Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Street Talk: Urban Computing - Part II

I've written many times on my preference for performative rather than representative perspectives on questions of culture and technology. Shifting attention away from representation and what things stand for means we can focus on what things and people actually do. Instead of being crushed by monolithic structures and institutions, or determined by biology, the focus on performativity returns agency to social actors; cultural intervention and collective action shape our worlds. Performance is political; we are responsible. Performativity also signals a return to embodied and material perspectives, resisting a world of simulacra and technological disembodiment.

So when Jane McGonigal stood up at Street Talk and advocated a set of performative tools to come to know urban space and massively-scaled urban play, I paid attention.

First of all, I should thank her for teaching me a wonderful new word. Pareidolia is the "erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random." Although it is generally used to refer to things like seeing the face of Jesus in tortillas, I instantly recognised it as a strategic concept in my struggles against reductionist systems thinking. I've often suspected pareidolia is at work in Christopher Alexander's and Gregory Bateson's discussions of patterns, and although it is tantamount to sacrilege in certain design circles, I see the too-often uncritical use of their work to also verge on pareidolia (a.k.a. mass delusion or wishful thinking). But I digress.

Jane brought up public pareidolia because misrecognition can be a powerful actor in urban play. Her second tool was the site-specific superhero - one who can see through predetermined structures to spontaneously generate new playful (adaptive?) structures. She also advocated the notion of a benevolent conspiracy to leverage the possibility that play is everywhere and we are a part of it. Her fourth tool was the transparent spectacle - the opposite of "dark play" - where there is no hiding or lack of clarity. And finally, she suggested the idea of desire spots, which comprise desire paths mixed with hot spots.

(I am a bit unclear on this last one, because she brought up the example of "riding" an escalator for fun rather than utility, and I got distracted by memories of Ecuadorian Natives repeatedly riding the escalators on their first trip to the city, and of people in Ottawa riding the new light rail system for pleasure, or just to see where it went.)

Anyway, I was quite taken by her desire to combine ambiguity and certainty - or, more specifically, ambiguous and certain practices as ways to explore what it means to play in urban places. It reminded me of the surprise and disappointment I felt the first time I realised that not everyone wants to participate in participatory design: it seems we often need freedom and constraints to realise our potential, even if we still want to do it ourselves.

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