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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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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Meaningful Inefficiencies in the “Smart City”

Information communication technologies (ICTs) hold considerable promise for cities. Sometimes framed as smart cities, technologically enhanced urban spaces create efficiencies through streamlined infrastructure (because complex systems can better coordinate) and access to services (because people can be more aware of systems, i.e. real-time transit data on mobile phones).

But urban technologies do not always create efficiencies; they can also create meaningful inefficiencies in the form of social connections, and complex, nuanced understandings of place. This happens when people use technologies to achieve unpredictable outcomes: a process not typical of the smart cities paradigm. When information is contextualized and opportunities exist for data not simply to be transmitted, but for ideas to evolve through deliberative dialogue, there are meaningful inefficiencies. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context.

Meaningful inefficiencies have typically been the jurisdiction of artists.

Stemming from the articulated problem that cities create sameness and social alienation, the social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s established a theoretical framework and methodology through which to interrupt these phenomena. Debord sought to create alternative logics through which to experience the city, where a pre-defined pattern would determine how one moved, or randomness would dictate how one drifted through the urban landscape.

This sparked a genre of new media art loosely termed psychogeography, which employed technology as an intervention into existing urban patterns. Projects such as Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman™ The Familiar Stranger (2002), which foreshadowed contemporary location-based social networks such as Foursquare, used Bluetooth technology on mobile phones to make people aware of those who shared geographic space.…

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A Direct to Consumer Democracy?

Getting involved in something takes trust. Whether it’s attending a neighborhood cleanup, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or showing up to a community meeting, people do these things not simply out of a sense of purpose, but often because some one or some trusted organization suggested they do it. Civic engagement is typically preceded by trust in an entity (i.e. a friend, a neighborhood association, or even a government) who can vouch for the system. To invest one’s personal identity, reputation and time in something requires a clarity of purpose and confidence in the return on one’s investment that does not typically come stock with a new system. If there is a new non-profit working on environmental justice issues, before one donates money or gets involved, they will look for who the organization is affiliated with and what they’ve already done. So why should civic-minded software (civic apps) be any different?

Civic apps are systems. And while they can solve some problems pertaining to ease of use and access, they cannot easily solve the lack of trust problem. This varies with specific purpose of the app, but in general, the direct to consumer model does not always yield the best engagement. Civic apps should represent a trusted entity and not seek, at least at the start, to be that trusted entity. Surely there are great examples of rapidly grown online social networks; but when it comes to the question of local civic engagement, the challenge is to enable online social networks to meaningfully interface with the organizations and institutions that shape everyday life.…

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