Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Information cities

The February issue of Communications of the ACM includes some interesting articles on Information Cities (ACM membership required to read full articles).

Lee Sproull & John F. Patterson's Making information cities livable looks at cities of people rather than cities of bits:

No one says, "I live in Manhattan because it contains so much information" or "I was really happy to move out of Elmtown because it contained so little information." Information is but one part of what makes cities lively and livable. Designers and policymakers focusing exclusively on the information component of information cities miss the fact that much of what makes physical cities desirable places to live and do business in, as well as just to visit, is the interactions among people ... Designers of infocities must look beyond providing information to providing support for the active participation of residents in the life of the city ...

Broadening the focus of a community's Net-based infrastructure from providing information about a particular community to supporting participation within it raises a host of research issues for designers of both computer tools and social tools. Here, we raise four policy issues. The first is the question of how open or closed infocities associated with local communities should be? ... The second issue is the size or granularity of an infocity associated with a physical community. In the physical world, people inhabit multiple, nested, partially overlapping local communities and neighborhoods. The same is probably true in an infocity associated with a physical community. How can these different, but related, spaces be represented and navigated? ... The third issue is the digital divide. Conventionally, it has been framed in terms of access to computing technology. However, even when unequal access is no longer a significant concern, the digital skills divide may still be a concern ... The fourth issue is the relationship between physical city participation and infocity participation ... A potential negative consequence of providing support for electronic participation is that people participating face-to-face might be lured away from these venues to the more comfortable and convenient electronic forms of participation. The history of technology and social change is full of unintended consequences. That would probably be a bad one.

On the more techical side, in Blending digital and physical spaces for ubiquitous community participation, Elizabeth Churchill, Andreas Girgensohn, Les Nelson and Alison Lee write:

Much effort has gone into creating online spaces for people to meet, network, share, and organize. However, relatively little effort has gone into creating awareness of online social activities in physical community places ... We have found that development of online forums in communities of interest and practice is usually a slow process. Little is done to promote them, and, unlike physical community gathering places, casual, drive-by encounters are unlikely. When developing such forums, we therefore provide windows blurring the notional boundary between digital and physical activity spaces and look to blend online and face-to-face community participation. We focus on enabling unplanned, everyday encounters with online community activity by publishing the interactive, multimedia content associated with online community spaces in physical gathering places through large-screen public displays.

The paper discusses the use of FX PAL's Plasma Poster Network at two professional conferences, and in order to evaluate its applicability outside contexts where there is a high knowledge of, and interest in, experimental technologies, they have recently "installed a digital community bulletin board in a café/gallery in San Francisco, linking it to an online community space where content about café activities is posted."

It should be interesting to see how that works out, and it reminded me of Eric Laurier's current research project, The Cappuccino Community : cafés and civic life in the contemporary city.

For more on everyday life in the caffeinated city, see also: A café as it happens; having breakfast out (Eric Laurier) and An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise (Eric Laurier, Angus Whyte, Kathy Buckner).

If you like more political perspectives, you might enjoy Raoul Vaneigem on The Space-Time Of Lived Experience (1967).

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