December 2003 Archives
Off a post in the informative Urban Tapestries feedback blog (which is good and refreshing reading for anyone considering a public trial of new mobile technology), I discovered Simon Pope's location-based media blog. Pope, who did some evocative "site specific" (in a truthful and nonliteral sense) work for the Venice Bienniale, has recently decided to take a closer look at location-based technology. Hence the blog.
A favorite entry
10. Previous notes: Why is location deemed so important right now?
I can tell i'm not in a specific location easily enough: if i watch the tiny symbols in the bottom left hand corner of my phone's screen, they're jumping about, turning from red to green to blue, displaying vertical bars of increasing length.
it knows that i'm moving, even though, whenever i look up, i see the same retail units: curry's, uci, tesco, morrisons, blockbuster...
the same location smeared all over the place.
Here we get to the significance of the name Pope has chosen for his blog: locative media. It's about locomotion as much as it is about location. I suspect Pope would refuse any hard and fast barrier between the two: part of a place is how you get there. I like his discussion of the differences between sedentary knowledge - the knowledge about places - and ambulatory knowledge - knowledge of the linkages between them. And I also like the way he jumps between the physical and the intangible, to see walking as hyperlink, and "location" as something that can be smeared like paint.
Once again, it's time for another ITP show. It's a little weird not to be in New York for this; I've been to every show over the last four years. I'll miss the chaos, noise, and trauma -- final projects tend to be conceived and built over maybe six weeks, so they're often a little...rough around the edges. At ITP, you may be a bit upset that a project doesn't look or work as well as hoped for the final show. You are, however, fervently grateful when it works at all.
Here's hoping that everyone who's ever asked me, "Just what is it that you got a degree in?" checks the show catalogue. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications -- and like everyone else at the program, am still trying to figure out just what that means.
Also in the news today: Howard Rheingold in The Feature on Location-aware devices, privacy, and UI design:
Location-aware devices and services are emerging at the intersection of empowerment and surveillance: the same technology that could let you know if a good Chinese restaurant or old friend is in the vicinity could also betray your location to a totalitarian government, neighborhood spammers, and your vindictive ex-spouse.
Aside from being an apt recitation of all the awful things that ubiquitous location-aware technologies could bring us, this quote reminds me of Scott's point about everyday privacy: when it comes to location-aware devices, the question is not, "What do people want to know about you?" but rather, "Who's asking?"
And also, of course, Louise's study on privacy concerns around location-aware services.
The comments section on the article also brings up dodgeball's lowtech solution. Dodgeball's "location tracking" relies on users self-reporting their location through text messaging. This kind of location reporting works particularly well for d-ball, which is all about connecting friends in NYC through bars and restaurants. And because participation in dodgeball social groups is strictly voluntary, it neatly solves the "who's asking?" issue as well.
In order to "watch" the correct entity, surveillance mechanisms need specific information about the target's social identity or physical location or both. Think about one of Raymond Chandler's gumshoes trailing an elusive blonde through Los Angeles. Either the detective has the car license plate, or the blonde's name, or a really good fix on the roadster's taillights as the it speeds away. And he probably has two out of three. So goes location-based applications.
The initial piece of information is the gateway: either an observer uses location data to get some social information (as in, say, the movie Fulltime Killer, where a contract assassin spies on his housekeeper while she's cleaning his living room), or an observer uses social identifiers to resolve the target's location and activities (as in, say, Minority Report). So on the one hand, the bluejacker gets more social information about an unknown entity whose location is already known. And on the other hand, Rheingold's examples presuppose a remote observer who accesses location/activity info for an already identified target.
This is probably obvious to everyone reading this already, but the two situations are great illustrations of a couple of related difficulties in implementing ubiquitous computing applications. In a Minority Report-type scenario, for example, Rheingold's hypothetical neighborhood spammers don't physically threaten the person whose cell phone they're bombarding*. And in the Fulltime Killer scenario, a hypothetical bluejacker sending creepy messages to nearby women will not also have access to the women's credit records because he doesn't know their legal names. The first scenario implies a loss of privacy -- that is, control over the knowledge other people have about you. The second suggests a mounting vulnerability -- that is, a sense of personal violability. Which scenario you find creepier depends, I suppose, on personal temperament.
*Although an implied threat of this scenario is that a powerful entity like a government or multinational corporation will be able to physically threaten individuals using information about their location and their activities. But for the moment, the most likely location-aware abuse will come from spammers.
Notwithstanding the widespread belief that computer-mediated social interaction is all about finding more people to date, there seems to be a lot of talk recently about playing well with strangers.
... what social conventions will we build around this? What mechanisms will we use to advertise the fact that we are interested in playing games with (or sharing media with, or learning more about) people around us who we don't know? And how will we politely request these contatcs?
When I had just moved from New York to Berkeley, I could barely walk down the street without feeling vaguely threatened by all the people who were, you know, staring at me... Since New York social norms forbidding staring and eye contact just don't apply on the West Coast, I often felt like I was about to be mugged. Usually, the would-be mugged was just some guy checking me out. (Aside: there's got to be a good word for the epistemological state of being-about-to-be-mugged.) In one particularly paranoid moment, I nearly slugged a homeless guy who was just trying to be helpful.
The closer a virtual identity -- ie, your device's bluetooth name -- to the physical body, the more deservedly paranoid people tend to be. Part of the appeal of cities, big cities especially, is the sensation of being invisible and unnoticed in the midst of crowds. That's why bluejacking is such a fun prank. It violates all these social commandments ("thou shalt not approach strangers"..."thou shalt not make comments about other people's appearance where they could overhear you," etc.) But pranks exist to violate social norms, whereas games and more polite interactions need to exist within them.
The useful mechanisms we've developed to help us play online with strangers, especially in MMPOGs, don't translate so well when our real-life bodies and legal identities are on the line. I wish I knew how to politely request gameplay without freaking someone out, or accept such a request without feeling a little creeped out myself. The problem is not, as Matt Jones suggests, just a question of manners -- although an etiquette of public computer-mediated contact with strangers is a good start. It's a question of physical vulnerability, and how close we will allow virtual strangers to get before we start slugging.
From the Urban Technology and Telecommunications List
OASIS is a one-stop, interactive mapping resource to enhance the stewardship of open space for the benefit of all New York City residents. We are the New York City Open Accessible Space Information System Cooperative (OASIS).
The maps include aerial photos, community gardens, real property data (look up your own building for a transparent government thrill!) and, recently, neighborhood tree plantings.
Now, what would happen if they combined it with COMNet?
Read this weekend...
Bringing Design to Sofware, eds Terry Winograd, John Bennett, Laura de Young, Brad Hartfield. And especially:
The Role of the Artist-Designer, Gillian Crampton Smith and Philip Tabor. Published in 1996, the illustrations look archaic yet the advice feels sound. I wish I'd read it seven years ago.
The Helloworld Project is a global interactive text installation combining language, landscapes and communication technology to create a visual dialogue. From December 9-12, 2003, people from all over the world will be invited to send in messages, either by sending an SMS to a dedicated number or by going to www.helloworldproject.com.
These messages will be projected almost instantly onto mountains and buildings in Mumbai, Geneva, Rio de Janeiro, New York. Video images of the projections will be broadcast live on the project website and at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva.
Okay. So at some point in this morning's blog-reading bonanza, someone linked to James Grimmelmann's fantastic piece on the State of Play conference, and the Second Life decision to give its players IP control over what they've created for the game. James took some time on this article, and it's a very, very clear explanation of the thorny issues involving real life law, game regulations, and creative work. Oh yes, and he makes the important point that one of the primary value of games for players is that...give it time...they're fun. And that a lot of intellectual questions about the value of EULAs and game administration need to come from that.
We've seen three critically important "legal" issues that arise in connection with online multiplayer games and other virtual worlds:
* Who owns (or should own) intellectual property created in virtual worlds?
* Who has (or should have) power over in-game property in virtual worlds?
* When will (or should) real-life law intervene in virtual worlds?
Then go read my other favorite post by James, which is about privacy spills.
Since I namecheck LawMeme, you'd think I read it frequently enough to catch this stuff without being reminded to go look at it.
[Addendum. It's via many2many. Thanks, Clay.]
I could post for myself on this stuff, but sometimes I wonder why when Jonah Brucker-Cohen has such a good rundown and a priceless entry title:
So you need a new ass? covers temporary plastic bag shelters for the homeless and much, much more. Parasite structures, yes - but also the possibility for inexpensive, transformations of urban space like those of City Repair in Portland.
Also to remember: Lucy Orta's refuge wear.
Puddlejumper is a raincoat that glows when water hits conductive sensors on the back and left sleeve. A little bit like the raincoat I wanted a few days ago... The LazyWeb...working overtime and retroactively.
Three quotes from this past week
"A little less conversation, a little more action please." Elvis, via Google
"Can I get some action/from the back section?/we need body rockin'/Not perfection." Ad Rock, via CS' email
"Action not authenticity." (from DW's business card)
It seems to be a week for taking care of business, as the Colonel might say.
From the makers of Teddy Ruxpin... "Wabi Bear"!
Innovative wireless technology allows you to phone from anywhere in the world to send your child messages in your own voice. When Wabi giggles, your child pushes a lighted button to hear the message.
So the idea is that you call in a message and the teddy bear plays it back, along with a selection of songs and stories.
Wabi Bears have big manga eyes and chipper smiles...I don't know whether the multiple voices of parents and family members emerging from that cheery stuffed mouth will be comforting or creepily schizophrenic. Since the Wabi Bear has no personality of its own, it functions as the polar opposite of the traditional teddy bear, whom the child endows with its own imagined personality, name, and history. Instead, the Wabi Bear is a transmitter for whomever has its number. It's like Deleuze plus Disney plus anime.
In other news, there's now a cell phone with a tilt interface. When it comes to mobile technology and disembodiment, you win some and you lose some, you know?
A week or so ago, in Portland, I had drinks with a few Nike designers. Nike is the biggest employer for designers in town, and they were talking up Nike as a place to look for a job. One of them was a shoe designer, and the other was a graphic designer. So I'm chatting with the graphic designer about the profession of graphic design, and specifically about the downsides. And then he says:
"But you know, graphic design is essentially harmless." (my ital.)
Which gets me back to my drastically unfinished post of a while ago, about why graphic design is not and never has been harmless. Damn it.
Graphic design - especially cool graphic design - is the pretty face of mass market capitalism. As Thomas Frank puts it, "Rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment." The cooler you think your portfolio is, the more quickly it will be incorporated into an ad campaign for the overpriced, made by the underpaid, bought by the supersized. The creation of cool is never harmless - no matter how well-meaning the creators are. Nonrebellious design is not necessarily never harmful, though; think about the designers of Enron's annual reports. Or the sainted Paul Rand, who created Enron's logo in 1996. As a graphic designer, you're doomed. The more you're paid, the likelier you are to have a job selling stuff that nobody needs to people who probably can't afford it. The Enron graphic designers especially. Obviously, they're not even close to Ken Lay, but they're not quite...innocent either. Like all of us, they were just paying the rent in the best way they knew.
One traditional answer to this dilemma is to do lots of volunteer work to make up for all the annual reports and business cards. Another traditional answer is to make less money and do more work for socially responsible clients. Neither one of those addresses the second big reason why graphic design is not and never has been harmless. Damn it.
Forget the trees lost and the Pantone reds of polluted rivers. Graphic design is the native tongue of information overload, the lingua franca of the cool hunter and the lame-ass bulk mailer alike. We all like to think of graphic designers as the people who make text books or political posters or really good airport signage systems. When Steven Heller references a good-citizenship quiz created by the slightly-less-sainted-but-still-pretty-great Milton Glaser, he mentions only cases where designers create dishonest or misleading visual impressions. But most graphic designers don't do safety manuals. They design the flyers plastered on your windshield and coupons you immediately trash and sportswear packaging and sometimes, oh my God, popup ads or advertorials. In these cases, the harm is not in graphic designers' business ethics. No, it's that they took the job in first place. A huge chunk of what graphic designers do for a living is not even mostly harmless.
Believing in the essential "harmlessness" of graphic design as an industry (despite the empirical evidence to the contrary that arrives every day in our mailboxes) helps assuage any lingering art school guilt on the part of us laboring members of the creative classes. I mean, we all do have to pay the rent somehow, and I'm not joining the moral condemnation business. I've designed mass mail catalogues myself. Graphic designers can honestly tell themselves that they aren't soldiers for hire or oil company execs or mutual fund mismanagers. And at its best, graphic design does make the world better. Who wouldn't rather have a pretty glossy magazine than an ugly one, or a clear presidential ballot than a confusing one? Still, while we may like to pretend that the message we're selling is inherently more worthy of existence than other people's, whatever the message, we're already embedded reporters of the Infocalypse.
[Addendum: It's been pointed out to me that maybe the original post I'm ranting about was ironic. Okay. Maybe.]
[Addendum2: This is a part of ashleyb's grid blogging project. Hence the title.]