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.…

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Playful Civics

Last weekend, I had the honor of being on a plenary panel at MIT8 talking about publics and counterpublics in a networked context. My remarks focused on the idea of playful civics – or, how play can be an important conceptual frame for understanding contemporary civic actions. Too often, the value of a civic action is determined by how much work it is. If a task is tedious and time consuming it makes a valuable contribution (attending a town hall meeting or door-to-door canvasing for signatures), whereas if a task is fun or too easy (advocating for something on Facebook or making a personal video about an issue and sharing it), it is frivolous. There is a fundamental problem with this logic. It suggests that meaning from civic actions derives from sacrifice, not pleasure. Perhaps more troubling, it suggests that there are clear channels through which people take civic actions which have established methods of evaluation (getting signatures on paper is difficult, voting requires effort, etc.).

It is increasingly clear to me that what we might call civic actions are quite varied and many of them are not uniquely definable as “work” or “tedium.” Civic actions are playful, and they involve experimentation and exploration more than the rote completion of pre-defined tasks.

In fact, play is a valuable conceptual framework through which to understand civic actions.

Play is:

  1. self-chosen and self-directed (players can choose to quit);
  2. an activity in which means are more valuable than ends;
  3. guided by rules
  4. imaginative and somehow separated from everyday life

Now consider this definition of play in three broad and often interconnected frames that facilitate civic actions: art makingstory and games.…

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Games in Egypt

During the week of the UN’s General Assembly meeting, the UNDP innovation team organized a series of workshops throughout the world as part of a networked event called Shift Week (with the implied meaning of shifting thinking in a range of sectors). Twenty-one workshops were put together on a range of topics from big data to crowdfunding, and took place in a range of countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America and Asia.

Poster for public event in Cairo

I was invited to give a talk and facilitate a workshop on “games and gamification” in Cairo, Egypt. The goals, at first, were fairly clear: work with Egyptians and a few people from select UNDP country offices (including Cyprus, Macedonia, and Bhutan) to explore how games and game design could impact the work of development. Together with my colleague Steve Walter, managing director of the Engagement Lab, I headed to Cairo. During our four days in the city, we met with several organizations devoted to ITC and entrepreneurship (including TIEC and ITI), gave a talk to the local UNDP staff, presented a public lecture at the Greek Campus near Tahrir Square and provided a two-day workshop at ICECairo, a remarkable maker space in the same neighborhood, for youth throughout Cairo and northern Egypt. Over 600 people signed up for the public lecture and nearly 300 were in attendance, with 128 streaming it online. About 250 people applied to participate in the two-day workshop and 40 were accepted. These 40 people were intensely engaged throughout the workshop, and as a condition of their participation, agreed to devote two-hours a week for the next six months to continued work on their projects.…

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Relationship model of e-government

I’ve been thinking about how we might begin to think about relationship model versus transaction model when it comes to digitally augmented government.  In most configuations of e-government there is a choice between open dialog and collective decision making.  This leaves two options: unstructured talk and structured input.  It would seem that there is something in between.  Consider something like YouTube as a platform for relationships.  If the real value in video sharing is building personal and / or intellectual connections, then the platform plays the role not of content provider, but arbiter of relationships.  Shouldn’t the government characterize its role similarly?  Shouldn’t the government be tasked with the responsibility of providing the framework for relationships, person to person, person to group, group to group, person to institution, etc.?  And not just the framework for individual transactions, but a framework that transforms transactions into a relationship investment.  For instance, one doesn’t post to YouTube simply to add to a database of videos.  The single transaction is a building block on which relationships can be built.  In other words, engagement doesn’t end with the transaction, that’s where it begins.

The most prominent examples in the States include Minnesota e-democracy or iBrattelboro, or even some of the attempts by various states, most notably Virginia, to provide web access to senate hearings.  These are all premised on the notion that the transaction itself is the act of participation (civic engagement measured by voter turnout, for instance).  Outside of the United States, there are some more interesting examples like Digital Birmingham, which has a complex big picture idea of digital democracy, and a bunch of examples in Sweden where the public is invited in to design and or participate. …

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Wired 1.05: Shock Wave (Anti) Warrior

This is a pretty insightful comment from Alvin Toffler from 1993. 

Information, including misinformation, will change the world militarily and economically. If we look at global power, in the broadest sense, the most basic division in the world was not between East and West, but between industrial and nonindustrial powers. Between first wave or agrarian countries, and second wave or industrial countries. That two-way split in world power has dominated the planet for 300 years. What is happening now is a process of what we call trisection. The world system is splitting into three parts – three different layers or tiers – or more accurately three different civilizations.

Of course, you’ll continue to have agrarian countries and you’ll continue to have the mass-manufacturing cheap-labor suppliers, at least for a transitional period. But we are also rapidly developing a chain of info- intensive countries whose economics depend not on the hoe or the assembly- line but on brainpower. The people reading Wired are children of this third wave of change. It is an entirely new civilization that is still in its infancy.

We call it a civilization because it’s not just the technology that’s changing. The entire culture is in upheaval. All the social institutions designed for the second wave – for a mass production, mass media, mass society – are in crisis. The health system, the family system, the education system, the transportation system, various ecological systems – along with our value and epistemological systems. All of them.

And the emerging third-wave civilization is going to collide head-on with the old first and second civilizations.

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