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.

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.

17 Dec

Hub2 Launch Big Success

Virtual Key
The key is presented to Mayor Menino

Key in Hand
The virtual mayor takes the key to the virtual city

The Hub2 kick-off event was a big success. We had a packed room, both in first and second life, and there was an overall positive reception to the work we are doing. Bill Oates, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston, was in attendance to receive the virtual key to the city and the deed to Boston Island. While this was a presentation of very real work done by the participants in both classes, it was also a symbolic event that directed attention to the potential of our methodology and mission. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some promising conversations with both the BRA and the Greenway Conservancy about integrating Hub2 into some aspect of the physical and/or social design process. At the event, we pointed to these potential collaborations and suggested that the work already completed points to the immense potential to harness new and emerging technologies for the enhancement of public life in the City of Boston.

Mayor Sits
The Mayor sits down to talk with his constituents

At the end of what we’re calling the alpha phase of Hub2, six project teams were able to present their work and discuss the implications for urban life in Boston. One of the groups produced this video to capture the intentions of their process and offer suggestions for the urban redesign of City Hall Plaza.

Collaboration Group

click here to watch video

02 Nov

CCTV MediaMap

cctvCCTV is a community media center in Cambridge, MA that is doing some fascinating work in the integration of web media to the mission of community television. My grad student, Colin Rhinesmith, is doing his master’s thesis on this topic and has done some exemplary research thus far on the implications of this integration. While Colin is exploring this topic in extensive detail through analyzing the culture of access centers, I want to take a moment to reflect on just one aspect of CCTV’s efforts – what they call the mediamap. This is basically a Google Map that is placemarked with local video, including everything from a cyclist’s perspective to a promotional video for a new coffee shop. The result of this mediamap is a collection of local video annotated with GPS coordinates. In this context, the video works in service to the map. So what you end up with is really a map that is annotated with video. The primary object of engagement is the map – the video, like place names or boundaries, becomes the data that enhances the map. Why does this matter? Well, it would seem that this particular model of community television uses ‘television’ to qualify community, as opposed to using community to qualify television. This is a rather distinct shift from previous models of ‘community television’, where localism was premised on the practice of production primarily.

Is Mediamap a push or a pull technology? In other words, does it push the notion of localism out to the globe, or does it pull the globe into the local. Based on what I said above, it is a pull technology. It pulls the map into the video, it pulls television into the community. Localism, I would argue, has long been premised on push technologies. Self-identification happened within defined boundaries and then, if blessed with a media infrastructure, communities could push that identity outward. Networked media has introduced opportunities to reverse that paradigm. Localism can now be a result of external influences, re-contextualized and reformatted to fit local needs. This is both an exciting prospect and a threat to local cohesiveness. If the ability to pull is that strong, then there is little incentive to produce meaning from the directly proximate. Meaning can be pulled in from elsewhere to define local life. Consider, Facebook’s neighborhood widget as an example.

So, what is the perfect balance between push and pull technologies for localism? I don’t know the answer, but I’m advocating here that we should start asking the question.

26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

01 Oct

Report on Localism

Information Society

Knowledge Politics just released a pamphlet on the topic of “Localism and the Information Society.” This collection of brief essays is motivated by the desire to see better integration of ICTs into neighborhoods and cities. As stated in the introduction:

“new communication tools actually have the ability to strengthen traditional, local relationships. This premise rests on what I believe to be a fundamental truth: that people care about their communities, they feel pride in their home town or village, they want to know the people around them. We may be approaching an era of extra-territoriality, but a community is much more than just a territory.”

This collection provides a wealth of references to local networking organizations in the UK and suggests that there is considerable momentum there on the level of local and regional governments to find positive solutions for the integration of technology into local life. The concept of community networking is distinct from the existing discourse on e-democracy, in that the goal is to orient people locally, not just to enroll them in a-spatial democratic organizations.

As Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone, membership in organizations is actually on the rise (i.e. web-based, interest driven communities), but membership in local groups (i.e. neighborhood associations, local clubs, etc.) is on the decline. So, participatory culture does not necessarily equal civic engagement and, as Putnam explains, does not necessarily lead to an increase in social capital. The intention of sites like UpMyStreet.com and Areyoulocal.co.uk are to provide local connections between people – conceived in direct response to the more generalized community groupings of Myspace, et. al. This kind of site is much more pervasive in the UK than it is in the United States. I’m not sure why. But I find this to be an intriguing question. Perhaps Putnam is correct in assuming that Americans are less socially engaged and therefore less interested in local engagement. Or perhaps it comes down to funding mechanisms that are less established in the United States.

In any case, there are questions that remain about these community networking sites. Do they succeed in creating more engaged citizens? Do they succeed in connecting people to location, or do they merely extend location out into the web? And what does the engaged citizen look like? Do they simply attend more neighborhood socials? Or do they organize other neighbors for political action? The big question for me is: what is the measure of success?

This report is a great place to start to answer some of these questions. One of the proposed solutions to the varied applications for community involvement is the Top-Level Domain (TLD) – a domain that is defined by cities and therefore more capable of organizing incentive for involvement. I’d like to explore this idea further: Do city sponsored domains command more participation than private domains?

17 Sep

New Tools, Same Rules

mobile phoneMyspace and Facebook have gone mobile. And new companies are cropping up each day to get in on the new mobile socializing. An article in the Boston Globe this morning featured two companies seemingly making a dent in this field – Utterz and MocoSpace each offer phone-based services for the never-disconnected set. So, with all these services to enable connection-on-the-go, one has to wonder how users are going to cope. The inundation of services and features on phones might just create a conservative backlash where people start using their phones to call people. But I don’t want to be hysterical here.

Social media can assist in maintaining connections – the successful type rationalizes the everyday tasks of social management (consider Facebook’s feed feature). What is not needed is anything that makes social management more complex. The business of Web 2.0 is all about constructing needs – creating the impression that the tool accommodates a problem or a project. So, complexity is a matter of construction. What might seem terribly complex today – using Flickr, Facebook, Myspace, etc. to communicate with friends – is in fact framed as simple. Even the most complicated technologies promise to simplify.

Mobile social media promises to simplify. It used to be that you had to take a break from your day to manage social relations. Now, it can be integrated seamlessly into your routine. Users can be immersed in their networks – making it redundant to externalize the process of connection. For instance, having to stop what you’re doing to call a friend on the phone to make plans. Those connections (excluding extremely strong ties such as family) that require disengagement with the network are more likely to be ignored. I have a friend who never checks his email. As a result, I see him less.

Most importantly, as social life is “simplified” through mobile media, it is re-connected to social space. The fortitude of social networks is not isolated, but it follows us wherever we go and is, as a result, more strongly associated with location. This is what I’ve been calling net-locality – when networks that require no physical proximity are re-instantiated in physical space.