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.

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?

28 May

Boston enters Second Life

Last week, I hosted a meeting at Emerson College to talk about the City of Boston’s entry into Second Life. The good news is this: the city is committed to trying out the platform and to exploring the ways in which it can extend community involvement. At the meeting, we had representatives from the mayor’s office, the Boston Redevelopment Association, the Main Streets Program, the public schools, and the city’s higher education liason. Everyone around the table was intrigued by the possibilities of extending community services to the virtual platform. Some of the ideas that circulated included:

  • building the new city hall on the waterfront
  • building the hatshell on the esplenade as an SL live-music venue
  • building the old south meeting house (or Fanuiel Hall) for town meetings
  • inviting the community to offer suggestions in how the city is represented
  • sponsoring competitions for building out the different neighborhoods
  • establishing the main Boston island as a connector to all Boston-identified builds (i.e. all the colleges and universities, businesses, and neighborhoods that have SL presence will be included in a teleport directory on the main Boston island. We discussed using the subway as the teleportation motif. Avatars would walk down into a station and select from a list of places in or around the city of Boston

One of the most important aspects of our conversation was the idea that the SL initiative would be connected to a broader platform of community networking. We discussed the possibility of creating an open-source community portal software that would be made available to neighborhood organizations to get them started in their online presence. These organizations would be connected to SL in a very fluid way. The idea would be to establish a steady flow in and out of world.

There is a lot of planning left, including issues of how it gets built, maintained and governed. But I think this was a positive start to what can be an amazing connection between city government, civic culture, and networked community.