Digital Lyceum

My colleague, John Craig Freeman, and I recently received funding from the NEH (as part of their digital humanities start-up program) to work on a project entitled “The Digital Lyceum.” This project explores the virtual architecture of the live humanities event. In other words, we’re interested in identifying how back-channels (from virtual worlds to information streams) can enhance the learning and experiential capacity of a live lecture or performance. The project started from a sense of personal angst and excitement about the use of back-channels at conferences. All too often, back-channels digress into little more than a gimmicky distraction. We began to wonder what of these technologies add to the experience and what does not. We began to talk about how events need to be choreographed, orchestrated, and designed to produce a user experience that is in fact more interesting, more productive than the unmediated version. What information streams are appropriate for what events? And how can we design experiences where the technology (however novel) does not interfere with the intended outcome of the event? Ultimately, we hope to produce software that is configurable enough to accommodate the choreographing of mixed reality events.

In the short term, we have promised the NEH that we will research how this work is currently taking place and produce a website that includes best practices and ideas. We hope to communicate with those who are building tools and those who are implementing those tools in innovative ways. We hope to provide a resource for anyone interested in staging mixed reality events.…

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The Geography of Virtual Worlds

I’m editing a special issue of the journal Space and Culture on the “Geography of Virtual Worlds.” Here’s a draft of the introduction. It’s still in process, but it might give some sense of what I think will be a very interesting issue.

This evening I am home in front of the fireplace, chatting with friends and looking out the window onto a wide expanse of ocean. Not far from my beach house, there are dance clubs, art spaces, snowy mountain peaks, and classrooms. I am only seconds from London, Berlin, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And without much effort I can summon my friends from around the world to join me in my spa. You’re probably wondering how, on a professor’s salary, I can afford all this. The answer: log onto Second Life.
Second Life is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). But it’s not a game. Unlike other virtual environments like World of Warcraft or even The Sims Online, there is no built-in objective to the Second Life world. And yet, millions of users have “moved in” and participated in creating it – from building homes like the one described above, to building natural landscapes, and even entire cities. At the time of this writing, the world is composed of nearly 900 square kilometers of virtual landscape (Linden, 2008) used for everything from simple chat to collaborative work, performance, education, commerce and of course, sex. Corporations such as Nike, Toyota, and IBM have created presences there. The Center for Disease Control and the Red Cross have set up services.…

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Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention. 

When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided. In other words, we have the capacity to participate in affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus

Instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc. …

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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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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.…

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