed. They facilitate not only the production of identities, but social relationships and communication” (2006, 117). Bodies, and their relationship to objects and structures (including other virtual bodies), are generally proscriptive of user behavior and social interactions in MUVEs. Dourish and Bell’s concept of infrastructure adds the organizing context of space into all of these studies.

Understanding the context of virtual space is no simple task. Considering that virtual space is infinitely malleable, how is it that it comes to affect communication? One would think that, because of the open-ended nature of the technology, virtual space would emerge in a manner unconnected to physical space. Unbounded by physics, space could assemble within any organizational principle – color, time, number, or emotional register. And yet, within most MUVEs, there is an abundance of metaphors to physical space. Why do avatars need houses, beds, or even chairs? They don’t get cold, they don’t need to sleep, and their legs don’t ache from standing all day. Second Life, for instance, is filled with familiar habitations, from bedrooms, to lounges, clubs and swimming pools. Virtual houses have kitchens and showers, parks have benches, and beaches have towels to protect against virtual sand creeping into virtual bathing suits. While it is possible that in the early stages of adoption, MUVE users, like users of any new technology, gravitate towards the familiar (consider the Web’s heavy reliance on desktop and room metaphors), it is more likely that physical space, as a socially vetted context, will remain the most useful metaphor for the navigation of MUVEs. While operating systems only suggest space (i.e. the desktop) as an organizing principle, MUVEs are fundamentally built around that principle.

But the utility of these metaphors extend beyond spatial orientation. The abundance of city sims (simulations) in Second Life suggests that users are also drawn to familiar places. One could walk the streets of London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Berlin, Dublin, and Zurich, just to name a few. “Debs Regent,” the owner of the London sim and UK ex-pat living in Portugal, explained that the project of building the Knightsbridge neighborhood in London was a labor of love. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have [London] in SL so I don’t get homesick. There are lots of ex-pats out there. Not just ex-pats in other countries, but in the UK too – people who miss their roots just like I did. So we recreated Knightsbridge in SL” (Gordon, 2007). Debs assembled an all-volunteer team to build the city, which currently includes everything from true-to-life detail on all the buildings, several double-decker buses and a working Underground that moves from Knightsbridge to the under-construction Chelsea neighborhood. The long-term goal of the project is to recreate the entire city of London. There is no completion date set – because completion is not really the point. The group of people that gather in the London sim are there because they enjoy the process. It’s a collaborative building project that has reconnected a number of people to the city. And my conversations with the people involved in Berlin and Dublin revealed very similar stories. These people are using Second Life not to escape the confines of physical space, but to work collaboratively to create a familiar environment. The familiarity of the represented space is central to the user experience. And the immersive qualities of the technology, facilitated by the spatial parameters of avatar-led navigation, offer a sense of presence not possible in traditional Web media. In this sense, place becomes yet another potential infrastructural component of virtual space.

Spatial practices within Second Life, and other similar MUVEs, are much too varied to characterize in a singularly cohesive manner. From the touristic impulses of city sims, to collaborative workspaces employed by corporations, to elaborate fan communities, art spaces and classrooms, to real world design scenarios, the technological affordances of MUVEs provide new frameworks for social interaction that are fundamentally organized around space.

This special issue of Space and Culture brings together scholarship across disciplines to better formulate questions that need to be asked as virtual worlds integrate with the 2D web. Rebecca and Charlie Nesson describe a class taught at Harvard University in the spring of 2007 where Second Life was combined with the physical classroom to organize local and global populations around a single curriculum. The articles by Eric Kabisch and Lily Chen are each concerned with deciphering the correlation between virtual and physical spaces. Kabisch describes his own project called Datascape that merges physical and virtual in what he calls a “hybrid environment.” And Chen argues for a greater emphasis on “social spaces” in virtual design as opposed to what she sees as the currently dominant one-to-one correspondence between the physical space and its reproduction. The article by Shaowen Bardzell and Will Odom explores the function of virtual space by looking at a particular Gorean fan community in Second Life. The article addresses how 3D space facilitates the creation of “emotional places,” and makes the argument that the design of MUVEs should be influenced by these kinds of practices. And finally, Gene Koo and myself contribute an article about a program we started in Boston, Massachusetts that employs Second Life as a means of engaging people in the city’s neighborhoods in a collaborative design process. Ultimately, we argue that enabling groups to engage simultaneously in virtual and physical spaces opens up possibilities for group identification and communitarian action.
Each of the articles in this volume seeks to explore the complex geography of virtual worlds. But what’s apparent in all the work is the lack of emphasis on virtuality. More important is how the virtual interfaces with the physical. While MUVEs are worlds unto themselves, they are both windows and mirrors of the embodied world of physical space. Untangling this relationship is the task at hand.


Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: Meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design.
Gordon, E. (2007). Personal communication with “Debs regent”. Interview in Second Life
Kirkpatrick, D. (2006, November 10). No, second life is not overhyped. CNNMoney.com. http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/09/technology/fastforward_secondlife.fortune/index.htm.
Linden, P. (2008). Year-end updates, and thanks for the emmy. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from http://blog.secondlife.com/2008/01/09/year-end-updates-and-thanks-for-the-emmy/
Martey, R. M., & Stromer-Galley, J. (2007). The digital dollhouse: Context and social norms in the sims online. Games and Culture, 2(4), 314-334.
Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., & Merget, D. (2007). The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal norms in online virtual environments. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 115-121.