26 Mar

Door-touching and civic virtue

Recently I spent a lot of time watching people walk in and out of the doors of the Forest Hills subway station in Boston. As people rushed out of the station during the afternoon commute, motivated by a desire to catch a connecting bus or to simply get to the next thing, earbuds firmly positioned in ears, they had little opportunity to see the immediate environment and the people within it. That is, unless, they touched the door.  You see, the station doors served as an important conduit between people and their surroundings.

There are two ways in which people moved in and out of the station – with touching the door and without touching the door. The door, aided by hydraulics, closes slowly once opened, introducing the opportunity for people to slink through it after it is pushed. It is possible for five or six people to pass through from a single hearty push. If one can no longer fit through the closing door, they are forced to push the door open so that they might get through. But with that simple touch, the door-toucher becomes a very different kind of user. They now find themselves responsible for the environment, compelled to hold the door for the people behind them as they similarly stream out of the station. Simply touching the door makes the person complicit in the function of the door, and as such, invested in the environment that the door mediates. Conversely, the door-passer (one who does not touch the door) continues to walk through without the added responsibility for the people around them.

How is it that merely touching the door creates responsibility for the environment? The door-toucher can no longer pass through the environment with the absolution of social responsibility. They are now part of the socio-technical system (which includes human and non-human actors), partly responsible for its function. And they remain responsible until the next human actor enters the system.

As I watched people navigating the complexity of the hydraulic door closer, I was struck by the pro-social benefits of touching the door. The door-touchers were immediately made aware of their social obligation within a socio-technical system and were forced to contend with their responsibility for other human actors in the train station. The door is a pro-social technology that has significant implications for the design of civic media. As I consider the challenge of designing apps, online experiences, or games that cultivate civic engagement, it seems that the primary design goal is to create door-touchers. The goal is to make users aware of the socio-technical system in which they are operating and feel responsible for the human actors within it. The door accomplishes this in the train station – what would the technology look like that accomplishes this on the scale of the block, the neighborhood, or the city?

Can a mobile app transform users from door-passers to door-touchers? I, for one, am very eager to find out.

 

 

 

11 Sep

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.  

 

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.

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.

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.

08 Jan

Mobile Places

I’ve had this question running through my head for some time now: what’s the connection between mobile computing (i.e. cell phones, PDAs, GPS, etc.) and local computing (neighborhood networking, digital civic forums, etc.)? On first blush, these are entirely separate phenomena. But, the more I consider it, the more I see them as parallel. What is truly significant about mobile computing is, in fact, not computing. What is peculiar about mobile computing, is that the computational device is far less important than what the device enables. The device enables people to move without having to carry along their data. As more and more of our data is stored on placeless networks (from Google to Facebook to Flickr), individuals are more free to move from place to place, with the capability of accessing their data wherever they happen to be. But how does that alter the concept of neighborhood networking? Well, if people no longer need to be tied to their data, we might be able to say the same about places. Places are becoming less dependent on spaces. Data about a place, the stuff that enables a meaningful engagement with space, is also stored in a placeless network and accessible from anywhere. This is not to suggest that space no longer matters; only that space is annotated by mobility. The discussions that take place in online forums, the commentary left by bloggers, the reviews of a local restaurant – all of this data, accessible to the individual from multiple locations, thickens engagement with place.

So I’m trying to say something like this: mobility, a cultural phenomenon enabled by new technologies, is transforming how we think about our cities and local places. While it is by no means pervasive, it suggests a promising model for local and community politics.

04 Jan

Urban Informatics

Journal coverA special issue of Information, Communication and Society just hit the stands and it’s worth a mention here. Yeah, yeah, I have an article in it, but more importantly, it’s a fantastic collection of work on the topic of “Urban Informatics: Software, Cities, and the New Cartographies of Knowing Capitalism.” Here’s the table of contents:

  • Mike Crang & Stephen Graham, “Sentient Cities: ambient intelligence and the politics of urban space”
  • Rowland Atkinson & Paul Willis, “Charting the ludochrome: the mediation of urban and simulated space and the rise of the flaneur electronique”
  • David Beer, “Tune out: music, soundscapes and the urban mise-en-scene”
  • Michael Hardey, “The city in the age of Web 2.0: a new synergistic relationship between place and people”
  • Eric Gordon, “Mapping digital networks: from cyberspace to Google”
  • Simon Parker, Emma Uprchard & Roger Burrows, “Class places and place classes: geodemographics and the spatialization of class”
  • Andy C. Pratt, Rosalind Gill & Volker Spelthann, “Work and the city in the e-society: a critical investigation of the sociospatially situated character of economic production in the digital content industries in the UK”
  • Nicholas Pleace, “Workless people and the surveillant mashups: social policy and data sharing in the UK”

Unfortunately, IC&S is not available online, so these articles might remain obscure to those without access to a research library. Seems a shame, especially considering the theme of the issue. We might be closer than ever to urban data, but academic knowledge remains quite distant.

That aside, it’s a privilege to have my work included in this excellent volume. And as I read through the journal and familiarize myself with the various projects, I hope that the issue sparks a greater debate about the politics of urban informatics – its potential benefits to democratic engagement and its potential risks to personal privacy and freedoms.

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.

13 Apr

Persistence of Presence (Twitter)

Film is based on an illusion of mobility.  ‘Persistence of Vision’ is the way a number of still frames, when moving very quickly through a machine and separated by a black bar, creates the impression of movement.  Cinematic movement is an illusion that is so successful that we hardly question its authenticity.

Twitter

 

It’s for this reason, that I find an interesting correspondence between the primary illusion of cinema and the primary illusion of social media.  But instead of the persistence of vision, we can talk about the persistence of presence.  Consider an application like Twitter – a micro blogging system that encourages users to answer the question "what are you doing?"  (I just wrote a twitter that said I was writing a blog entry about twitter.)  People can then follow other people’s twitters as they periodically declare their activities.  But what’s important about twitter is not the activity, but the declaration of presence.  Regardless of what you’re doing, you’re stating that you’re doing something.  You are present.  Through these periodical instances, trackers construct an illusion of of presence of the person tracked.  While I don’t have constant access to those twitter-ers I track, a comment every few minutes, hours, or even days, assures me of that person’s existence.