Howard Rheingold recently posted some responses to Neil Postman's 10 Principles of Technology. I've been thinking about them in relation to Urban Tapestries, Social Tapestries and what we've learnt over the past 18 months of the project.
1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.
One can read this several ways – in terms of the digital divide, ecological impact of technologies, changes in social praxis and behaviours that disempower older generations – but perhaps the emphasis in the principle tends towards thinking in 19th century ideals of progress. If we seek to understand broader social practices and uses of technology, then change ceases to be a revolution replacing one system with another and moves towards being a more complementary process of augmentation. With UT and the concept of public authoring we chose to explore the relationship to place that people construct and then design a technology that assists in revealing the interconnectedness of the relationships.
2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
I agree with Howard that, in general, "It's a matter of literacy" but history teaches us that literacy does not just come about without people having to strive for infrastructures to support it. With Social Tapestries one of the key aims is to design sustainable and transferable practices that do not require specific technologies, but build upon people's own capabilities.
3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others.
Yet language is constantly changing to suit the needs of people to express their situations... perspectives change with the ebb and flow of beliefs, ideologies, aspirations. I'm in favour of seeing technology in a similar light to language... it explains why there are so many lovers of 'dead' technologies, just as there are lovers of 'dead' languages. What UT and similar projects do is create a language for representing relationships to place and space, forming their own idioms and syntax. Being iterative and experimental they twist and turn, endlessly seeking to evade fixed definitions in favour of deliberate ambiguity, where each user can reconstruct their paths of meaning to suit themselves.
4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a "worldview".
Such a Darwinian concept of technology would better be served by Adam Smith's concepts of the market. Whilst it might reflect the internal pressures of the hi-tech industry I suspect that it can be challenged at the level of individual users if not more widely. People adopt technologies for many and varied reasons, primarily subject to the needs and desires of their own lives, the least of which is decided in a gladiatorial arena of warring technologies.
5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
I do not believe that technology is a driver of change but a symptom. People are the drivers of change and we (generally) get with the technologies we can best imagine using and adopting. Sometimes we surprise ourselves, but usually I think that technologies are playing catch-up with our imaginations.
6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
And different cultures adopt and develop different technologies to suit their cultural inheritance.
7. Because of the accessibility and speed in which information is encoded, different technologies have different political biases.
The network effect of the internet is still only just seeping into our daily lives, pre-conditioned (as most of us older than 15 years old) are to 19th and 20th century forms of centre-to-the-margins, or broadcast, mass media. Since political ideologies have blurred to the point of relative indistinction, the bias is perhaps more an economic one. The recent struggles with peer to peer technologies and digital rights management point to the real issue being property law and what could be described as an intellectual property landgrab by those with the capital to squeeze out new entrants. Yet on the other side we see an increasing acceptance that the idea that knowledge is developed more richly in the open, shared and built upon by the many, different people adding their own unique perspectives and difference. UT is designed to support such a concept of social knowledge
8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
In the West it is clear that digital technologies have primarily served a visual sensory bias, with audio as a secondary labeit important part. Whilst much research is conducted into haptics, wearables, olfactory and other sensory interfaces, they have yet to make a serious in road into our daily lives. UT was originally developed out of our Sonic Geographies project in which we tried to imagine what sound maps of a city might be and how an deeper appreciation of the sonic environment could affect how we occupy and navigate the city. Even building in the audio location annotation functionality into UT we observed that it was hardly used in the trials – perhaps it is just a step too far for the moment and needs time to become as common as writing a note.
9. Because of the conditions in which we attend them, different technologies have different social biases.
It is not only the "conditions in which we attend them", but the social and cultural structures that affect the ways in which different technologies form part of everyday life. It would be perhaps more accurate to place the subjectivity back onto the users rather than the technology.
10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.
Technology could be described as a set of reproducible processes – sometimes locked into physical forms. Some will be limited in terms of the kinds of content they can work with, others not. Just as a screwdriver is limited in its application to writing, and a pen to hammering nails, the issue here is perhaps accepting (and celebrating) that we need different technologies for different purposes. UT is designed to augment what people have to say about their relationships to places, things and other people, not to replace that existing communication.
On Thursday I am running a Creative Lab at the LSE on the theme of public authoring and civil society – I'm hoping there'll be some outcomes that build upon these reflections from there.
Urban Tapestries has recently been covered both in Nature Magazine's online Science Update and in a feature article in the Society section of Geneva's Le Temps – a scanned image of the article is here (thanks to Mauro Cherubini and Nicholas Nova).
Thingster is an open-source weblogging service for locative media. It is being developed by Anselm Hook, Tom Longson and Brad Degraf in association with Locative - a multi-disciplinary group of theorists, artists and engineers exploring the implications of attaching information to place.
Users can publish 'virtual post it notes' about any geographic location: a street intersection, a street address, a restaurant, a hiking trail or a geocache.
As we are about to begin a field trial of the Symbian smartphone prototype, I've been thinking about UT and the issues of social software and situated software that Nick brought up in our panel at the Life of Mobile Data conference. I recently came across Stewart Butterfield's 5 devices of social software (via Matt Webb)and thought it might be interesting to sketch my current thoughts on the project and prototype according to these criteria. Perhaps the results of the 4 week trial (with around 50 participants) will surprise us through some new insights into public authoring and social knowledge, new forms of creative misuse etc... It also leaves me wondering to what extent is UT either situated or social software..?
Urban Tapestries is about anonymous and asynchronous interactions between people that revolve around specific places and the relationships we make to them. Users create their own 'threads' and 'pockets' of content along them which record and display their username – which may or may not bear a relationship to their given name. There is no reason why anyone shouldn't create multiple identities to reflect different interests or aspects of their personality, or why a group shouldn't share a single identity.
As the map of the city becomes more thickly layered with threads, presence can be determined from the density of interconnecting threads and the kinds of content and theme they contain. As time goes on, it should be possible for people to design their own ways of filtering and interpreting these densities to map the space in new ways and draw new conclusions about the presence of others within the city.
Urban Tapestries aims to bring people together. Through the sharing of personal experiences it may be possible for people to make direct connections with each other's experiences without necessarily having to meet face to face.
Urban Tapestries isn't intended as a messaging system (although at the very beginning we used to describe it to people as 'place-based messaging'), yet it has the ability to enable asynchronous conversations or experiences to be layered on top of one another and 'stitched' together. In future iterations we will enable this stitching together of pockets and threads, as well as the ability to share authoring and editing of pockets and threads.
Our research has shown that sharing of social knowledge and storytelling are primarily group and social activities. Urban Tapestries aims to augment existing ways in which people communicate in groups and as communities (whether they be geographic, interest or ad hoc). It may be that Urban Tapestries is not itself a group activity, but it may be a crucial catalyst for groups to form and interact around place and the sharing of knowledge.
There is currently no mechanism for assigning ratings or reputation points in Urban Tapestries. Whilst this may be a flaw, it may also allow us to questions the validity and utility of existing models of reputation and trustworthyness, which may not suit different communities, or kinds of social interaction, being based on certain sets of cultural assumptions about value.
Urban Tapestries is fundamentally about sharing – whether it is ideas, information, resources, pictures, sounds or links to other places. It is about sharing the everyday, social knowledges which we acquire and discard almost without being aware of it. By exchanging them in mundane human interactions, these tidbits of experience become part of the social glue that binds our cities and the people who inhabit them.
Throughout the process of developing Urban Tapestries we have been exploring the many social and cultural aspects of public authoring and location-based information. Having had an opportunity to test some of our ideas in the public trial we have teased out a selection of five themes to start of with that seem to have struck a chord with the participants, and which we believe could be the basis of a stimulating public debate. We have posted these themes here for people to comment on as part of a discussion forum.
We invite people to post comments as part of a public discussion, and welcome suggestions for additional themes. We are open to requests for author accounts to enable more active participants to post themes of their own.
Mapping is a fundamentally human trait. As a metaphor for how we construct our sense of identity in relation to others it is becoming a more and more overt activity in everyday life. More and more technologies are being designed with inbuilt tracking and positioning sensors, such as GPS transceivers.
Whilst these technologies bring new abilities within the reach of ordinary people – for such benign activities as collaborative cartography and geocaching - they do pose more problematic considerations when issues of surveillance and personal privacy arise. It is not just surveillance by big government, nor even by corporations greedy to learn more about consumer habits the better to target them with offers. It is also the potential for everyday surveillance of each other by each other – from that of parents watching over their children, to friends and lovers checking up on each other.
As we find new ways to focus our mapping technologies onto the everyday we need to consider the social and cultural, the political and economic implications – how are we to strike the appropriate balances between public and private, between place and space, between our desires to mark and delineate public space and our need to preserve private boundaries?
A key insight into public authoring that both the trial and our bodystorming experiences have provided was that this technology need not simply be an individual experience, but sharing the experience with other people rather seemed a powerful motivation. The action of public authoring prompted serendipitous interactions with strangers on the street, connecting people both via the UT application, in real and virtual space.
In working with intergenerational groups we found that unlocking older people's memories and stories of the places they know with teenagers and authoring them in places familiar to the younger generation, new points of contact between generations emerged.
These social and cultural implications offer intriguing possibilities for reflecting on what it means to be a citizen: how our interactions with others help create the social context in which we live, and what we share with our friends, neighbours, colleagues and the strangers we pass daily.
Public authoring could add a whole new layer to the public commons, provoke new categorisations of informal knowledges. It could be a platform for people to build their own applications, their own categorisations of place and knowledge.
What benefits to civil society and cultural life can we bring with these technologies?
What costs can we foresee, and where might we intervene to ameliorate their effects?
As we move through the city we engage in an evolving dialogue with time and space. Our techniques of annotating these places and moments should not be defined by the limitations of technologies, nor by the constraints of current metaphors.
How do we retain an essential 'mobility' to the way we mark and move through the city, or are we simply creating a network of static places?
In the rush to be more and more 'accurate' in our annotations, are we perhaps missing the point about place – that is is not so easily defined by a set of coordinates, but floats free encompassing time as well as space?
Can we design systems that incorporate temporal annotations of space – such as the length of time an experience lasts as we walk through a park, along a street?
How will these experiences pervade our sense of movement and how we occupy spaces?
What sort of granularities of annotation will we want that scale between points of interest and zones and attention?
A common criticism of location-based mobile services is that they could as easily take away from the urban experience as enhance it. But rather than inhibiting people's sensory awareness of the urban landscape the activity of public authoring actually stimulated it.
Many of the trial participants reported that using Urban Tapestries triggered a new engagement with their environment, “It changed my experience of my environment - without consciously trying, I became much more aware of things around me.”
What kinds of applications of public authoring can be created that promote and develop this augmentation of spatial awareness?
What kinds of personal devices and interfaces can be created that play with and respond to this sensory stimulation?
What kinds of architectonic devices and interfaces can be embedded into our future environments that allow us to devise additional ways of engaging with our environments?
With just 100 participants in the public trial, each using the system for no more than 2 hours each, the UT prototype map quickly became covered with 'pockets' and 'threads'.
How can we imagine and design filtering systems that reflect the complexity of our moods, of our social and cultural interactions, of our emotions and feelings about place and identity?
Filtering is often structured around inclusion and exclusion lists, yet how do we retain an essential spark of serendipity: one of the signal properties of city life? Preferences, too, focus on the individual and notions of choice. Can this be too limiting – only showing what we think we want, rather than what we might be interested in if only we knew of its existence?
What kind of trust or reputation systems can be created, adopted or combined which are not self-serving, but reflect the dynamic process of how individuals and communities